Tag Archives: maker learning

Modes of making: exploration, engineering, and entrepreneurship

Educators know the power of hands-on learning. Ask any teacher, coach, or mentor what they see when their students engage in hands-on maker activities and chances are they’ll describe how students are activated with interest and curiosity as they put their learning into action through making.

That’s one reason why maker learning has steadily gone from the fringes to the mainstream of teaching practices in classrooms, after school programs, and summer camps. In the Pittsburgh region, Remake Learning has identified more than 170 makerspaces, including more than a hundred in area school districts.

This concentration of maker learning has also produced some insights into the inner workings of maker learning, insights that Remake Learning members are sharing with others working to expand access to maker learning opportunities.

But what is maker learning good for? In addition to the thrill of discovery and spirit of invention inherent in maker activities, there are real learning benefits to hands-on creativity and collaborative problem-solving. Maker learning incorporates a range of competencies related to the creative process, researching, developing, and testing a design, as well as building technical skills with tools, materials, and techniques that prepare learners for future career opportunities.

“Making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Leanne Bowler wrote in a previous blog post. “It is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.”

In other words, maker learning is as much about developing the curiosity to explore new ideas and the confidence to tackle difficult challenges as it is about learning to use tools and materials to make (and re-make) the world around you.

Making connections to the physical world

Many maker learning experiences embrace playful discovery, especially activities and programs for younger children and their families. This form of open, exploratory maker learning is best exemplified by MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a place where kids and their family learn together with teaching artists and maker educators.

“MAKESHOP was one of the first makerspaces designed for family audiences,” says Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum. “We did the prototyping, we made the mistakes that other people can learn from. We’ve had the opportunity to study it and now we can be a model.”

MAKESHOP intentionally mixes high-tech making like 3D printing with more traditional crafts like weaving, sewing, and woodworking. It’s an environment rich enough to attract the attention of Adam Savage, who visited MAKESHOP as part of his national Maker Tour.

But as important as the tools and technologies are, reflections that result from the co-learning that happens among the learner, their family, and the mentors is where the deeper learning occurs.

“One of the biggest things kids can take away from making is seeing the world in a different way,” says MAKESHOP manager Rebecca Grabman. “For a kid who’s never made anything before, making personally empowering to them. It shows them they are able to create the things they want and need in their life.”

For Lisa Brahms, who also part of the original team of researchers and graduate students from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments that collaborated with the Children’s Museum to develop MAKESHOP, maker learning spaces are themselves made to fit their specific context.

“There’s no one right way to do it,” says Brahms. “It’s important for each maker program to think ‘Why making? Why do we want making to be part of what we do? Who are the people that are part of that experience? What is the stuff that we want to make?’”

In cooperation with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Children’s Museum set out to turn these insights into Making+Learning, a framework to help others set up their own maker learning spaces.

And to help more schools incorporate maker learning into their curriculum, from early childhood to tech-ed, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Google and Maker Ed, launched the Making Spaces initiative which helped 10 schools develop the resources and know-how necessary to establish spaces for hands-on, project-based maker learning in classrooms and other in-school spaces.

Blurring the lines between making and engineering

For students who catch the maker bug, new interdisciplinary approaches to STEM provide them with opportunities to level-up their skills and make academic progress. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national nonprofit helping schools bring more hands-on learning into the K-12 system.

Several school districts in the Pittsburgh region participate in PLTW, including Chartiers Valley where educators are using PLTW’s engineering pathway for middle and high school students. Using a project-based curriculum that emphasizes design thinking and hands-on making, teachers at Chartiers Valley challenge students to investigate engineering challenges ranging from making more efficient energy systems to improving automated manufacturing production.

“Many students who are considering college might want to re-evaluate that decision and look at training programs or associates degrees,” says Superintendent Brian White. “The students get hands on experience and an appetite to create new things in the world. It really opens up all kinds of doors.”

Throughout the program, students learn the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math, design ways to apply those principles to solve a problem, and use industry-grade technology like 3D modeling software and plasma cutters to turn their designs into real products. A recent student project earned an award from the Smithsonian Institution and filed a patent for a double-bladed windmill they created that doubled its energy production capacity.

“We’ve had students go everywhere after coming out of Project Lead the Way,” adds Jeff Macek, who teaches applied engineering and co-leads PLTW at Chartiers Valley. “Some students have gone on to become aerospace engineers for NASA.”

Making maker entrepreneurs

For some students considering their future in the world of work, becoming a maker entrepreneur gives them the chance to turn their hobby into their livelihood. Startable Pittsburgh is a maker-oriented youth entrepreneurship program borne out of the city’s growing startup community as a way to help young makers make a living through making.

Over the course of an eight-week summer session, teens are coached by other maker entrepreneurs as they develop ideas for a product, create a business plan, and then dive headlong into making that product a reality.

“Teens split their time between Alphalab Gear, a startup accelerator, and TechShop, a makerspace with everything you need to prototype and do small-batch manufacturing,” explains Startable program coordinator Jackie Shimshoni. “At the end, students launch their business at an open market of all their products and pitch their business idea to investors.”

Startable is emblematic of the kinds of self-directed learning that out-of-school learning programs provide to students as a complement to their in-school learning experiences. Youth are given the flexibility and independence to pursue their ideas and develop their skills at their own pace, but also have a supportive network of peers and mentors at the ready.

“I had no idea what I was going to make coming into the program,” says Miranda Miller, Startable alum. “But I had a huge field of mentors and instructors who helped me along the way.”

Through Startable, young people have launched businesses making jewelry, designing and fabricating lighting fixtures, constructing lawn furniture, and producing a local fashion line. While the businesses range in ambition and longevity, they signal a broadening and deepening of Pittsburgh’s startup business community.

“As a region like Pittsburgh develops, inequities can develop with it,” says Shimshoni. “By democratizing maker resources, we’re hoping to get more diverse voices in the engineering and maker fields. We need more minority entrepreneurs, we need more female entrepreneurs,” says Shimshoni. “If Startable can contribute to that in the next five to ten years, I think we will have done our job.”

 

In the final installment, we’ll see how employers are partnering with educators to help students channel their passion for making into careers in manufacturing, production, and entrepreneurship.

Pittsburgh’s Pioneering Maker Program Goes Coast to Coast

It began as an ambitious effort to outfit 10 Pittsburgh schools with maker spaces.

This year that number could increase exponentially, as the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh converts a local project into a national phenomenon.

In 2015, the museum partnered with Kickstarter to help local schools crowd-fund for a maker space. Schools in the area had long been enthusiastic about maker education but felt they lacked the funding and support to launch programming. Museum staff guided 10 schools in developing projects tailored to their needs and capacities.

Ultimately, the campaigns raised more than $100,000. Some have already cut the ribbons on their new spaces and others are forging ahead with the process.

Local makerspace crowd-funding campaigns raised more than $100,000.

At Burgettstown Area Elementary Center, an old science lab is now home to a colorful assortment of beanbag chairs, workspaces, and making materials. The low-tech (clothespins and Legos) shares shelves with the high-tech (circuity and robotics kits).

Lincoln Elementary School is working to build an outdoor maker space. There the students have been tinkering, designing, and brainstorming before the space even opens. From the beginning, the students themselves deliberated about the features and designs they wanted in their new hangout. The consensus: the space would include a treehouse, something involving water, and a community garden. Making their big dreams a reality has been tough—and the task has turned into a fun design challenge for architecture students at Carnegie Mellon University.

Staff members at the children’s museum pondered how to scale the initiative beyond Pittsburgh. Making—learning through building, designing, and generally messing around with all sorts of materials—has fans across the country. So the museum wanted to expand a version of the local pilot to schools elsewhere.

This school year, the museum has teamed up with the nonprofit Maker Ed and Google to support schools across the country. Their Making Spaces program establishes “hubs” in 10 cities—from Bethesda, Maryland., in the east to Redwood City, Calif., in the west. The hubs can be school districts, museums, or other organizations.

In turn, each hub is paired with 10 schools in its own region. The local hubs provide professional development and crowd-funding advice to the participating schools so they can start their own maker programming.

Making has developed from a cult hobby into a mainstream learning approach.

The children’s museum and Maker Ed will be there in the background all year providing support and acting as hubs for schools in their own cities. Google has pledged $1 million to the project.

In recent years, making has developed from a cult hobby into a learning approach embraced by mainstream educators. Studies lending credence to the idea that making can equal learning are accumulating. Many researchers believe making prepares kids for a world and a workforce in which innovation, interdisciplinary thinking, and tech savvy are increasingly valued.

As a result, maker spaces are cropping up at plenty of schools. However, the same schools that lack the funding for robust art and science instruction lack the resources to launch a maker program. Efforts like Making Spaces are attempts to even the playing field. With the school year in full force, we will begin to see how they turn out.

Mindful Making

Exciting things happen in makerspaces, including learning to think critically about oneself as a maker and about the social responsibilities that come with making. In the world of Human-Computer Interaction, this is called critical technical practice, or critical making. From this perspective, making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code; it is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.

Minful_MakerWith the help of Sprout’s Remake Learning Fellowship, I launched the Mindful Making project, with the goal of exploring critical technical practice in makerspaces for youth. We went into Pittsburgh-area makerspaces to look at the kinds of critical and self-reflective questions that makers–novice and expert–ask themselves when they create technical artifacts, the idea being that questions can help learners stop and think, and can guide them toward deeper thinking. Questions are a simple and portable language tool that mentors can use to scaffold deeper thinking and a disposition toward mindful and critical technical practice.

Youth makers usually begin a project by asking themselves, What do I want to make? That’s a good starting point but what happens next? Are there questions that can guide makers toward a critical technical practice? With the help of teens and mentors in Pittsburgh-area makerspaces, the Mindful Making project came up with a starter list of questions to help guide deeper thinking. The questions are below and you can find them at the Mindful Maker website:

  • What resources do I have and need? Mindful makers want to know what resources will serve as a muse to their imaginations. It is important to understand the properties of materials.
  • What will inspire me to give my time and effort to a project? Sometimes we lack the necessary skills to complete a project and need to make an effort to learn. Mindful Makers look for interesting projects that will keep them engaged and motivated (for example, music, sports, or a special cause).
  • What do I know? Mindful Makers ask themselves this question throughout the making process. That way they can figure out what they don’t know and take steps to learn.
  • What will make me happy? Mindful Makers are aware of the emotional connection between the maker and the objects they make. If the item makes you happy then you can have fun.
  • Can I let myself make a mistake? Mindful Makers understand that mistakes are okay and can make a project better. Sometimes this leads Mindful Makers to ask another question: What ways beyond the ‘right’ way can I make something?
  • Who is my audience? Mindful Makers understand that some of their projects will be viewed, used, and shared by other people. Who are those people? Mindful Makers think about how their own interests and ideals interact with the needs of the potential audience.
  • How will my creation affect other people? Mindful Makers think about how their project might affect people. Will it interest them? Will they learn something? Will they have fun? Will it make them happy or sad?
  • What kind of maker am I? Maker self-awareness helps us anticipate the best way to tackle a design/build problem.

If you want to give these question prompts a try in your own makerspace for youth, download and print the poster from the Mindful Maker site.

Many thanks to the young people and mentors from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Assemble, who participated in this project.

Leanne Bowler, an associate professor at the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, studies youth interactions with technology.