Teaching Innovation by Turning Students into Makers

Teaching and learning by making and doing

Today’s educators are teaching more than facts — they’re teaching innovation. They realize that education is only as valuable as it is useful and they’re adopting teaching strategies that give students a far more active role in learning. In doing so, they’re reaching beyond their familiar teaching circle to gain insight from scientists, artists and designers. One of the spheres where educators are really finding inspiration is in the maker movement — a DIY revolution that’s recently amassed a huge following. In fact, you’ll find that many of the projects in the Spark network are teaching innovation by turning passive students into active makers. Here are just three of Spark’s making-centered projects.

Teaching Innovation through Hacking

Children have a natural curiosity for the way things work. It’s why they disassemble all your ballpoint pens while you’re on an important conference call, and why they’re not to be left alone with your new iPhone. Without the right outlet, that curiosity can lead to chaos. But discover teaching strategies that put it to use and you’ll find yourself with a classroom full of excited and engaged students. That’s the idea behind the Children’s Innovation Project — a program from the innovators at CMU’s Create Lab.

The project puts old-fashioned building blocks to shame and replaces them with kid-friendly pieces of electric circuitry. These pieces can connect to each other, or to everyday electronic objects. Children are encouraged to experiment and invent new devices, or to hack and repurpose the devices they use every day. To children, it feels a lot like playing, but any educator can see that the program is doing more than keeping curious hands busy — it’s teaching innovation.

Teaching Innovation through Assembling

One of the best parts of the maker movement is the fact that it’s so varied — a point that’s made obvious by Assemble — a new project, and venue, located in the Penn Avenue Arts District of Pittsburgh. The focus of Assemble is creation, but that focus rarely follows the same path twice. There’s no set lesson plan — just a constantly evolving array of workshops, screenings and classes. Some projects focus on the creation of a certain object, while others allow more wiggle room and offer open studio time.

Above all, Assemble is about collaboration. The space provides room for designers, educators, artists and musicians. Attend any of the many events at Assemble and you’ll find these professional makers teaching innovation to students and parents alike. Learning Parties, Assemble’s project that’s funded by the Spark network, host events for neighborhood children from ages three to eight. For many of these children, the projects are completely new to them. Collaborative story-telling, creating collages, experimenting with tech tools — each Learning Party at Assemble opens doors.

Teaching Innovation through Crafting

If you’ve ever taken a child to a museum, you know the first thing they want to do — touch everything. If the current exhibit is of Monet masterworks, your trip can be over before it’s even begun. Luckily the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a long history of making the museum experience more than just educational, but fun. Children are encouraged to interact with exhibits and to experience them from the inside out. The museum’s taken that idea to the next level through its Spark-funded project The MakeShop. The MakeShop is actually five separate shops, each one focused on a separate field of making:

  • Woodshop, where children learn to construct birdhouses and cars
  • Electricshop, where children build and connect circuits and parts
  • Animationshop, where students film their own animated videos
  • Soft Circuitry, where students create light-up objects
  • SewShop, where children design clothing and stuffed animals

The great thing about The MakeShop, is that it appeals to so many areas of interest. Children who might turn up their noses at sewing, dive head-first into crafting cars. Students with no interest in building circuits jump at the chance to create their own animated film. While most teachers have to tackle one lesson plan or implement teaching strategies one at a time, The MakeShop is able to engage a huge variety of students by offering the making projects that they find interesting all at once.

The maker movement is growing every day. As it does, more and more educators are putting making at the heart of their teaching strategies. Because when your lesson plan or informal learning project focuses on design, creation and collaboration, you’re doing more than just teaching art or science — you’re teaching innovation. The projects covered here are only a small sampling of the many projects in the Spark network that harvest the power of making. Are you part of a project that takes a page from the maker movement? Tell us about it on our Facebook page or by tweeting us @SparkPgh.


Published April 24, 2012