Digital Learning Where It's Least Expected

The mobility of technology makes for ideal learning tools. Maker materials can be wheeled into libraries, cafes, churches, parks, and any number of accessible community spaces.

At most hospitals, patients’ leisure time is limited to sleeping, watching TV, and visiting with relatives during prescribed hours. This can be hard on chronically ill children who may be cooped up in small rooms for weeks at a time. But at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, those patients have an enriching new option. A graduate student in education, Gokul Krishnan, brings around a metal cart packed with engineering and craft materials, a 3D printer, and a tablet, and encourages young patients to tinker.

The mobile makerspace is not just an artistic diversion. It’s a real-life lesson in design thinking, reports MindShift. The patients are encouraged to identify something that is missing or frustrating in their environment, and tinker with the tools until they solve the problem. A 17-year-old patient named Emily, for example, was getting annoyed by the nurses who would show up in her room unannounced. So, using wire, switches, and tissue paper from the maker cart, she fashioned a functional doorbell.

Hospitals are not the only unlikely locations to become makerspaces. Here in Pittsburgh, the Millvale Community Library hosts a weekly maker meetup for both toddlers and kids, providing circuits, electronics, musical instruments, drawing tools, and sewing supplies. A former electronic repairs shop, the building has a long digital legacy.

The mobility of technology makes for ideal learning tools. A restless patient like Emily may not be able to go to the library, but she can summon its digital equivalent on an e-reader from her hospital bed. Maker materials can be wheeled into libraries, cafes, churches, parks, and any number of accessible community spaces. And we recently wrote about the new app from Storycorps, which enables kids to learn about history and culture from family members and new friends on the go. Thanks to this portability, learning is not confined to the classroom or a specific six-hour chunk of the day.

By capitalizing on the flexibility and adaptability of digital tools, educators and communities are not discounting the value of learning in traditional and formal settings. In fact, some of the most interesting initiatives in the Pittsburgh area are products of collaboration between established educational programs and less conventional spaces featuring different sets of tools.

In the South Fayette School District, campus gardens function as outdoor classrooms and living STEM labs. Part of a program called Grow It to Go, the gardens are settings for hands-on lessons in biodiversity and sustainability. Another Pittsburgh project turns an agricultural bounty into maker tools, bringing the farm to science classes, and students to the farm. Digital Salad participants might spend an afternoon slicing fresh vegetables, then scanning images of them to use in Photoshop collages before they cook the “materials” in a stew.

A hospital, a farm … so where will the next contemporary “classroom” show up? With portable devices and a mobile maker scene, it could be anywhere.



Published April 22, 2015