Why the 'Maker Movement' is Popular in Schools

A number of forces are driving schools to rethink the way they teach students.

by / August 14, 2013 0
Elementary school students make things during a summer program at Albemarle County Schools in Virginia. Trevor Przyuski

The maker movement is a global, DIY movement of people who take charge of their lives, solve their own problems and share how they solved them. And it's growing in schools that are searching for more authentic learning experiences for their students.

Since the beginning of time, people have made things to solve problems and otherwise improve their quality of life. But previously, the amount of exposure individual projects received was limited. Now the Internet has driven projects into the limelight.

"These things that used to be isolated are now shared widely," said Sylvia Libow Martinez, president of nonprofit education technology organization Generation YES and co-author of the book Invent to Learn. "And coupled with new technologies, that makes it possible for people to make things that are useful and practical."

She shared an example of how this global movement works. A father in Italy makes a new hand part for his son, who lost his hand. He puts the design on the Internet, where someone from Iowa improves it, and someone in Africa decides to use it. Then a 3-D printer makes it possible to print a new hand out of melted plastic that's extruded from the printer.

From kindergarten to second grade, students traditionally make things with playdough, legos and other objects. But somewhere along the way, the maker mindset has been lost in older grades, Libow Martinez said.

"It's easy to blame the focus on tests, it's easy to blame the focus on accountability and that sort of thing," she explained. "But I think it's something even more. I think we've kind of not been serious about keeping school viable for the modern world."

And parents have been telling Libow Martinez that something needs to change. Their children play with legos for hours on end at home. But that creativity gets buried at school.

"School is killing my kid,'" she recalls them saying. "'It's killing their creativity, killing their intensity, killing their desire to put things together and be curious. Something's gone terribly wrong when caring parents are saying school is killing their kid.'"

Other forces are at work in this push toward the maker movement. As kids increasingly play on tablets in their strollers, they spend less time taking things apart to see how they work, said Vinnie Vrotny, director of academic technology at the Quest Academy in Illinois. In the block-building game Minecraft, older students show great imagination, but the things they build in this virtual environment are virtually impossible to reconstruct in the physical world.

As electronics have taken over, they no longer switch out the engines in their car or build their own computers to understand how they work. They just press the start button and expect them to work.

"Over the last 15-20 years, we have really begun to immerse in this digital culture, and in doing the digital culture, we have forgotten some of that making that existed at that point, or we're not naming it as making," Vrotny said.

What schools are doing with maker education

Some schools are realizing that they've lost their way when it comes to active learning in school. And they're trying to bring the maker mindset back into education.

In his independent school, Vrotny is putting together a large maker space where students will take a class built around maker curriculum. The academy for gifted students wanted to challenge students to convert the high-level, abstract ideas they have in their head into functional prototypes. 

Some gifted students have trouble building something they imagined because they're not satisfied with anything less than perfection. But this maker space will encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone, learn from their mistakes and create some cool things. Students will move through modules and units at their own pace, build and evaluate a project they're interested in, and they won't be graded on their work.

In Virginia, Albemarle County Schools has been involved with maker education at some level since 2002. But this year, it's taking this work to the next level to encourage a grassroots movement toward making things.

"This is work that's been ongoing for a while in some spaces," said Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Schools. "What we're trying to do is to make this work go viral so that there is no school and no classroom setting where kids would not have these kinds of opportunities, because we consider it to be very effective pedagogy for kids in this century, kids in the last century and for kids going on into the future."

That said, district leaders emphasized that maker education is a grassroots process, not a top-down mandate. The district is providing support for teachers who are interested, and each school and teacher will decide what making things will look like.

This year, the school district partnered with the Maker Education Initiative run by a nonprofit public charity called the Tides Center. That partnership inspired the district to run three-week summer programs centered around maker curriculum.

These summer camps provided a training ground for teachers and principals so they could see what maker education looked like and take ideas back into their classrooms in the fall. And students were able to create, fix and improvise things including squishy circuits, picnic benches and jazz music.

Schools don't have to buy big ticket items like 3-D printers and laser cutters to make things. Students can build neat projects out of simple supplies such as cardboard, playdough and old computer parts.

And money is not a reason to avoid making things. Schools -- like every other organization -- operate with a set amount of money and time, said Chad Ratliff, assistant director of instruction and innovation projects. But within those constraints, Albemarle County Schools innovates by setting priorities, looking at resources from a different perspective and restructuring them in different ways.

"Money is always about placing your emphasis on the things that you think are important," Moran said. "We happen to think this is more important than buying things that look like test prep or practice tests."

But while teachers aren't prepping students for tests, they are still teaching to the standards that they're required to learn. They're just doing so in a more engaging and interactive way.

"The intent is to teach content through making," Ratliff said. "Often times, though, it feels like — particularly to the student — that the content is disappearing because it's embedded in the activity of making. We want to be clear that we're not thinking that teaching is one thing and making is another. We believe that they coexist."

In a classroom at The Computer School in New York City, computer teacher Tracy Rudzitis started a maker space last year with funding from DonorsChoose.org (a nonprofit organization designed for school project donations), the local parent-teacher association and her own money.

Every day at lunch, she pulls out a table and puts materials on it for students who want to experiment on their lunch break. Eight to 20 students show up every day to make things like robots and squishy circuits, and fix broken headphones by soldering the wires back together.

This spring and summer, she's been writing curriculum for the Software Engineering Pilot program, which the New York Education Department will start this fall for 1,000 students. For the first year, the Bloomberg Family Foundation is funding it.

In the pilot, 20 middle schools will hold a class that meets four to five times a week. The class will use Rudzitis' curriculum, which covers programming, robotics, Web development, embedded electronics, e-textiles and mobile computing. Students can also take electives in digital fabrication, 3-D printing and animation.

With the new curriculum, Rudzitis hopes that more school administrators will see the importance of making things and want to bring the curriculum into their districts.

"I do believe you need to leave enough room for tinkering, for exploration and for multiple answers," said Rudzitis, who teaches sixth and seventh grade. "In some types of subject areas, we don't let that happen enough."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.