One Way to Make School Engaging and Relevant

What a tree house, a wheelchair joystick and a farmer's market stand have to do with engaging, relevant learning.

by / July 14, 2014 0
Dale Daugherty, the creator of Maker Faire and founder of Make magazine, says that making things connects the physical world to the digital one. Tanya Roscorla

ATLANTA — A young girl grew up in a tree house on top of a mountain, and she felt like she didn't fit in or belong anywhere. A man couldn't operate his wheelchair because the controls were out of reach. A student hated school and couldn't wait to get out.

But one movement showed them how to create, how to produce, how to solve problems. The maker movement today is connecting the physical world with the digital world so that anyone can make something and learn while they're doing it, said Dale Daughterty, creator of Maker Faire and founder of Make magazine, which arguably helped launch the current maker movement.  

A man in a wheelchair couldn't reach the joystick that operates his mode of transportation, so he designed an interface for it on a computer and 3-D printed it on metal. Now he can operate the joystick from the interface and is selling his invention to help other people in similar situations.

Robots, 3-D printers and other tech tools including laser cutters open up opportunities to design and develop products, and schools are combining this technology with physical math and science projects to make learning relevant and engaging.

"Kids don't understand why you want them to take science or math," Daugherty said during the EdTekTalks at ISTE on July 1. "Making is a door that they will walk through on their own."

He estimates that about 500 maker spaces exist in the U.S. today, and they should be in schools and libraries everywhere, he said. These spaces gives students access to tools and materials, and more importantly, to mentors.

Schools don't need curriculum or approval to start a makerspace, he said. After all, gardens came into schools because people showed up and created them. The curriculum came later. They just need an existing space, some donated tools and ideas from no-charge resources such as the Makerspace Playbook.

"It's not about the technology, it's not about 3-D printing," Daughtery said. "It's about learning, it's about creating a space where kids can do projects."

That's exactly what an architect is doing in schools and maker camps. The subject of the recent documentary If You Build It, Emily Pilloton founded the nonprofit group Project H after getting tired of designing doorknobs and plumbing fixtures in CAD files at her first architecture job. 

The girl who grew up in a treehouse wanted to find work as an architect that she really loved. She knew what she was doing, but she didn't know how or why she was practicing architecture.

In her growing up years, "Building things and making things was how I made sense of the world," Pilloton said during the EdTekTalks. But she wanted to work with humans, not CAD files on the computer.

She scribbled on a napkin these words: Hello, humanity, heart, hands, hammer, health, happiness. This thinking process helped her figure out the how — an audacious, competitive way of practicing architecture — and the why: because she loved people in her family, students and the community. 

Pilloton wanted to cultivate this love and audacity with students and colleagues by designing and building real things that make a difference. The documentary on her work with co-founder Matthew Miller tells the story of a year-long project at a high school in Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina.

Many Bertie County students didn't enjoy school, and the county struggled with high obesity rates. So Pilloton and Miller set out to tackle both problems with a learn-by-design project. They spent a year designing and building a structure for farmers to market their fresh produce.

This elective Studio H class gave students a hands-on, creative project that helped their community have more access to fresh produce through a farmers' market. As a result of working with these two designers, some of the students in their cohort ended up applying and going on to college, something that they weren't planning on doing before. And they learned how to design and build real things in the real world for people because of their love for the community. 

"Kids are capable of things that will blow your mind," Pilloton said. 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.