New York Hall of Science/Maker Faire
New York Hall of Science/Maker Faire

At the White House Maker Faire recently, where President Obama invited “makers” of all ages to display their creations, the  President investigated a robotic giraffe, a red weather balloon and shot a marshmallow cannon made by a student. With so much fanfare and media attention on the event, some educators are hopeful that the idea of tinkering as a way of learning might finally have made it back to the mainstream. But will the same philosophy of discovery and hands-on learning make it into classrooms?

“Most of the people that I know who got into science and technology benefited from a set of informal experiences before they had much formal training,” said Dale Dougherty, editor of Make Magazine and founder of Maker Faire on KQED’s Forum program. “And I mean, like building rockets in the backyard, tinkering, playing with things. And that created the interest and motivation to pursue science.”

That spirit of play and discovery of knowledge is missing from much of formal education, Dougherty said. Students not only have no experience with making or the tools needed to build things, they’re often at a tactile deficit. “Schools haven’t changed, but the students have,” Dougherty said. “They don’t come with these experiences.”

Dougherty often watches kids as they interact with hands-on experiments or materials at Maker Faire events. “It’s almost aggressively manipulating and touching things because they’re not used to it,” he said, which is unfortunate because that kind of work is in high demand in doing engineering or mechanical jobs.

“Even at the university level we’re choosing talent based on math scores, not on capabilities and demonstrated abilities,” Dougherty said. He thinks engineering programs could learn something from art schools when it comes to the application process. No art school accepts a student without examining a portfolio of work that demonstrates the student can do the work required required of them and has the potential to grow. Dougherty helped lobby MIT to begin accepting “maker portfolios” along with other application materials to ensure the things kids make are considered alongside test scores, essays and recommendations.


Dougherty is hopeful that events like the White House Maker Faire will help catalyze a movement that accepts maker-style self-directed learning in schools. He sees a lot of interest in affluent communities, but a lot less involvement in low-income areas. Incorporating the maker movement into public schools would reach help reach all students, perhaps sparking a life long interest in kids that might not otherwise be exposed.

“The context of making is playful,” Dougherty said. “At the high school level that’s when it stops being fun.” It’s that playful spirit that gets kids engaged, not a set curriculum or even access to technology. Kids have to feel invested and passionate about something to care about it for the long term. “If we are really about STEM, how do we make it fun, how do we make it engaging, how do we keep it playful?” Dougherty asked.

Parents are even starting to recognize the motivating power that this movement has on kids. “I think kids are going to be the drivers of change in this,” Dougherty said. “They’re going to be the ones asking for this, and asking if their parents can support them in this.” Dougherty knows many young people ready to go to high school who don’t see their passions being supported there. A lot of high schools got rid of classes like shop and metal work that were the “maker spaces” of a previous era. Parents didn’t see a use for those skills and they were gradually phased out.

“The key idea here that I’ve promoted is I want people to see themselves as producers, not just consumers,” Dougherty said. “I’d like to see it become a capability that we use in home life and at work and that we’re proud of it, where we see ourselves as having these powers to do stuff.”

Dougherty hopes that if students raise their voices, parents demonstrate support and passionate teachers are willing to champion the cause at individual school sites, maker spaces could become a fixture of school. They don’t have to include the fanciest 3D printer, they just have to be spaces for exploration, hands-on learning and a playful attitude towards discovery.

Can the Maker Movement Infiltrate Mainstream Classrooms? 29 July,2015Katrina Schwartz

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  • Very nice article, teachers should read this. I’m involved in a project that let’s children in primary schools meet the 3D printer. They build it together and then become it’s owner and then they are free to do with it whatever they want. What we see is great enthousiasm! And inspiration – not only to copy or make – but also to create new stuff. And teachers that start integrating it into their curriculum.
    It’s awesome and needed for the future. A huge part of production will in time shift from the factory’s to the livingroom. And there are many more reasons to get the maker movement into the classroom!

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  • Ivriniel

    I think the Maker Movement has a natural ally in the Play-based Learning Movement. I was just reading “Every Early Learning” by Jeff A. Johnson with (his daughter) Zoe Johnson this morning and in it he relates the story of the time he decided to dump paper from his office shredder into his Child Care Centre’s water table.

    The kids started sculpting things with the wet paper, which led to questions about how paper is made, which led to Johnson showing them how to make paper, which led to those kids teaching other kids, which led to kids making things with the paper that they made…

    All out of some bits that would have been otherwise headed for the garbage.

  • Mperez

    You say children have changed. I say schools have changed… No more blocks in some kindergarten classrooms. Blocks use to be part of social studies, science and math.

    • Teachers .Pet

      There’s an App for that.

    • Rae Pica

      I absolutely agree with you, Mperez. i was really struck by that line, too. *If* children have changed it’s because school and society have changed them! Childhood is practically being outlawed these days.

  • John Anderson

    It is good we recognizr this but way too late. I am a hotrodder, and building stuff since a kid. All see kids want to do today is play soccer and video games – that will really helo society. GM needs more kids who actually know how to build a car, not listen to failed accountants and spineless executives. It is about time.

    • James Cole

      Soccer and video games have value too. Hand eye coordination, teamwork, problem solving, mathematics, and countless other skills are honed when kids play video games.

  • Anonymous

    As an elementary teacher, I wholeheartedly support the play-based movement. Nothing helps kids learn more than exploration. The thing is, the curriculum forced on us makes our administrators frown on anything creative or play-based. We have to “sneak” it in, when nobody’s looking. I’ve been reprimanded for this kind of learning that “does not support the Common Core,” and I’ve had many colleagues experience this as well. One first year teacher in my school got a warning about letting her kids use watercolors. (She had an exceptionally hard group, full of serious behavioral issues, so she tried having 20 minutes of watercolor painting time after lunch to calm and focus them. It was working. And then the principal ordered her to stop. The wonderful teacher decided to leave the school at the end of the year.) I totally get the idea of the Common Core, but the way it is being implemented by administrators (most of whom have no teaching experience — at least in our district), combined with the new PARCC testing, is a complete disaster. I still love teaching, but I have to be sneaky about doing it well, lest I get written up and endanger my job.

    • Anonymous

      I am curious about the watercolors as I work with kids who sometimes have behavioral problems. What class was the teacher teaching? Did she make the watercolors relevant to class at all?

  • 1DonRhoads2

    Tinkering was a huge influence in my own life. My parents gave me blocks, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and I played endlessly with them. Then I discovered electronics, and spent hours and days years fixing old radios, building Heathkits, making my own hi-fi. This led me to studying physics in college, and then mathematics, finally to a PhD in mathematics. Later I went into the electronics business, and then returned to teaching mathematics. Along the way I designed and built three houses with my own hands and have helped write a major mathematical work. I look back over my 76 years of life and it has been good for many reasons, among them my Christian (not fundamentalist) faith, an excellent wife, and my interest in making things. That, of course, is an oversimplification… Don

  • Mansgame

    Maker movement.. Yeah right. Try prying kids away from their phones and tablets for 1 hour. All this talk about how this is the most computer literate generation is s bunch of balony because most of them only know how to get on Facebook or call of duty. They can’t even set up a router and this is what they are supposedly the BEST at doing. Making things is something they are worst at doing so you do the math.

  • Marjorie Nye

    I wonder why Playskool took Pipeworks off the market. It was the most amazing toy ever! Like giant tinkertoys, it made structures you could build, play on, take apart and make something else, from simple table/chairs to a jungle gym with slide to a steerable jalopy and more. The toy was appropriate for all age groups with little children helping sort pipes, connectors and different color joints. Older children learned to follow directions and diagrams, order of assembly and finally their own designs. Heck, I even built myself a serving cart for a party once.
    For a few years I subscribed to a mail order craft kit that my daughter liked. Though I dislike ‘canned’ art projects, I suggested she make at least one item according to the directions and after that she was free to use the supplies in any way she wanted.
    Were these mere toys valuable to my children’s education? You’d have to ask my son who built his own computers from scratch as a teen, and graduated with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, or my daughter who’s degree in poetry and creative writing hasn’t led to employment but has worked as a coppersmith and has taught herself stained glass art and sells her own creations.
    Finally, if schools can’t or won’t provide the kind of learning as described in the article, then parents need to step up and fill in the gaps themselves.

    • Natasha

      “…parents need to step up and fill in the gaps themselves” YES!!

  • Lindy

    Has anyone heard of Maria Montessori? The basis of her early learning program was exploration and hands-on discovery. No need to reinvent the wheel. Her proposition was let them loose and they will find their strengths. Now we expect pre-schoolers to meet many pre-set goals. A healthy mix would be nice, don’t you think?

    • Yosemite Sam


  • CCSSlover

    Please don’t act like this is how education used to be. I went through school during the 80’s & 90’s, and hands-on activities were rarely offered if at all. I didn’t really have any worthy hands-on experiences until high school. I have been a teacher for 10 years and can honestly say that all students are getting a more stringent and research driven education. As much as teachers dislike accountability it has improved instruction exponentially. Gone are the days of the 9 week units on dinosaurs, thank goodness. We are now addressing ALL of our students which requires a variety of opportunities for hands-on learning more so than I was ever afforded in the ‘good’ ole days of education. Let’s stop looking at the past with rose colored glasses and start looking to a brighter future for our students.

    • lacy

      I agree. I was in school in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Many of my classes were boring and straight forward. I also hated them. Thank goodness I had the sense to go and do the work anyway. I knew learning could be fun. I had experiences outside of school that taught me that. I learned biology at sea world, physics at six flags, math playing monopoly, geometry playing with building toys…. I can go on, but my point is that I was lucky to have that and those are experiences I want to teach with. Why stick to the lecture, note, quiz, worksheet, test model that we were subjected to? Now is a test driven, disjunctive common core the way to go? I don’t think so, but it seems like educators are trying to go in the right direction with hands-on-minds-on learning strategies.

  • mlnordmann

    I left the kindergarten classroom because I wasn’t allowed to do anything “fun” anymore. Read from the script, don’t deviate! I then went to the computer lab where we wrote stories, blogged, and experimented with digital photography among other things. Then that was taken away. I could only do the “kill-and-drill” software purchased by the school system. Now I am at a STEM middle school where I am encouraged to be as creative as I would like! We program video games, make stop motion video, and design and print in 3-D. I am happy, the kids are happy, and the pricipal is thrilled that the kids are so engaged! “Engaged” is the name of the game when you are trying to keep kids in school until graduation.

  • Maria Montessori wrote, “The hand is the prehensile organ of the mind.” One cannot fully develop intelligence without involving the hands and the imagination! Lots of handwork is part of every stage of Montessori education. The children work with blocks, beautiful materials that invite tactile exploration, and in the elementary years, with all kinds of open-ended building materials, many salvaged from the trash and recycling. When they’re a bit older, they master the tools of technology easily, having a deep understanding of how the world works, and how to take an idea and express it concretely. Seems like the Makers Movement has a common understanding of how children learn. I’m happy that more children will benefit from this awareness.

  • Robert

    My earliest teacher was my father a machinist and accidental cartoonist. He bought me model car and airplane kits and stimulated my creative side with a drawing game we would play together. He would have me draw three random lines on a piece of paper and he would turn it into finished drawing. He would then do the same for me to complete. To this day I believe that simple game implanted the seeds of ‘seeing the invisible’ that benefited my eventual career choice as an architect.

  • Bonny Krahn

    When I was in college in the 70’s Engineering colleges required an art portfolio and so did Architecture. With the invention of computers all that fell by the wayside. I am all for it, but it must include real 3-d examples as well as computer graphic abilities. I am a retired Elementary Art teacher who taught nothing but hands on lessons. I also taught that the art program fed into the Architecture Colleges and Engineering as well as Computer Graphics. We were vertically aligned. That is the way it should be. We had Engineers in the Classroom from Lockheed Martin come in and give hands on demonstrations. It was great and tied right into the lesson on designing a space station. It was a big hit with parents and the kids. The school district put it in the “Great Things About Our Schools” video. I found out that the way I taught was the exception rather than the rule. Even to have some districts insist each art project back up a lesson done in the classroom. Complete horizontal alignment across curriculums. How limiting can you get? There is a whole world to explore. Don’t put me or my students in a box.

  • Elbas

    Montessori is too structured. Waldorf Steiner (sans the fairy worship) is the reigning expert of tactile learning.

    • petekaraiskos

      Pssst… there has to be some actual “learning” at the end of the tactile stuff. Waldorf is famous for leading kids to the wrong conclusions and teaching nonsense as science. They are missionaries for the movement called Anthroposophy. Hopefully, the “maker” movement isn’t about promoting a “spiritual impulse”.

  • 98198

    Those who work with dyslexic students have known this for decades…

  • Karin Seager Cockram

    Thank goodness occupational therapists are still allowed to use this (of course, hands-on play is our primary “therapeutic” technique!). It’s too bad that students who don’t need the “extra” help aren’t doing it, too.

  • Bruce

    Bring back or encourage more play and exploration with TInker Toys, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs and such. Too many organized passive entertainment activities for kids these days.

  • Karla Babe

    i had the good fortune of being born in an era where we didn’t have expensive toys that do the ‘thinking’ for you .. we went out and played with whatever was around… we made up our own games and the tools to accomplish our goals..
    high efficiency with the latest technological wonders matter for sure as the world moves on… but way in the background were people of my generation and before.. the creators.. the makers..

    there will always be new frontiers and people needed to get there…

    i am a great aunt with about 50 lbs of lego… let’s make something!

  • Tricia

    It surprises me that anyone would question the value of “play”. Early in my teacher training, I was instructed on the value of offering manipulatives so children could bridge the gap from concrete to abstract concepts. But, this need continues into adulthood. For example, I don’t know anyone who learned to golf from reading a book about it, then taking a multiple choice test.

  • grevyturty

    Is this supported by actual empirical evidence or is it just another feel-good nonsense movement?

    • DonBerg

      Yes, there is empirical evidence. There is peer-reviewed scientific research going back to the 1970’s into how autonomy and competence are primary human needs. “Primary” meaning that those experiences are directly tied to psychological well-being and are so across all cultures studied to date (which includes studies comparing results in the americas, europe, asia, and africa). The research on play stipulates that autonomy is necessary in order for activities to even be considered as play.

      I have published scientific research on patterns of motivation in two alternative schools that support self-directed, play-based learning. I am one of very few who has studied K-12 alternatives that do so. Since 2009 evidence has begun accumulating showing that these kinds of alternatives support the psychological well-being of their students. This is in sharp contrast to about 30 years of data from a variety of methodological and theoretical view points that consistently show that mainstream schools do not support the psychological well-being of their students.

      Here’s a link to my research:


      Don Berg

      Founder of Schools of Conscience
      Building the nurturing capacity of K-12 schools.

      Free E-book:

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  • At Made Right Here, we agree that being able to show what you can do via a portfolio and learning by doing are going to become standard ways of learning and showing your expertise.

    We are building a platform for makers call Made Right Here, where makers can create projects, find like-minded project partners, and show off their work. We want makers to be able to find each other and team up for fun, or employment opportunities. Check it out!

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  • DonBerg

    I have studied self-directed education in other forms and I suspect that
    the maker movement will be limited to window dressing that highlights a few
    innovative educators, but leaves most kids out unless some of the dominant ways of thinking in
    schools is changed.

    The erosion of play is a symptom of deeper problems with how education
    policy is shaped by what I call the delivery theory of schooling (and Paulo Friere called the banking model). As
    long as policy makers believe that education is primarily a matter of
    getting specified content from one head into another then they will
    continue to enact policies that will diminish self-directed learning and
    play. If making is taken to be a better method of delivery then it will
    most likely be transformed from a playful exploration into an adult
    directed activity. And the imposition of adult direction destroys play.

    On the other hand, I am working on a book to outline solutions to this
    problem. It’s less than 5000 words on how champions of self-directed
    learning can more effectively communicate with policy makers. If you are
    interested in being a pre-publication reader I would be happy to get
    your feedback.You can contact me through my website:


    Don Berg

    Founder of Schools of Conscience
    Building the nurturing capacity of K-12 schools.

    Free E-book:

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  • James Thompson

    “Even at the university level we’re choosing talent based on math scores, not on capabilities and demonstrated abilities,” Dougherty said. He thinks engineering programs could learn something from art schools when it comes to the application process”

    MIT is doing just that.

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  • mzawlocki

    Before the Maker movement caught on, these classes were called Career and Tech Ed, Applied Tech, Industrial Tech, etc. They had, and still have, a reputation as being classes for students who aren’t serious about school or going to college. As the article says, many programs have been cut. It’s awesome that others are now realizing the value of hands-on learning!

  • KMac

    I agree with Dale that students will drive this movement, but as teachers, we must be ready to accommodate and meet the needs of our students. I’ve had the privilege of participating in a Maker Educator Certificate program through a collaboration between Sonoma State University and Maker Media that prepares teachers to take on the challenge of incorporating Making into their curriculum, regardless of grade level, subject matter, or school setting. It is this kind of support that teachers must be given or seek out to effect the most change in the classroom.

    If you’re interested,

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  • joeA

    The best education does not teach the student what to think, but rather how to think. This is one excellent way to do that.

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  • Scott Bultman

    We had Maker-like classrooms 150yrs ago in the Froebel Kindergarten (ages 3-7+). Froebel invented play-based education, pioneered true nature education, holistic education, and crafts as an academic activity. His materials were the original educational toys, inspiring many of the classic playthings listed below. Froebel inspired Milton Bradley to launch the school supply market (and invent the paper cutter). Froebel Kindergarten educated the Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bucky Fuller, Charles Eames and Richard Feymann (among others). Kindergarten was in full bloom 60 years before Montessori and Steiner, who both adapted Froebel for their methods (and acknowledged the debt). It was Dewey, Kilpatrick, Hall, Hill and other “Progressives” who took us off this standard, and set the decline of our preschools before Montessori and Waldorf schools even took hold in this country. Piaget and 1980s brain research confirmed Froebel’s theories but no amount of science seems to stop the advance of testing and standardized curriculum. Perhaps this will inform the debate on play-based learning ?

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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