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.
STUDENTS WILL DRIVE THE MOVEMENT
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.