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'I Can Do That!': How Maker Spaces Teach Students to Redesign Their Worlds

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As schools nationwide are expanding the use of maker spaces, researcher Edward Clapp spoke with Education Week about how teachers can get it right. Clapp is senior research manager on the Agency by Design initiative at Harvard University, which examines the promises of maker-centered learning. The Q&A that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the misconceptions about maker spaces and how would you address them?

Clapp: The whole idea of a maker space is really ill-conceived because it suggests that making happens in a contained and isolated environmentdown the hall in room 313 between periods four and six. Yet making can be just as relevant in the Spanish or language arts classroom as it is in the engineering or math classroom. One of our newest projects, "Making Across the Curriculum," honors the thinking and learning that happens in the maker space, and brings that to all of the content areas.

What tools do you suggest teachers include in maker spaces?

Clapp: These spaces shouldn't involve expensive tools and technologies. There are ways to be low-tech or no-tech. Include lots of cheap items like cardboard, glue guns, hand tools like screw drivers, tape measures, straight edges for cutting, safety goggles, and lots of different types of tape. The cardboard cylinders inside paper towels and toilet paper, called derders, are at a premium in maker spaces. Teachers love these items.

So in setting up a maker space, teachers should be thinking about how to encourage creative thinking?

Clapp: You don't need a laser cutter or a 3-D printer. The most important tool for any teacher is the framework of thinking and learning. This is a set of thinking routines, quick out-of-the-box ways to generate habits of mind. So if you look at an object or system, ask: What are all of its different parts? What are the purposes of those parts? How do the parts come together in ways that are complex?

How have teachers used this framework?

Clapp: One teacher used the framework with kindergarten students. The students had to carry trays in the lunch line, and when they came to a scanner they use their card to pay. This was a fumbly process. Picture their little fingers holding trays full of hot food and then futzing around to find their card to scan. So the kids thought of the lunch line as a system. This was the thinking routine. They ended up making bracelets out of their lunch cards. They cut the cards up, preserving the part that was actually being scanned. They incorporated the scanning piece into the bracelet. Now they didn't have to take their hands off the trays when they got to the scanner.

Can you describe an example of a maker space that you thought worked particularly well?

Clapp: I visited an elementary school where the principal has charged teachers with incorporating making into everything. Every classroom has a maker space. No one has any power tools, but they have lots of different ordinary materials.

In a pre-K classroom, the teacher started the session offering the kids a big menu of things they could make: design a dump truck, build a zipline to convey different things from a table to the floor, build a tent. The kids moved back and forth between messing about and figuring out. And the teacher was really good at redirecting authority. When the kids asked for help, he'd say, 'You know, Jill knows how to do that. Why don't you ask her?' The students were figuring things out. This is just where 3-year-olds need to be. They're being inventive with materials, and they don't necessarily have to be successful in the challenge.

Do you have any cautionary advice?

Clapp: One teacher who had a small budget for a maker space used most of the money on a wind tunnel. The students had to make an aircraft heavy enough that it would float in the air. But there's a limit to what students can do with a wind tunnel. Kids do the activity once and now what do you do? There's no purpose to it anymore. The kids are bored because they've mastered the challenge.

What would you say is the core philosophy of maker spaces?

Clapp: The dominant narrative suggests that maker-centered learning is a vehicle to support proficiency in the STEM subjects. The second narrative suggests that maker-centered learning has an economic end to it, to support the American economy, bring manufacturing back, and start the next Industrial Revolution.

But there's something more interesting happening. When we asked people doing this work, 'What do you want your students to get out of this?' they would pick up something and hold it in their hands and say, 'I want my kids to wonder not how they can buy that shiny thing, but understand how things are made, and say 'I can do that.' So we heard 'I can do that' over and over.  We translated this can-do spirit to mean something along the lines of agency, and we came to understand agency as one of the core benefits of maker-centered learning. We call this core concept 'maker empowerment,' and we define it as having sensitivity to the design dimension of objects and systems along with the inclination and capacity to shape one's world by building, tinkering, redesigning, or hacking.

What do you mean by "systems?"

Clapp: Often when you hear about the maker movement it's all about things or stuff. But things in our world are themselves systems. Pick up a pen and you'll see it's a combination of different parts that come together in a complex way to form a system. And there are subsystems to that system. Pull the cap off the pen and you have two subsystems in your hands. In order to understand making, we have to bring a systems-making lens to the work. We do this by thinking about objects and understanding them as systems. But systems themselves are designed. The school lunch line is designed. There's a system for voting in this country. We can make a big jump from maker-centered learning as making crappy key chains on 3-D printers to: How do we change these systems that we all participate in?

 Photo: Making Across the Curriculum at Harvard Graduate School of Education 


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