Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If you make it...

People keep saying my son is going to grow up to be an engineer.  They say this because they see him playing with Legos, Snap Circuits, and Tinker Toys.  He builds bridges out of marshmallows and toothpicks. He loves putting together things as much as he loves taking things apart.  And he's constantly asking "how come?" (His version of "why?").



My son is not unique in his interests.  I had the opportunity to attend the Buffalo Mini Maker Faire just recently, and what I witnessed was nothing short of amazing.  There were hundreds of kids there, and every single one of them was completely engaged in learning through making.  There were some who were helping to construct a pirate ship using cardboard, twine, and tape.  Others were racing electric cars.  And still others were busy taking apart VCRs, TVs, and cassette players (along with a few other devices that were no longer recognizable).  Kids were everywhere, and they were learning about their world through hands-on, authentic learning.  And the best part? It was a Saturday afternoon...

This experience showed me the power of something we call Maker Ed.  Jump on Twitter, search for #makered and you'll find conversations about 3d printing, coding, Arduino, and Lego.  Makerspaces have been popping up in schools, libraries, and community centers.  Kids, and adults, love them.  Eric Sheninger, Principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey, mentioned in a recent blog post that their makerspace has been "overrun with students during their lunch periods, but teachers here have begun to explore how the process of making can enhance the learning experience for the students in their classes."  When was the last time you heard of students excitedly skipping their lunch period in order to learn?

Closer to home, a small group of students from a school here in Buffalo, NY are participating in a boat-building class.  In this class, they are learning how to design, and then construct their own sailboats.  They are learning to use complex math to determine the size of each piece of wood that will be used to shape the hull.  And if they make a mistake, it shows... literally.  But it doesn't mean they have failed, it just means they have to try again.

Makerspaces, and the maker movement, offer a glimpse into where we should be heading in education.  We need to start making education more authentic.  We need to give students a problem to solve or ask a question with more than one answer, and let them take ownership of the solution.  We must encourage the students to define what the answer will look like... Maybe it's a 3D printed object, maybe is a prototype of a future product, or maybe it's a plan for social change.  We need to encourage kids to make their answers, instead of bubbling them in.

Many educators say that in the current environment of testing and accountability, it's just not possible to engage kids in this type of learning.  I disagree.  It will be difficult, no doubt.  And it's risky to put the learning in the hands (literally and figuratively) of the students, but we must.  We need to stop covering content in our classrooms.  Instead, we have to engage our students in learning that is meaningful and gives them the skills and mentality necessary for success in the future.

I don't know if my son will grow up to be an engineer, but I do know that he will grow up a maker.


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