Project-Based Learning | Feature

The Maker Movement Conquers the Classroom

A hands-on approach to STEM engages students, but how does project-based learning connect with standardized testing?

Whether it's a paper airplane or a robot that walks, kids have always wanted to create functional objects with their own two hands. These days, many educators are channeling that natural urge to build with help from the wider "maker movement," which has spawned maker faires  and dedicated "maker spaces" in classrooms and media centers around the country. Pam Moran, superintendent of the Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, contends that American classrooms of the past regularly fueled this type of creativity, and now is the time to bring back that spirit of innovation. "I see the maker movement as being a reconnect, both inside schools, as well as in communities, to redevelop the idea that we are creative individuals," Moran said. "We are analytical problem-solvers, and we are people who, in working with our hands and minds, are able to create and construct. We are makers by nature."

Glen Bull, a professor of STEM Education at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, agreed that while the urge to create endures, the tools available to students have changed. He said that the current maker movement "is buttressed by accessible technology, both in terms of cost and ease of use. You can go all the way back to the 1950s and find that they had numerically controlled milling machines, but they were expensive. Now you can get reasonably priced 3D printers and computers."

From Club to Classroom
After-school Lego Robotics clubs have been a mainstay in many districts for years, but Moran and others believe it's time to bring these hands-on activities into the classroom during regular school hours. In Albemarle, Moran is working to engage some of the district's 13,000 students in 26 schools by offering customized options and pathways. "We have two public charter schools," Moran enthused. "If you went to one of our community charter middle schools, you would see kids engaged in an arts-infused curriculum in which they are making. In our regular schools, you would see the same thing. If you went to one of our 16 elementary schools, you would find maker spaces permeating classrooms where kids can work on projects and use tools. We had four of our elementary schools that ran maker schools instead of traditional summer schools."

For one recent project, Moran said, a student used 3D printers in the library to design a new and interesting case for her iPhone — which the school's principal promptly posted on the school's Twitter account. "When kids and teachers are given an opportunity to make, to create," Moran said, "all of a sudden you see people becoming passionate about who they are as learners."

While cutting-edge technology can help engage students, Gary Stager, coauthor (with Sylvia Martinez) of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, pointed out that maker projects don't require schools to buy expensive machines. "We see teachers and students working with traditional materials combined with new materials — even cardboard construction," he said.

Martinez added, "There are new conductive materials, conductive tapes where you can paint a picture that actually does something, such as lighting up. These materials draw people in in ways they don't expect. One person might be interested in building a robot, but another might be interested in building a glove with a sensor on it."

Charlottesville City Schools, also in Virginia, has invested in creating spaces and purchasing equipment that support maker activities for middle- and high-school students. According to Gertrude Ivory, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the nine-school district, "We renovated our science lab at the middle school, and we are renovating an atrium space. In our high school, we took a portion of the media center. We've taken about one third of the library space, carved that out, and added two levels with the classroom — plus spaces for collaboration between students and teachers."

In partnership with the University of Virginia, middle school students in the Charlottesville district are using 3D printers in courses specifically designed to incorporate those tools into science classes. "We have other projects where students publish or print their artwork and sell postcards," Ivory said. "We have something for students with disabilities that exemplifies the maker concept. They make pastries and sell them throughout the school."

Stager said he hopes that maker concepts will eventually be seamlessly incorporated into the curriculum. In making the case for "tinkering and engineering" throughout the school day, Stager and Martinez said they believe that keeping maker spaces separate from the classroom is less than ideal. "When computers first came into schools, they came in through the classrooms of interested teachers, and then they all got rounded up and segregated and we made computer labs," lamented Stager. "It wasn't very successful to have everything separated out, and we don't want to make that mistake again. We make the case that this kind of learning can happen in every subject area and in every classroom."

Coexisting With Standardized Tests
The cold realities of end-of-year assessments can conflict with high-minded learning philosophies. In Charlottesville, Gertrude Ivory makes every effort to reconcile so-called traditional teaching methods with maker concepts and project-based learning (PBL), but she admits that it's not easy.

"The standards don't necessarily lend themselves to the kind of teaching that goes into the maker activities," she said. "Teachers sometimes have a really hard time embracing the project-based activities because they feel so compelled to get students ready for standardized tests. We have a few teachers who do understand, and are risk takers, and they see the payoff. The students remember more. We're seeing some of that with our science and engineering classes, but the teachers are a little reluctant to let go of the traditional, tried-and-true practices because they're afraid until they have a lot of success with it."

Superintendent Pam Moran called herself a "fierce opponent of letting tests dictate the work that teachers do with kids," but she conceded that making time for meaningful maker activities remains a considerable challenge. "Like everybody else, we have to be sure our kids are ready for those Virginia tests in the spring," she said. "It is a tension point. Teachers stand with one foot on one side of a stream that is about testing, and another foot on the other side about making sure what kids do is worthy of their learning."

According to Sylvia Martinez, research shows that PBL leads to deeper understanding for students, and yet it's still all too rare. Why? Martinez said she believes it comes down to training time. "PBL is more difficult, and it takes experienced teachers," she said. "But in the long run it is actually easier, because kids are working on things they care about, and when they do that, they are empowered to really make a difference."

Moran said she has seen teachers get excited, too, when they get hands-on experience with 3D printing, computer assisted design (CAD) programming and using Google Apps in powerful ways. "We sent a team of teachers to Chicago Children's Museum, and they worked with the people who helped to design and implement maker labs," she said. "Those teachers came back absolutely jazzed. They were fearful of turning young children loose with some of the tools, such as glue guns, drills or saws, but after they went up there and saw that happening in a public museum, they came back and said, 'We know how to make this work.'"

As maker projects are getting more time and space in classrooms, they are also gaining acceptance as proof of learning among elite universities. According to Stager, "The admissions department at MIT has been traveling the country telling parents and kids that they want makers at MIT. They've added a space on the MIT application for makers to submit a portfolio of what they have made."

This article appears in THE Journal's April 2014 digital edition.