Meet the Makers: Can a DIY movement revolutionize how we learn?

Andrew Carle, a technology educator at Flint High School in Northern Virginia, scurries about the classroom, rearranging desks and chairs, strategically sprinkling around wires, batteries, transistors, and clocks—all the while a video camera whirs in the background. A few seconds later, 10 seventh graders saunter in and the room becomes a hive of activity. Students [...]

A young patron sits down to a recording session at the “creation station” of the Darien (CT) Library.
Photograph by Dru Nadler.

Andrew Carle, a technology educator at Flint High School in Northern Virginia, scurries about the classroom, rearranging desks and chairs, strategically sprinkling around wires, batteries, transistors, and clocks—all the while a video camera whirs in the background. A few seconds later, 10 seventh graders saunter in and the room becomes a hive of activity. Students cluster in shifting groups of twos and threes, occasionally checking in with Carle, testing wires, referencing books and Macbooks. In that hour, compressed into 140 inspiring seconds on YouTube, the middle school students become consultants, designers, and builders. Or, as Carle and thousands of others like to call them, makers.

The maker movement, known to past generations as “DIY” (do-it-yourself), encourages collaboration, invention, and radical participation with a single goal: to create new things. This maker ethos is gaining a serious foothold in education, both in practice and at the policy level. In 2012, the movement’s flagship event, Maker Faire, drew a total of 165,000 people to meetups in New York and San Francisco. In March 2013, Tom Kalil, the White House deputy director for technology and innovation, hosted a Google+ Hangout with a guest list that included Dale Dougherty, the founder of Maker Media, inventor and MacArthur fellow Saul Griffith, and 11-year-old Sylvia T. (better known to fans of her popular online maker show as “Super Awesome Sylvia”).

STEMming from a great idea. The White House’s embrace of the maker movement is hard-wired into President Barack Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. “I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering,” Obama said at the campaign’s launch in 2009. “Whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

As the maker movement evolves, so, too, does the demand for a new kind of participatory public arena, commonly known as a maker space. Here, budding makers mingle, share knowledge and resources, and collaborate on projects. Some leading maker machers—among them Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing—see librarians and makers as natural allies and think of libraries as a natural setting for creating a maker space.

Libraries should be “information dojos,” Doctorow says, “where communities come together to teach each other black-belt information literacy; where initiates work alongside novitiates to show them how to master the tools of the networked age from the bare metal up.” Now, librarians and their supporters in the nonprofit, academic, and policy worlds have taken up the gauntlet. Together, they’re designing best practices, securing funding, conducting research, and recruiting schools and teachers, cobbling together the gears and circuitry of a culture that they say has the potential to forever change the way children learn.

Getting schooled. During the White House Hangout, Dougherty discussed a recent Maker Media initiative called “Maker Education,” which aims to empower young people to become master tinkerers. Addressing the issue of scale, he asked: “What are the kinds of models we can build that other youth-serving organizations can follow to work with kids?”

A key focus of Maker Education is integrating maker spaces into existing educational programs nationwide, says AnnMarie Thomas, the founding executive director of Maker Education. To head the initiative, Thomas took a one-year sabbatical from her job as an engineering professor at the University of St. Thomas, where she had noticed that “more and more kids were coming into engineering with very little hands-on experience.” Maker Corps, a Maker Education program, aims to connect maker groups to one another and build a community that’s based on the core competencies of the maker movement.

Making, says AnnMarie Thomas, resonates with children in extraordinary ways: “Look at any of the literature on hands-on work, look at what’s happened at museums around the country. You really see a sense of interest and engagement among kids, see them taking ownership of their work.” As examples, she points to the children at Mt. Elliott Makerspace in Detroit, who demonstrate soldering lessons at the local farmer’s market, and an 11-year-old maker in Los Angeles who teaches community classes.

DIY gets F2F. Parker Thomas, Maker Media’s current director of educational initiatives, notes that, while the Internet creates opportunities to collaborate long-distance, cyberspace is no substitute for “meatspace.” Maker activity can create a force multiplier effect when it fosters cross-pollination between schools. To that end, during the last academic year, Thomas helped coordinate efforts among 15 public and private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Some of our schools decided to partner so they could apply for grants together,” he says.

Launching the programs at some of these schools required a healthy dose of imagination and perseverance. “It’s easy to start a maker space if you’re a motorcycle fabricator in your spare time,” he says. “Less easy if you’re a Spanish teacher and have never made anything in your life.”

Some of the teachers were armed with “nothing but enthusiasm,” he says. To get these educators more maker savvy, sponsors and advocates offered resources, including personal development workshops and online info sessions, and created a playbook that advised on everything from safety standards to how to pitch maker spaces to school administrators.

Parker Thomas worked directly with interested teachers. “We helped enable them,” he says. “The administration then starts to see the results, and it’s easier to get into the rest of the schools.” But he acknowledges that “if we need to scale, we need to do this at the district level,” noting that the Santa Rosa High School District is a recent collaborator.

The reaction from children has been deeply gratifying, he adds. At Independence High School in San Francisco—which Thomas describes as “kind of like your last speed bump before you drop out”—students have to be in school only 45 minutes per week. When students worked maker projects, however, they stayed voluntarily, sometimes several hours a day. Says Parker, “We seem to spark a sense of curiosity, of wonder.”

At the June Jordan School for Equity, also in San Francisco, Thomas attended a mini maker fair at the end of the first semester of the maker class. “I saw a bulletin board with iPad speakers acting like an amp and a box with a lid that had LEDs on top,” he says. “A kid didn’t have a desk at home, so he built one.” And the progress was evident. “You could see that they learned to iterate. The joints got better on each leg.”

The level of craftsmanship and personal initiative seen at these schools seems limitless. Thomas cites the Oakland-based Lighthouse Community Charter School, which has had a maker program for the past five years: “Three 18-year-old seniors wanted to build an electric car. They found a Ford Ranger and pulled the motor out. They’re trying to find batteries for it and they ran a Kickstarter campaign to do it.” That kind of project, he says, rewards students with a host of skills, including engineering, storytelling, and managing an online fundraising campaign.

Most importantly, he says, making empowers children with a mindset. “You’re not held hostage to what you can find. If you can dream it, you can make it, and you can shape the world around you.”

Media as making. Gwyneth Jones, known to Internet fans as “The Daring Librarian,” vividly recalls a recent trip to Nashville, where the city’s public library administrators spoke about their under-construction, hands-on learning space: “It’s the size of an airport lounge,” Jones says, “with a 3-D printer, woodworking, and sinks with experiments. And it’s just for teens—grown-ups are there on sufferance.”

A Maker Space Starter Kit

Four walls do not a maker space make… Here are some of the fundamental tools commonly found in successful maker spaces. Though making is by its nature improvisational, a common toolkit can help to make it easier for newbies to learn the necessary skills and also help institutions and policymakers plan.

1. Arduino

An open-source electronic prototyping platform. Arduino programming language and modules (“boards”), which can be hand-built or purchased pre-wired, allow makers to create interactive electronic objects. Arduino devices can sense their environment by receiving input from multiple sensors and can control lights, motors, and other actuators.

2. Hot glue gun

A handheld tool for fastening items. Check out this basic tutorial on usage and safety instructions.

3. Jump wires

Wires used to transfer electrical signals from one part of a circuit board to a central microcontroller

4. Play-Doh

A modeling compound commonly used by young children for art and craft projects

5. 3-D printers

A printer that makes a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model.

6. Laser cutter

Allows for very precise cuts without warping or destroying nearby material, enabling users to create elaborate designs for products. Click here to see a list of great projects.

Jones says she has always implemented maker tenets into her work at her Murray Hill Middle School library in Laurel, MD. “We’ve been doing animation and moviemaking from the get-go,” she says. Her students use programs such as GoAnimate to create openings for the school’s TV studio and Comic Life to build their own graphic novels—and then reach wider audiences by licensing their work through Creative Commons or selling their publications. Using such technology in a school setting, she says, also helps bridge the digital divide, much as the YOUmedia initiative has done in public libraries.

Such activities can expand a child’s idea of what a product is, she says. “They can create something that shows what they learned. My kids are visual learners. If they can make something with their hands, they’re going to write a PSA and maybe create an animation to go with it. They get to choose how to show what they learned and how much they learned, and didn’t necessarily need to write a 10-page essay.”

When Kiera Parrott first established a “creation station” at Darien Library in Connecticut, the tools at students’ disposal were Mac computers, Flip cameras, and voice recorders. Integrated devices such as the iPad freed students to follow their imaginations. They now use iPads to create stop-motion animation with LEGO figures, video book reviews, and whatever else captures their fancy. Parrott contrasts these activities with the regular school curriculum. “Even if it’s a wonderful school with fabulous teachers, there’s still a hierarchy, it’s still prescriptive.” In a maker space, she says, “it’s all about them and their experience.”

Making a maker space. “Today’s tinkerers work in vast, distributed communities where information sharing is the norm, where the ethics and practices of the free/open source software movement have gone physical,” Doctorow says. To cater to kids’ needs, librarians and school administrators will be forced to challenge traditional constructs of physical space, teamwork, and information architecture.

Flint High School’s Andrew Carle calls for a space that evokes wonder, something that can attract students’ attention, “slow down traffic in the hallway and pull them through the door….Every pinball machine, every arcade cabinet, was designed to capture [the] fleeting fascination of passing teenagers,” Carle says. “3-D printers can do the same work.” A well-designed maker space, he notes, will leave a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the school and reinforce the maker mindset of “discovering ways that you can tweak, hack, or create new things that exist in and interact with the wider world.”

Yet Carle also stresses the importance of a supportive space, one that titillates but never intimidates newcomers, with ample signage and instructions, and where “no one (has to) go in alone.”

“If you’re a kid you can’t do anything wrong,” says Parrott. “There’s no such thing at this point. We’re not telling you what you need to make. We’re going to give you the tools, physical and digital, and then let you go. We’ll provide some guidance to shape those skills, but it’s really about the exploration and discovery.”

A short list of these tools includes “Arduino [programming language and circuits], papier-mâché, LEGOs, cardboard, robots, rockets, welding machines, gears, circuit boards, computer-assisted drawing software, string, vinyl cutters, LED lights, the command line, string, rubber bands, wire, duct tape, Play-Doh, steamworks, sensors, hot glue guns, scissors, Raspberry Pis, gyroscopes, Tesla coils, musical instruments, fire, water cannons, plastic, wood, motors, solar power, wearable computers, and 3D printers,” according to education writer Audrey Watters. Due to constraints of both money and room, school libraries looking to establish maker spaces will have to prioritize what to purchase, especially if the spaces are being funded at the district or state levels.

Armed with a little planning and a basic toolkit consisting of laser cutters, a set of hand tools, and a single computer, Saul Griffith, who has received a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) grant to aid him in his efforts, is confident that the maker movement could become a permanent fixture of school education. “It’s very reasonable to imagine that we could outfit every high school and every middle school. I actually think we should be targeting down to every elementary school in the country with a reasonably capable set of tools so all children in the country become part of this manufacturing and design revolution,” he says.

The big picture. “One of the impacts of building your own computing devices is that it forces you to confront the architecture and systems that underlie your own information consumption,” Doctorow says.

Opening the wonders of maker culture to vast new audiences can have a liberating effect on education. Scholars, including the University of Indiana’s Kylie Peppler and the University of California’s Mimi Ito, have written several papers on topics such as learning about circuitry through e-textiles, introducing computation into arts education, and developing participatory competencies in media production.

In her 2009 book The Computer Clubhouse, Peppler and her co-authors reference MIT mathematician Seymour Papert’s concept of “objects-to-think-with.” The term, according to Papert, helps illustrate how both digital and physical objects such as robots, games, and programs can “become objects in the mind that help to construct, examine, and revise connections between old and new knowledge.” Indeed, objects in a maker space can assume this role, according to the authors, “allowing members to engage with technology, problem-solving, and artistic expression in profound ways.”

Scholars are being careful, however, to not define the movement’s constraints too tightly, in order to preserve the improvisational feel that makes maker spaces so appealing. The goal, in a sense, is a rough map rather than a GPS device. Structure and setting still matter. “We would never want maker spaces to look like schools,” Peppler says. “But you do need to get a sense of how they work.”

With great power (tools) comes great responsibility. When power saws and drill presses replace traditional learning materials, the library inevitably becomes a riskier environment, something acknowledged by leading proponents of maker spaces. “There could be liability issues” stemming from use of tools and machinery, says Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). “But those could be addressed.” Hardware is a potential issue, but the bigger practical concern is the space itself. “If you’re going to have a space that could be noisy and could create smoke, you need to consider where the space is placed, and how it is vented.”

Indeed, some have pushed for a more rigorous approach to safety standards in maker spaces. At a February workshop in Somerville, MA, titled “How to Make a Makerspace,” Dougherty pushed makers to design best practices for building and operating spaces. William Gurstelle, noted science writer and the author of Backyard Ballistics and The Practical Pyromaniac, has written a safety guide that addresses the usage of tools such as sewing machines, table saws, and heat guns.

Money makers. Hildreth, whom President Barack Obama tapped in 2011 to be director of IMLS, says her curiosity about maker spaces was piqued by her insight that simple content mastery would no longer cut it. “Information and knowledge changes so quickly nowadays,” she says. Now IMLS’s emphasis is on supporting libraries to help students attain what she dubs “21st-century skills, skills such as being creative, collaborative, analytical, and learning how to parse and organize information.”

A maker space, she says, serves as an active breeding ground for such skills, a place where swarms of inquisitive young people can come together and absorb new learning paradigms. The library world’s shift from analogue to digital materials is helping to free up space that could be reconfigured to become a maker space, she adds. “If you think of the library as the learning center, you need to adapt to the demands of your community,” she says.

The movement is yet in its infancy, Hildreth believes, but it’s shown enough promise to warrant some IMLS funding, such as a $444,296 research grant to study the effects of maker spaces given to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The museum also received a further $150,000 grant to help it establish an in-house maker space with the cooperation of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Other IMLS grants funding maker activity include $250,000 to the Chicago Public Library to create a new maker space; $100,000 to the New York Hall of Science (NYHS) for a “Digital Making program” within the NYHS’s maker space; an additional grant to NYHS to engage racially diverse communities in making; and a $99,443 grant to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR, to develop a community maker space. More maker funding will likely be a priority for 2014, Hildreth adds.

Funding is also flowing into the movement from elsewhere, according to Marsha Semmel, the IMLS’ director of strategic partnerships. She noted in particular the Cognizant Foundation—which has given major grants to the Detroit Public Library and NYHS—and DARPA, which aims to establish making practices in 1,000 schools by 2016. The MacArthur Foundation also supports the Maker Education intitiative, partnering with IMLS to launch well-funded museum and library spaces, modeled after the YOUmedia program at the Chicago Public Library, that offer state-of-the-art digital media tools.

The money, Semmel says, would help to bridge the void left by the disappearance of traditional maker activities—home economics, shop, chemistry labs—from the traditional school curriculum. “My grandfather was a house painter and my grandma was a milliner, so I sewed and made mosaics,” she says. “Those things have been pushed out of people’s lives. But the urge to create and design is universal, and it remains.”

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