Maker movement brings tinkering and technology to everyone

April 19, 2016

Gary StagerWhat is the maker movement and why is it important? These and other questions prompted Alberta teacher Nicole Lakusta to interview Gary Stager (pictured left), one of the world’s leading experts and advocates for computer programming, robotics and learning-by-doing in ­classrooms.

Nicole LakustaLakusta is vice-president of the Educational Technology Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. In early April the council hosted Stager and co-presenter Sylvia Libow Martinez, who delivered a pair of two-day workshops entitled Invent to Learn, which is based on a book they coauthored.

What is and isn’t a maker movement (coding, programming, makerspace)?
The maker movement is a social, artistic and technological revolution outside of school that is being embraced by educators for several reasons. Making is a recognition of a basic human desire to invent and create. New game-changing technologies in fabrication, physical computing and computer programming offer learners of all ages a new set of tools and materials with which they can solve their own problems, make things and express themselves.

The maker movement isn’t just about remarkable new tools and technologies. One exciting aspect of the movement is how it is reenergizing timeless craft traditions while traditional crafts and art projects can now be enhanced by digital technology. Computer programming brings inventions to life and gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Programming is a new liberal art.

Attend a “maker faire” and you will see children and adults delighting in each other’s company while making things ­together. Kids are at the centre of this movement because their competence, expertise, curiosity and talents are demonstrable. There are no prizes or judgment, just a shared commitment to testing hypotheses, being creative and sharing one’s ingenuity with a larger community that celebrates them.

Our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, as well as the other books we publish, help to create a bridge between the informal maker movement and sound classroom practice. We strive to share practical ideas, inspire experimentation and situate the maker movement in timeless theoretical educational contexts.

Why is the maker movement important?
With any luck, we are leaving behind a generation or more of helplessness and rampant consumerism. The maker movement embodies the spirit of DIY—do it yourself. Makers possess the confidence and competence to solve any problem they encounter, if only to discover that there is a lot more to learn. It blurs the artificial boundaries between subject areas and, with any luck, completely obliterates the destructive cleavage between what we have come to accept as vocational and academic education. When the same tools, processes and materials are found and required in the art studio, physics laboratory and auto shop, we can stop sorting kids into winners and losers.

This is not just an attempt to rescue kids who would normally be tracked into a vocational future. It is a wake-up call to students who have traditionally been academically successful. If they cannot write a computer program, make the part they need or build a working prototype, they will be at a serious disadvantage in the 21st century.

Making reawakens play and playfulness in schools, where it has been absent, and offers an opportunity to reintroduce the art of teaching to educators burdened for too long by having their job reduced to animal control and curriculum delivery. It represents an opportunity for children and adults to construct meaning together. Maker Faire calls itself “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth.” Perhaps it will hasten the return of show and tell to classrooms as well. We lost that somewhere along the way to crushing Finland in long division.

Whenever I lead family making workshops, parents quickly become advocates when they see what is possible through the eyes, hands and screens of their children.

How does the maker movement meet curricular needs?
Everyone knows that learning by doing is valuable, and learning by making concretizes learning experiences. Learning by making requires you to bend materials or the computer to your will to solve your problems. This allows you to meet and exceed the current curriculum. I showed teachers in Alberta how spending two days writing a computer program to draw any fractions as represented by parts of a circle. Not only do kids learn computer science, debugging skills and countless habits of mind, but they learn more about fractions in two days than they might during several years of instruction. Knowledge is a consequence of experience, and making allows students to be mathematicians rather than being taught math; historians, rather than being taught history.

Isn’t this just another trend? How can you prove that it’s not?
Trends are better than fads. Our book goes to great lengths to situate the maker movement in a historical and theoretical context. It’s the best of progressive education with better materials. I’ve had the great fortune to know some of the world’s leading thinkers, mathematicians and scientists. A common theme runs through their biographies. They were tinkerers as children and often well into adulthood.

The Next Generation Science Standards created by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. explicitly calls for the types of tinkering, invention and engineering found in making to be essential parts of every child’s education.

Oh yeah, the recent Bay Area (San Mateo, California) Maker Faire attracted 150,000 attendees; Rome, 120,000; New York City, 100,000-plus. You can decide whether that’s a trend or not.

MIT, arguably the world’s finest science, technology, engineering and math university, added a maker portfolio to its undergraduate admissions application form. Others are likely to follow. It is assumed that kids applying to MIT are good at math and science. They are likely to have good grades and high test scores, too. Making matters because it demonstrates a willingness and ability to solve problems, invent and create—without coercion, a grade, or being forced to do something by an adult. It demonstrates habits of mind including persistence, perspective, curiosity, ­resourcefulness, literacy and social capital.

What are the possible costs associated with setting up a makerspace?
Nearly everything we used during our Alberta Invent to Learn workshops cost less than $150. Most items were considerably cheaper. Making is about reusing, recycling, remixing and upcycling too. That old PC you have lying around can be brought back to life. A $5 to $35 Raspberry Pi computer can be connected to a TV, old monitor, mouse and keyboard for Scratch programming, running a Minecraft server, engaging in the frontiers of mathematics with Mathematica, serving as a home entertainment appliance and so much more.

It is a mistake for schools to think of making as being about a specialized room kids visit infrequently. The best makerspace is between your ears. Making needs to permeate the entire school all day long.

Animatronic creatures may be composed of recycled junk and a handful of electronics. Scientific feats relegated to the best research labs just a few years ago are now part of a child’s toy chest.

Is this playing a waste of time? How does it meet the needs of all learners (especially children with special needs)?
No! First of all, the ­research demonstrating the value of play is substantial and growing every day, but I am advocating for more than play. How can it possibly be bad for kids to have access to complexity, express themselves, create, invent, experiment, compose or build?

Making is a recognition that people learn differently and that most problems have multiple solutions. Providing a multitude of pathways to learning, via making, serves everyone. If progressive learner-centered ideas like making were in greater supply, we might not be consumed by the curious epidemic of learning disabilities and special needs. The best thing an educator or parent can do is to prepare children to solve problems the adults never anticipated.

An elementary teacher by training, Gary Stager has a PhD in science and mathematics education. He is also a journalist, teacher educator, consultant, professor, software developer, publisher and school administrator.