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STEAM and Maker Education: Inclusive, Engaging, Self-Differentiating

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The maker movement has the opportunity to transform education by inviting students to be something other than consumers of education. They can become makers and creators of their own educational lives, moving from being directed to do something to becoming self-directed and independent learners. Increasingly, they can take advantage of new tools for creative expression and for exploring the real world around them. They can be active participants in constructing a new kind of education for the 21st-century, which will promote the creativity and critical thinking we say we value in people like Steve Jobs. Learning by Making: American kids should be building rockets and robots, not taking standardized tests

When a kid builds a model rocket, or a kite, or a birdhouse, she not only picks up math, physics, and chemistry along the way, she also develops her creativity, resourcefulness, planning abilities, curiosity, and engagement with the world around her. But since these things can’t be measured on a standardized test, schools no longer focus on them. As our public educational institutions continue down this grim road, they’ll lose value as places of learning. That may seem like a shame, but to the members of the growing DIY schooling movement, it’s an irresistible opportunity to roll up their sleeves. School for Hackers: The do-it-yourself movement revives learning by doing.

For the past two weekends, I facilitated a three part/three day maker education workshop, From Puppets to Robots, at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.  It was a small group ranging from a pair of 7 year girl twins to a few 8th grade boys.  All of the parents and kids expressed extreme satisfaction – see the photos below for some evidence of their involvement.

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Some of the reasons I believe the maker workshops were successful include (list still in progress):

  1. Maker activities are multi-sensory, hands-on, and concrete.
  2. The learning activities were scaffolded.  Participants were provided with basic skills during initial activities which led to success in the following, more advanced activities.
  3. The participants were taught and given examples of the processes involved.
  4. The focus was on the process not the product – the how-to’s were demonstrated rather than the end product.
  5. Asking a lot of questions and asking for help were normalized.
  6. Failure was looked at as “just information.”
  7. Peer tutoring and explanations were encouraged.

I have always been a hands-on, experiential educator, but I made a few observations about STEAM and Maker Education during the workshops over the past few weekends.  Maker Education, as I observed, has the following characteristics:

  • Participation is driven by intrinsic motivation
  • Maker education lends itself to 100% engagement by 100% participants almost 100% of the time.
  • Maker education is self-differentiating.
  • Age levels and gender are blurred; does not affect participation, engagement, and interest.
  • Maker education activities are multidisciplinary and authentic.
  • Maker education reinforces and teaches resilience.

Participation is driven by intrinsic motivation.

Maker education participants (of all ages) are driven by intrinsic motivation.  Using one’s own creativity and talents, the opportunity for self expression, and creating a product of one’s own are inherently motivating.  Extrinsic motivators such bribing through grades, rewards, and/or praise are not needed to coax individuals into participation in maker, DIY, STEAM activities.

Maker education lends itself to 100% engagement by 100% participants almost 100% of the time.

Due to similar factors as described above, I observed that all of the young people were engaged most of the time.  With maker activities being centered on interest-driven learning, a flow state of participation often results.  “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does” ( Time blurs as participants engaged in creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.  Only a few times did any of the kids ask about the time, and this occurred towards the end of three hour sessions.

Maker education is self-differentiating.

The nature of the maker workshop activities permitted the participants to differentiate the activities for themselves.  Some of the kids picked up the processes being demonstrated as well as had visions about what they wanted to create faster than some of the other kids.  They were given the materials, permission, and encouragement to move forward independently.  Other kids needed a little bit more instruction and scaffolding.  The two facilitators then could provide them with the extra instruction.  Peer assistance and instruction also came naturally in this exploratory environment of experimentation, testing, revising, producing.

Age levels and gender are blurred.  Age and gender does not affect participation, engagement, and interest.

The traditional education model is to group kids by manufacture date, in other words in their cohort groups by age and date of birth.  As stated above, the maker workshop I facilitated over the past few weekends was open to kids from age 7 to 13.  The group ended up with 7 year old twin girls and a few 13 year old boys with a mix of ages and genders in the middle. Interestingly, the kids, themselves, made no comments about this diverse group.  It didn’t seem to phase them at all.

Because the nature of maker workshop activities being self-differentiating, the age and gender did not make a difference.  All ages and both genders were able to complete the tasks presented to them.  Because there were no expectations regarding the quality or types products, they all were successful in producing some form of the projects.  In fact, the younger girls came up with some robot construction strategies that were “copied” and co-opted by some of the older boys.

The benefits of diverse groups in maker education (and other educational settings, too) cannot be understated.  Diversity of groups often leads to broader perspectives, deeper problem solving, and richer products.  Diversity is enhanced through multi-age, mixed gender groups.  As David Kelley, founder of IDEO consultants and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, notes, “Diversity is the number one thing that correlates to better innovation” (

Maker education activities are multidisciplinary and authentic.

Maker education activities make for a beautiful integration of STEAM.  For example, while the kids participated in the From Puppets to Robots, I noted the following disciplines being addressed:

  • Science:  Participants explored physics through movement, fulcrums, weight loads, light.
  • Technology:  Participants deepened their understanding of robotics through online simulations related to what they were building in real life.
  • Engineering: Several of the workshop projects required the participants to use engineering skills – building a robotic arm that could pick up objects, building a 3D self-standing robot prototype.
  • Arts:  Visual arts were used as participants created their shadow puppets and storyboarded their shadow puppets shoes; as they drew out their 2D robot prototypes and then built their robot prototypes.  Language arts became important when the participants wrote their shadow puppet stories and when they were continually asked to orally describe their projects to the rest of the group.
  • Mathematics:  Math concepts were needed to measure, cut, and build all of their prototypes.

Maker education reinforces and teaches resilience.

I wrote about resilience in Resilience: The Other 21st Century Skills. . .

Resiliency is not one specific thing, but a combination of skills and positive attributes that people gain from their life experiences and relationships. These attributes help them solve problems, cope with challenges and bounce back from disappointments. Personal resiliency is about our assets – the resources, attributes and skills that help us recover from negative events or feelings, cope with challenges and adversity, and look after ourselves when things aren’t going well. (Kids Can Cope: Parenting at Home and at School)

I realized the power of maker education to build resilience during one of the workshop sessions.  Eight year-old Dylan was building his robot prototype.  He constructed the robot’s leg and selected a heavy can for the body.  The legs couldn’t hold up the heavy body.  Dylan became teary-eyed insisting that this what he wanted.  Both his mother and I stressed that part of prototyping is using failure as information about what is possible/not possible, what needs to change.  We assisted him in choosing new materials for the robot body.  He ended up building a robot prototype that worked!  His mother told me “on the side” that Dylan has difficulty dealing with frustration when things don’t work out as he planned.  Hopefully, that day he received a small lesson on tenacity and resilience.

Obviously, I am a strong advocate of Maker Education.  For me, it is a natural way of teaching and learning.  I understand that this is a different model, way of thinking for many educators.  It is a risk to make changes in the classroom, but I believe that educators want what’s best for their students.  I “preach” to my pre- and in-service teachers to try one small change.  In this case, I would ask, “What are you already doing well in your classroom that could be further enhanced with some maker activities?” and then reinforce, “Just try it.  What is the worse thing that could happen? It fails and you move on.  What is the best thing that could happen? It adds to the students’ learning experience resulting in increased engagement and deeper understanding of the concepts.”

Resources to Learn More About Maker Education:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 23, 2013 at 11:48 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Right on, Jackie. I especially like thinking of mistakes as ‘just information.’
    Due to the small size of our school (25 kids in grades K-8), we work much like the workshop you described. No one is at all bothered by the age differences. It often means that it broadens the richness of certain experiences. It certainly provides a wide range of possibilities and opportunities.
    If only schools would listen.

  2. Jackie, I would like to bring the local hacker community in Las Vegas together with the local school district to work towards something similar. Can you provide some guidance as to how you facilitated this wonderful event? Any time and info will be greatly appreciated :-).

    Cynthia Clark

    August 1, 2013 at 4:55 pm

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