An Inside Look at an Award-Winning Maker Program

Edutopia

Making turned New Jersey middle school students into teachers for a weekend—and sent some of them to the White House.

School ended in June 2016 with a crescendo of activity we had worked all year to orchestrate, bringing bigger accomplishments than we’d dreamed of. Our year-end adventure began in Washington, D.C., where my students’ work with design earned us an invitation to the White House for the kickoff of the 2016 National Week of Making. As one of two representatives from New Jersey, I represented not only my students but effectively all K-12 educators in the state for whom making is a way of teaching and learning. Though making is not new—creative individuals in communities and schools everywhere have been doing this work for years—its increasingly high profile certainly is. Making matters. And design thinking matters to makers.

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Students work in the author’s digital shop class.

At the beginning of the National Week of Making, I set up our exhibit at the National Maker Faire. Eleven students, including four who had just graduated eighth grade, would spend the weekend explaining how design thinking drove our program’s work and their learning. Kids used student-built prototypes to explain how they employed design thinking to solve problems and make the world a better place.

We set up stations where Faire attendees got to experience prototyping for themselves, tackling design challenges based on the Extraordinaires Design Studio and expertly explained by our kids. The kids’ efforts garnered not one but two awards: Best in Class and Editor’s Choice.

The next day, three teams of seventh-grade students traveled to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to present their ideas for making hospitals less scary for child patients.

A group of nearly 70 people, including relatives, friends, hospital professionals, fellow educators, and members of the press, watched the student teams present their ideas and recommendations. It was a very good day. And it was just the beginning, as these students would work with JeffDESIGN over the summer to learn valuable lessons about what it takes to get an idea from concept to production in the real world.

In the span of four days, our kids met and conversed with hundreds of people about their accomplishments as designers, experiencing a level of personal and professional validation that many adults rarely get to enjoy. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic year.

So how is our program growing, changing, and adapting this year?

Initiative One: The EPICS Curriculum and Processes

We have adopted the free and fabulous EPICS—Engineering Projects In Community Service—as the heart and soul of our program this year. I attended a summer training at Purdue University; it was exhaustive and a great investment. EPICS is all about documenting design thinking processes. To that end, they have assembled a massive library of resources, including fully editable and customizable documents teachers can use to plan projects.

I love that the EPICS framework is just that—a framework. It provides a flexible structure I can modify as necessary to suit our processes and needs. As of this writing, we are still deep in that customization process; I expect that it will take most of this year to finalize. When we are done, we’ll have a powerful, document-driven, human-centered methodology to guide our work in design.

Initiative Two: Bringing the Outside In

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Students use the laser engraver.

Last year, students connected with professional designer Meghan Holliday, who spoke about her life and work as a designer. This year, we’ve got Andrew Coy, senior advisor for making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sharing why making is critical in schools today; Alixandra Klein, a Vermont-based entrepreneur who makes jewelry using a laser cutter and upcycled materials, talking about the importance of art and creativity; and Dr. Jorge Valdes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office(and also a high school science teacher here in New Jersey) discussing intellectual property, patents, and the inventor’s mindset. And all of this is just for Design Experience One.

Initiative Three: Changes to the Instructional Environment

We were fortunate to acquire an Epilog laser engraver last summer. It has quickly proven to be a game-changer for our program, capturing imaginations and literally igniting creativity like no other tool previously. Our new “soft seating” area includes a SMART Board 6000 interactive display, an Ikea coffee table (donated), an Xbox 360 (also donated), and a leather couch I found for sale on Facebook for $75. The combination of these items has made a terrific small group instructional area, while providing kids who have lunch in my room a chance to enjoy some gaming.

Final Thoughts

The new school year has gotten off to a good start. We’re creating an entirely new understanding of design thinking in Digital Shop, an amalgam of our shared past experiences and the practices of some of the world’s best design thinking practitioners. It’s ridiculously hard work, alternatively frustrating and exhilarating, but totally worth it.

Cardboard Creators: Reusing to Learn

EdWeek

October 25, 2016
Article Tools
Switching from high school science to middle and high school gifted students has reawakened that sometimes uncomfortable sense of discovery of new teaching, where so much seems imperfect … I’m working with the mantra of imperfection.

That’s a good mantra for my students as well. Some students have never swung a hammer, threaded a needle, or made a model that was not outlined on card stock. Common day experiences have been digitized in our world, and access to extra materials is extremely limited for others. My solution: create a makerspace in my classroom and offer design challenges students can do with little more than string, glue, and cardboard. Cardboard, my makerspace material of choice, is available in every home in America.

From mac and cheese boxes to a shoebox, cardboard is a material that puts students on a level playing field. It’s free. Students can cut thin stuff with scissors or score corrugated material with a pair of safety scissors, and tape is cheap enough that I can send a partial roll home with a student who needs it. Kids in families who cannot afford clay or craft kits or have little money for additional classroom supplies can still imagine something using materials that belong to them. That equals the playing field among students who ‘have not’ with students who ‘have’ adequate resources.

Sure, many educators say, but this is learning time. How can cardboard be transformed into learning strategies benefiting students across disciplines? Here are four sample cardboard projects to get started.

1. Three-dimensional thinking by building artifacts. While it may seem unusual to us as educators, take the time to ask students how many have been in a barn, gone to a zoo, camped in a tent, or taken care of an animal. So many readings describe experiences for which students have no background knowledge. For example, Finding Winnie, the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal, is filled with unfamiliar venues. It took the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, over a year of research to visit all the places referenced in the book. My youngest middle school students are trying to build a single item model for just one scene in the book, ranging from an ocean liner to a tree to an antique car.

2. Imagining a Character. Middle school students love the idea of cosplay. Designing cardboard armor to imagine a warrior or superhero in a story is a simple way to use materials to portray their vision. The prompt can be as simple as, “Design a character to defend the castle.” It’s powerful to have the ability to create even an imperfect vision, instead of a project executed primarily by an overly helpful parent. Student processes are best remembered when the mistake or chance for failure becomes the driver for the learning.

3. Design thinking prototypes. The goal of design thinking is to solve a problem using a process of listening and developing empathy. Students struggle with this because they often design for themselves, rather than for a specific audience. After reading spooky stories that tie into both the Halloween season and the idea of justice, my students still struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. How America is dealing with the idea of ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an example of a difficult idea. We used design thinking as the introduction to a conversation on empathy. Before the extended conversations at the end of the unit, I wanted to know if students could listen carefully. For one assignment, I asked them to set up a display prototype that combined scary elements from the stories and a building to contain a prisoner. While the artist of the classroom created a skeleton playing a trumpet by using scissors, this student didn’t follow directions, and his client (the teacher) was unsatisfied with the result. In contrast, the winner of the challenge created two ghosts out of cardboard shoulder pads and a turret out of thin cardboard, creating a powerful classroom lesson about utility versus perfection as well as listening.

4. Modeling. How does osmosis take place? What caused the creation of the universe? These are powerful questions, deep questions, and ones for which a teacher might not have the answer; however, they are just the type of questions my gifted students might ask. I pair students with an outside mentor via Skype or Google Hangouts by using the power of social media to find willing experts. To help students process difficult ideas, the Next Generation Science Standards recommend models as tools. Students often don’t think about making their own models unless teachers expose them to the idea as a strategy. Cardboard models are one way to go deeper in visible thinking and to augment visual notetaking. As described in Harvard’s Project Zero, initiatives like Agency by Design requires students to look closely at what they are doing to help discover complex ideas. When the students push back, I remind them of James Watson and Francis Crick, and how the cardboard models they created led to an understanding of DNA.

Tips on Creating a Cardboard Makerspace

  • Collect one or two plastic tubs of materials for your classroom.
    • In the first tub, start saving oddly-formed shapes of cardboard packaging from the IT department, or even toilet paper rolls. Corrugated cardboard is especially hard for younger students to cut. Resist the temptation to put full boxes in the box, or students will simply use them without modification (something I learned in this challenge).
    • In the second tub, place tape, string, and remnants of duct tape. I simply placed a box at my local church and asked for donations of half-used tape, white glue, and crochet thread.
  • Find donated materials. Reach out to close friends on Facebook, or check with a hardware store or custodian for unwanted materials.
  • Get a grant or donation from a big box store, or organize a campaign onDonorsChoose.
  • Build rubrics so students have a framework of expectations, but be willing to revise them as needed. The first creations may not be as rich as you expect, but this provides opportunities for further learning.

Building creations and making cardboard artists will also build memories in the journey of learning. Along the way, new skills and collaboration will help us become better learners.

Wood Shop Enters the Age of High-Tech

The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZFEB. 5, 2016

Rutgers

The maker space at the Rutgers Livingston campus offers a clubhouse ambience and high-tech tools. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

You remember wood shop. You made that swan-shaped planter your parents pretended to like. And then you moved on.

These days, tinkering is a bit more high tech. The blending of technology and craft in tools like 3-D printers and laser cutters has made it possible for ordinary people to make extraordinary things. And many ordinary people, living as they do, more and more in their heads and online, are yearning to do something with their hands.

So the “maker space” movement — D.I.Y. communities to get people creating, be it for fun, for art or for entrepreneurship — is booming. Maker Faires are held around the world. Commercial operations like TechShop have popped up across the country. And tinkering is being promoted on college campuses from M.I.T. to Santa Clara University, as well as in high schools and elementary schools.

There’s even a massive open online course, offered by the MOOC provider Coursera and taught by three scientists from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, called “Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning.”

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A computer-controlled drumstick was made with a 3-D plastic printer and laser cutter, right (that’s a student artwork on the cutter). Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
Yes, tinkering is now a pedagogy.

Taking things apart and putting them together — skills children used to absorb in Dad’s or Mom’s workshop — has an important role to play in learning, according to Karen Cator, the chief executive of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization created by Congress that focuses on the use of technology to improve education. “You’re exploring creativity, you’re exploring design thinking, you’re developing a sense of persistence,” she said. Building something new requires planning, trying and, yes, failing, and then trying again.

“These are incredibly important mind-sets for today’s world,” she said.

Ms. Cator, who served in the Department of Education during the first Obama term, talked excitedly about students who have designed child prostheses. “That’s what they’re going to remember their entire life,” she said. “They aren’t going to remember sitting in an electronics lecture.”

At Rutgers, a bustling maker space can be found in a moldering wood-frame structure on the Livingston campus in Piscataway, N.J. The building once served as the command headquarters for Camp Kilmer, a transportation hub for soldiers mobilizing for World War II; today, the building, still called Headquarters, houses computer repair offices and the division of continuing studies. And upstairs, there are wonders.

On any given day, as many as 20 students could be working on the array of equipment that the center offers training on and time to use, said Stephen M. Carter, who directs the university’s Center for Innovation Education and co-founded the New Jersey Makerspace Association in 2012. Students might be working on a class project, doing “something entrepreneurial” or making Halloween costumes, he said. “We support all of it.”

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A 3-D plastic printer, top left, used to make various objects, including a robot with a motion-sensor heart. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
There are 3-D printers, which can be programmed to create wildly inventive shapes out of plastic or resin (like a decent copy of the Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones” or a bust of Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy”). There is a laser cutter to etch materials like fabric, marble or wood and cut through plastic. Next door is an electronics shop, with racks upon racks of parts. Close by are drill presses, a router and a key cutter, which Mr. Carter refers to as “our gateway drug,” a piece of equipment neophytes can use to produce something they really need. A common space with couches and a television gives students a place to talk, show off their projects or just hang out.

 

Mr. Carter cobbled it all together “by hook and crook and grants and saving.”

Students love it. Alexandra Garey, who graduated from Rutgers in May, credits tinkering with changing the course of her studies, and life: “I went from somebody who was majoring in Italian and European studies to someone who was designing and prototyping products and realizing any product that came into my head.”

October of senior year, she wandered into the maker space because she’d heard “you can make cool products” and was interested in exploring entrepreneurship and learning some business skills. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she admitted. But the students who used the place, mostly in science and engineering disciplines, were accommodating and patient, and soon she was on her way.

A month in, she got a call from a friend who wanted help coming up with a tool for children on the autism spectrum — a grip for a pencil or crayon that could be fitted with an extension so the teacher could guide the hand of students who dislike being touched. By January, Ms. Garey had designed and fabricated a piece through 3-D printing and it was being tested in New Jersey classrooms; she later modified the design for stroke victims and people with brain injuries. Now she is working on making French presses and coffee mugs out of Illy cans.

Then there’s Jason Baerg, an M.F.A. student from Canada, who paints in acrylics on paper or wood, and uses the laser cutter to etch the paintings and cut out shapes that he arranges into assemblages. “It allows me to bounce between abstract and figurative spaces in production and presentation,” he said. “I’m liberated.”

He appreciates that this is not a sterile engineering environment. The setting’s funkiness makes it “probably the perfect place to do this work,” he said, “like an exploratory safe space for you to go and try out your ideas.”

That kind of enthusiasm tells Mr. Carter he is on the right track. “U.S. schools are very good at finding the brain-smart people,” he said. “They are also very good at finding the best athletes.” But they are not so good at finding and nurturing people who, he said, describing himself, think with their fingers. The next Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, he said, are more likely to emerge from a maker space than a garage. Besides, he said, “it keeps kids off the street.”

How One School Integrated Global Citizenship into Maker Education

How One School Integrated Global Citizenship into Maker Education

​My classroom was alive with activity and a palpable sense of purpose as I maneuvered around the scattered knots of students, 10 in all, to get a closer look at their design journal entries. Group discussions, the random clatter of keyboard taps and mouse clicks, and the mechanical beeping and whirring of the 3D printer created a surprising harmony as my seventh-graders put the finishing touches on their latest creation — a prototype of a portable electric lamp.

“Oh no, stop the print!” a student cried out suddenly. “We need to re-measure the handle to make sure Anielka can hold it comfortably. Her hands are kind of small.”
This was the third week of STEAM, a new semester-long elective course offered at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School, a PreK–8 school of 450 students, nestled in the hill country surrounding Austin, Texas. STEAM class — which integrates art with the traditional science, technology, engineering, and math emphasis — takes an inquiry-based learning approach with a focus on design thinking, engineering, and computer science.
In this case, we were in the middle of a collaborative project with eight elementary-age students from NicaPhoto, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering children who live in one of the poorest barrios in Nicaragua.
In this semester-long Global Inventors/3D printing course, students from St. Gabriel’s and NicaPhoto joined forces to co-create a workable solution to a real-world problem: how to safely provide electric light for the Nicaraguan students, including Anielka, who lived in an area without a reliable power grid.
When I heard my student call out to her classmates, I was reminded that this process of persisting, problem solving, and creating something meaningful is the very essence of constructionism, a decades-old philosophy visible in its latest incarnation — the maker movement.

Creating a Nation of Makers

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences released a report calling for sweeping improvements in K–12 STEM education. But even earlier, an eclectic assortment of tinkerers and hobbyists was already quietly changing the world. This motley group drew upon a variety of influences, including the DIY counterculture aesthetics of the Whole Earth Catalog and the whimsical mix of artistry and computing exhibited by MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. The group also capitalized on the open exchange of ideas during the meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in the late 1970s. Club members included the eventual founders of Apple and Microsoft.
Then, 10 years ago, Maker Media, Inc., increased both the credibility and visibility of this growing subculture by hosting Maker Faires around the world. At this point, the movement captured the attention of mainstream educational institutions.

Developing Dispositions

The efficacy of the maker phenomenon rests in the fact that it is not really a new idea at all. Rather, it’s the expression of an educational philosophy that goes back many decades to Seymour Papert, the father of the maker movement. Not only did he predict the benefits of one-to-one student computing in the early 1970s, but he also developed the notion of constructionism. In his works, including the seminal Mindstorms, Papert suggests that deep learning occurs through the process of creating an artifact, be it a computer program, a sonnet, or a robot.
When offered the opportunity to create something personally relevant and meaningful, students willingly and enthusiastically embark on the iterative design process, overcome challenges, and collaborate with others as they seek to learn more skills to help with future endeavors. The proof for this is visible not only at Maker Faires but increasingly in school makerspaces around the world. However, implementing a program that harnesses the compelling nature of making in support of a formal curriculum can still be daunting.

Establishing a Global Partnership

In the summer of 2014, I was brought aboard at St. Gabriel’s to develop a program that would both integrate STEM learning across the curriculum and use the new makerspace, which was still under construction. While I was researching various approaches to this, I was about to have the STEAM elective class — Global Inventors/3D printing — field test concepts before the makerspace opened. A chief goal was to provide students with authentic learning experiences that would incorporate the tools, skills, and dispositions necessary to be successful in an increasingly complex and connected world.
Although the school had access to a 3D printer, at that time it was not widely used, and it caught the interest of my class. Through the local Austin Maker Ed community, I learned about the educational services company Level Up Village (LUV) that connects U.S. schools to a global network of partnering organizations to provide real-world, collaborative projects. After speaking with a LUV representative, I selected the Inventors Course because its curriculum provided students with skill-building opportunities in engineering, 3D design, and fabrication. It was also open-ended enough for me to tailor for the STEAM class.
My students were motivated by a desire that went beyond using a 3D printer. They wanted to help their eight Nicaraguan partners, who because they lacked reliable electricity were forced to study, read, and play by potentially dangerous oil-fueled lamps. During the course of a semester, St. Gabriel’s and NicaPhoto students were equal partners in the mission to design a working solution to this problem. Over time, the students from both schools also developed a deeper understanding of the lives and circumstances of their distant partners.
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Students assemble the final iteration of a lantern. Credit: Patrick Benfield

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The final lantern model. Credit: Patrick Benfield

Through regular video exchanges, Skype sessions, and cloud-based file sharing, they worked their way through the iterative design process together, overcame failures, refined ideas, and eventually engineered working solar-powered lamps in a 3D-printed enclosure. Although the basic components of each lamp were identical (a single rechargeable battery, a solar cell, and an LED), the designers’ creativity and the end users’ needs were apparent in each unit. During this semester-long course, my students were delighted to discover that what they were learning in their math, science, social studies, and Spanish classes had real-world, practical applications.
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My students Skyping with NicaPhoto students. Credit: Patrick Benfield

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NicaPhoto students during a Skype session. Credit: Patrick Benfield

Moving from STEM to STEAM

Meanwhile, my experiences during this period at St. Gabriel’s, including during the STEAM course, were influencing the trajectory of the maker program I was developing. Seeing my seventh-graders initially struggle with “non-Googleable” questions and then over time grow into confident, purpose-driven thinkers confirmed, for me, the efficacy of making in school.
However, I did not want these gains to be confined solely to an elective class. Other local approaches for STEM education tended to limit student access to tools and concepts, including programming, fabrication, and robotics, by offering them only through electives or in after-school clubs. Similarly, younger students typically made infrequent visits to a computer lab with little practical application within their own classrooms, much less their personal lives.
With this in mind, my goal was to combine the analytical nature of STEM topics with the more personal, creative aesthetics inherent in making. By explicitly integrating the arts into learning and adopting a STEAM approach, the program could help our youngest students develop important cognitive competencies.
For instance, when creating a work in any artistic discipline, an innate part of the process involves considering how parts of a system work together to form a whole, working within time or material constraints, and determining the best path for a problem with multiple solutions. In addition, to honor the mission-driven nature of the school, our maker program would incorporate a design-thinking model, rooted in empathy, to support our burgeoning student inventors’ desire to serve those outside the community.

Implementing STEAM by Design

The creation and eventual full implementation of this STEAM by Design program is just one piece of a profound systemic transformation that St. Gabriel’s is undergoing. The school is doing great things this year: integrating social-emotional learning, redesigning the schedule to support teacher collaboration, and hiring additional personnel to assist with technology integration. As of this writing, we have also completed a major expansion of the campus, including the d.lab for Making. The lab is quickly becoming a favorite space for students.
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A busy day in the new d.lab for Making. Credit: Patrick Benfield
I’m working closely with teachers from grades K–8 to introduce them to the key tenets and best practices of making, and designing curriculum opportunities that promote STEAM experiences, not just in this makerspace, but in every classroom as well.

Making a Difference

As educational paradigms keep shifting, the quest to find the precise combination of cognitive and soft skills leading to successful student outcomes will continue as well. While it does, makers around the world, in workshops and in schools, will keep innovating and honing skills to create something meaningful. I’m certain that for my seventh-grade students, this first experience with making was about more than just a grade; they were designing with their new NicaPhoto friends in mind. This wasn’t just project-based learning. It was people-based, and that made all the difference.

16-0215-PatrickBenfield-sm.pngPatrick Benfield is the STEAM director for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School (Texas) and the creator of its maker education program, STEAM by Design. When he’s not working with students, he spends his time as a professional musician, tinkering with a vintage Hammond B3 organ, and learning how to program interactive fiction computer games.