“Please step away from the computers, and go get some lunch.” This was the lighthearted request my fellow facilitators asked of students at the “maker camp” we recently led at the Model Schools Conference in Orlando. The group of middle and high school students was completing a series of innovation challenges that involved Arduino programming, computer-aided design (CAD), and 3-D printing, in order to solve a hypothetical problem a group of astronauts might encounter at a Mars space station. Needless to say, the students were quite engrossed in what they were doing!
Did these students realize their work involved learning the importance of making precise physical measurements, understanding how to read CAD drawings, applying mathematical specifications and tolerances, using logic to troubleshoot and refine computer code, and using new technologies to design and build what they needed to solve the challenges at hand? The bigger education question, however, is: Wouldn’t it be great if this same level of student engagement was common in a typical classroom and not just during a summer camp? The answer is, it can be.
One of the great things about running the camp at a gathering of educators from across the country is that it gave the conference attendees a bird’s eye view into the power of technology-enabled project-based learning. Table Top Inventing, the group coordinating the camp, had set up their workspace in the atrium between conference breakout rooms, so it was easy for anyone to simply stop between sessions and watch the students as they collaborated to solve their next challenge. Moreover, we were able to invite these educators to complete the first challenge we had given the students: 3-D print an object of their choice.
My role as a volunteer teacher with PBL and maker-space experience was to explain to the conference goers what the students were doing, to help them with the 3-D printing challenge, and most importantly, to help them see firsthand how they could employ similar approaches in their districts, schools, and classrooms. The three days I spent in this role gave me an important insight into the state of innovative teaching and learning practices as well as the use of technology in the classroom.
In a strictly informal, yet informed poll, I found that the overwhelming majority of educators I spoke with had direct or indirect knowledge of teachers using 3-D printing, coding, and other innovative technologies in their schools or districts. Most had never actually printed anything themselves (a problem we quickly solved!) and just under 40 percent indicated they had a clear understanding of how such technologies might be used in their classrooms. A rather discouraging statistic in my unscientific poll was that almost a third of the educators I spoke with indicated their schools had already bought or were in the process of buying 3-D printers, but they were not sure if or how students would use them. On the positive side, even the educators who were unsure of the final use clearly agreed with my point that providing an environment of real-world, student-centered inquiry was an essential prerequisite to maximizing the effectiveness of the technology to truly enhance student learning and growth.
With very few exceptions, the one-on-one conversations I had with these educators from across the country allowed me to leave the conference with a renewed sense of optimism. I met many kindred spirits who are seeing impressive results through the use of technology-enabled project-based learning and other student-centered best practices. More importantly, I met a substantial number of superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, and teachers who used this opportunity to eagerly discuss how they could take the bold steps needed to let go of outdated approaches that emphasize text and test-driven instruction in order to build a culture of student agency, innovation, and creative problem solving—one made more powerful with state-of-the-art technology.
The technologies on display in this maker camp are not silver bullets that will cure the problems we face in education; things like 3-D printers will become nothing more than expensive worksheets or paperweights without an intentional plan of how they will enhance an existing culture where students are already gaining knowledge by solving relevant and engaging problems and challenges. When used in an environment where students collaborate to solve interdisciplinary problems, and then demonstrate content mastery through authentic performance assessments, these technologies help catalyze the learning process and therefore increase students’ depth of knowledge. After all, why should they have to attend a summer camp to experience engaging activities that would cause them to want to skip lunch?