School & District Management

Researchers Probe Equity, Design Principles in Maker Ed.

By Benjamin Herold — April 19, 2016 7 min read
Abdullah Haseeb, 4, works with “circuit blocks” last year in the MakeShop at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. The blocks are the result of a collaboration between a local teacher, a resident artist, and a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Few trends in K-12 ed tech are as hot—or as underresearched—as “maker” education.

The term generally refers to using a wide variety of hands-on activities (such as building, computer programming, and even sewing) to support academic learning and the development of a mindset that values playfulness and experimentation, growth and iteration, and collaboration and community.

Typically, “making” involves attempting to solve a particular problem, creating a physical or digital artifact, and sharing that product with a larger audience. Often, such work is guided by the notion that process is more important than results.

The maker movement has its roots outside of school, in institutions such as science museums and in the informal activities that everyday people have taken part in for generations. It began exploding about a decade ago, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic audience of Make magazine and the popularity of public events such as maker fairs (the best-known of which was hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House in 2014). The rise of cheap digital tools, including microcontroller platforms such as Arduino and rapid-prototyping tools such as 3-D printers, has in recent years lent the movement a decidedly techie flavor.

Efforts to bring making and “maker spaces” into K-12 schools are still “nascent,” said Erica Halverson, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leading researcher into maker education.

But that’s changing fast.

“I’ve seen a range of models, from putting a maker space into the school, to importing maker practices into classrooms, to working with an external maker space to build connections between what happens in the classroom and in spaces outside of school,” Halverson said in an interview.

While exciting, that trend has begotten a number of questions and tensions, many of which are just now beginning to be explored by researchers. Following is a roundup of some recent books, essays, and research studies exploring maker education in K-12. The list is drawn in part from work presented this month at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, held here.

Making Publics: The Iterative Design of High School Makerspaces

Amy Stornaiuolo and Phil Nichols, University of Pennsylvania, paper presented at AERA, 2016

A relative handful of new or redesigned high schools around the country are organizing themselves around the maker approach, including the pseudonymous Collaborative Design School that served as the case study for this paper.

Attempting to integrate “making” practices and philosophies into K-12 schools in struggling urban districts can lead to big challenges, the authors found.

One of the biggest: Trying to convince low-income students of color (too often labeled as failures) and district administrators (too often obsessed with labeling schools as failures) that failure can in fact be a valuable way to learn.

The case-study school’s “emphasis on trial and error, experimentation, and productive failure sat in uneasy alignment to the school’s competency-based curriculum and assessment practices,” the authors write. “Many of the students expressed trepidation or anxiety about how their participation in the [maker space] ‘counted,’ and some expressed reluctance to change material they had worked hard to complete.”

To counteract this dynamic, the school (and researchers, who worked as participant-observers) attempted to engage the students with multiple audiences, through presentations, conferences, research projects, and the like.

They found that it can work “for some students, in some ways, at some times.”

Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power: Toward Transformative Visions for Educational Equity

Shirin Vossoughi, Northwestern University, and Paula Hooper and Meg Escudé, Exploratorium, forthcoming in the Summer 2016 issue of the Harvard Educational Review

This essay critiques prevalent notions of maker education as too focused on white middle-class males and their interests.

As a result of that focus, the authors contend, the “histories, needs, assets, and experiences of working-class students and students of color” are too often ignored and devalued in maker education, and efforts around equity are often focused on bringing such students into unfamiliar or unwelcoming spaces, rather than changing the spaces themselves.

What can be done?

First, the authors say, those involved in maker education need to be willing to tackle educational injustices, such as ensuring that making is not limited to well-resourced schools. Second, the notion of what constitutes legitimate maker activities needs to be broadened to include community-based practices from multiple cultures (think more sewing and crafting, in addition to computer science and robotics). And third, maker education needs to include a heavy focus on effective pedagogy, including a willingness to avoid fetishizing “self-directed learning” and instead focus on ensuring that teachers in maker spaces know how to support all students.

The Maker Movement in Education

Erica R. Halverson, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Kimberly M. Sheridan, George Mason University, Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2014

This oft-cited essay offers a context for analyzing and understanding the maker movement, focusing on the distinctions between making (activities), maker spaces (communities of practice, usually centered around a physical space), and makers (a personal identity).

In addition to offering a concise history of the maker movement, its roots, and concerns and questions that have arisen around it, Halverson and Sheridan discuss the tensions associated with bringing maker concepts and activities into schools.

“Bringing the maker movement into the education conversation has the potential to transform how we understand ‘what counts’ as learning, as a learner, and as a learning environment,” they write.

At the same time, however, “perhaps the greatest challenge to embracing the maker movement in K-12 schools ... is the need to standardize [and] define ‘what works’ for learning.”

The Promise of the Maker Movement for Education

Lee Martin, University of California-Davis, Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 2015

Three elements of the movement are key to turning making into a good learning experience, Martin writes: affordable digital tools that can provide young people with new ways to interact with physical materials; a community infrastructure (in the form of meetings, events, and online social networking) that cultivates the sharing of ideas and examples; and a “maker mindset” that encourages students to “believe they can learn to do anything.”

When maker education is happening right, Martin contends, it can help students develop not just content-area expertise, but also interest in learning and an identity as a learner. As yet, though, “empirical evidence specifically about making is limited,” Martin acknowledges.

Sewing Electronics in Science Class: Improving Student Interest in Science

Jiangyue Gu, Colby Tofel-Grehl, Deborah A. Fields, Chongning Sun, and Cathy Maahs-Fladung, Utah State University, paper presented at AERA, 2016

The researchers behind this study employed a quasi-experimental design in which 8th graders in a rural middle school were assigned to one of two science-class units on circuitry. Both of the units were taught by the same teacher, but one was taught using traditional methods and materials, and the other was taught using e-textiles (that incorporate conductive fibers directly into the material being used).

The researchers found that academic performance between the groups was the same, but the students who took part in the e-textiles unit (which involved sewing and hands-on making activities focused around projects the students got to choose themselves) showed increased interest in science and reported receiving more encouragement to pursue science from their friends, families, and teachers.

Those changed attitudes can be particularly important in helping middle schoolers from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM pursue related academic programs, the authors believe.

Resourceful and Inclusive: Towards Design Principles for Makerspaces

Kimberly M. Sheridan, Abigail W. Konopasky, Asia Williams, and Grace J.J. Wingo, George Mason University, paper presented at AERA, 2016

Key to making an effective maker space that works for all students, the authors write, is encouraging “resourcefulness,” or the ability of participants to draw not just on their own internal skills and experiences, but the assets of other people and their surrounding communities.

Through case studies at two very different maker spaces (one a community-based site in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit, the other a digital game-design program run in partnership with their university), the authors identify three design strategies they believe can make this possible:

  • Asset mapping and building communities of practice to identify potential resources;
  • Building “studio environments” that mix demonstration lectures, individual work time, and critiques and exhibitions; and
  • Allowing youths to shift among different roles.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Needs for ‘Resourcefulness,’ Equity Probed in Maker Ed.


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