The impulse to create is one of the most basic human drives. As far back as
the Stone Age, we were using materials in our environment to fashion tools for
solving the problems we encountered. And in the millions of years since then, we
have never stopped creating. In fact, the rise of civilization is largely
defined by the progress of technology of one kind or another.
Today, the availability of affordable constructive technology and the ability
to share online has fueled the latest evolutionary spurt in this facet of human
development. New tools that enable hands-on learning — 3D printers, robotics,
microprocessors, artificial, virtual and augmented reality, e-textiles, “smart” materials and new
programming languages — are giving individuals the power to invent. We’re not
just talking about adults. Children of all ages can use these tools to move from
passive receivers of knowledge to real-world makers. This has the potential to
completely revolutionize education as we know it. And the movement has
Welcome to the maker movement
The key to the explosion of the maker movement is accessibility. Today, ingenious new inventions are affordable and often free. Anyone can find and
share tools, instructions and ideas online, where a vibrant community of
hundreds of thousands of global problem solvers congregates — when they’re not
collaborating face to face.
In 2006, 22,000 people attended Maker
Faires around the world, according to Make magazine. In 2017, global attendance reached 1.6 million. You can now find makerspaces in school and city libraries around the world, as well classrooms, civic buildings and city parks.
In this magical environment full of fire-breathing sculptures; cupcake cars;
bicycle-powered rock bands; soda and Mentos–propelled fountains; and workshops
in programming, soldering, welding, lock-picking, knitting, crocheting and robot
making, it is expertise — rather than the age of the expert — that is the coin
of the realm. Makers are constructing knowledge as they build physical artifacts
that have real-world value.
Making in the classroom
Fortunately for educators, making overlaps with the natural inclination of
children to learn by doing. The maker movement values human passion, capability
and the ability to make things happen and solve problems anywhere, anytime.
Classrooms that celebrate the process of design and making, which includes
overcoming challenges, produce students who start to believe they can solve any
problem. Students learn to trust themselves as competent problem solvers who
don’t need to be told what to do next. This stance can be a crucial change for
children who are used to getting explicit directions every minute of every day.
It can also illuminate for teachers how authentic assessment can really work in
The learning-by-doing approach also has precedents in education:
project-based learning, Jean Piaget’s constructivism
and Seymour Papert’s constructionism.
These theories explain the remarkable accomplishments of young makers and remind
educators that every classroom needs to be a place where, as Piaget taught,
“knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
Constructionism. Papert’s theory of learning
provides the theoretical basis for making, which is a stance toward learning
that is predicated on the active construction of a shareable artifact. Making
asks teachers to create settings where students are, for example, mathematicians
rather than passive receivers of math instruction.
Papert also introduced the metaphor of “computer as material,” part of a
continuum of materials used to make tangible artifacts and ideas. This continuum
spans everything from common arts-and-craft supplies to cutting-edge technology.
Indeed, teachers in our Invent
to Learn workshops often begin the day working with cardboard construction
to house microcontrollers they’ll program later in the day.
Project-based learning. Some of the time-honored
practices that were common in classrooms a generation ago — art, music, drama,
woodshop, sewing, cooking, playing with and using real tools and craft materials
— need to return to the daily experience of children trapped in schools with no
time for anything but test prep. For too long, schools have undervalued learning
with one’s hands. Schools must stop sorting kids into academic or vocational
tracks because such distinctions no longer make sense. Many of the same
technologies, process skills and conceptual understandings are found in the
physics lab, art studio
and auto shop.
The key to making is using authentic tools to create meaningful projects. It
is a natural fit for the STEM subjects or the arts, but historical research,
producing documentaries and writing for an audience are also forms of making.
Computers are not required, but they supercharge project development by
expanding the breadth, depth and sophistication of what’s possible.
For the first time, students can use their own powerful ideas to create real
things, not just make-believe models. Kids can solve real problems with their
own inventions. And we can focus technology instruction on providing authentic
interdisciplinary experiences rather than isolated tech skills.
Our book, Invent
to Learn — Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, identifies
three technological game changers that are transforming learning and everyday
life in the digital age. These tools allow students to solve real-world problems
and should be on every educator’s radar.
Personal fabrication. Until recently, the only
things you could make with a computer resided on the screen or paper. Today,
additive (3D printers) and subtractive (laser cutters, vinyl cutters,
computer-controlled mills and lathes) technologies allow users to design an
object on the computer and “print” it out in a variety of materials. Websites
such as thingiverse.com are teeming with
STL files that are compatible with most 3D printers and allow users to “remix”
physical objects. 3D scanners can also turn existing objects into computer files
that you can then modify and print out into new objects. Kids can print
replacement parts for their bikes, limbs for their dolls or that Lego piece they
wish existed. You can already print many of the parts to build a 3D printer on a
3D printer. You can even print circuitry with conductive ink
that you can turn into objects with embedded microcontrollers.
The most significant development in personal fabrication may be 3D design
software. Once too complex for most users, now software like cloud-based TinkerCAD and SketchUp put 3D design within students’
reach. Among other things, this will allow us to concretize mathematics
instruction: Instead of having to memorize an abstract formula to calculate the
volume of a pyramid, for example, you’ll be able to learn it while creating a
pyramid that you can hold in your hand.
Physical computing. The ability to embed
interactivity or intelligence into everyday objects is another aspect of the
maker trend. Robotics may be the best-known form of this. Robotics kits, like
those made by Lego and Vex, hide all the messy
electronics and limit you to already set projects and materials. But
microcontrollers like the Arduino make
circuitry more transparent, increasing students’ understanding of electronics.
They also expand the range of possible projects because you can combine them
with items from your environment, such as broken toys, craft materials or
appliance parts, to construct inventions that interact with their surroundings.
The community is continually inventing new shields, which are small boards that
piggyback on the Arduino to add new functionality, such as wireless connectivity
or radio control. If you are a kid armed with downloadable plans, sufficient
motivation and a number of broken refrigerators, you can even build your own
Microcontrollers are also surprisingly affordable. They continually increase
in power and functionality while the cost remains low — about $25 for the most
popular Arduino standard board. The web is also full of free “sketches,” short
programs you can use as is or modify to control your projects.
To be able to assist students, teachers will need to have a good conceptual
understanding of how microcontrollers work, because they’re always changing. For
instance, the blue board you bought last month could now be red and have the
pins in a slightly different location. Luckily, student leaders can learn these
new technologies, increasing your school’s pool of expertise while building
their own skill sets and confidence.
Another exciting development is new ways to create electronic circuitry. We
have taken electronics for granted for so long that most kids know little about
this phenomenon that shapes our lives. Now they can learn the basics while
making their own interactive greeting cards and hand-drawn or light-up pop-up
books with conductive pens, Circuit
Stickers and metallic tape. They can whip up homemade Squishy Circuit dough
to make electrified sculptures. They can create wearable projects by sewing the
machine-washable Lilypad Arduino into
fabric. And with the MaKey MaKey, they
can turn Play-Doh into a keyboard and mouse, create a drum set out of bananas or
a piano out of the school’s stairs, and control a PowerPoint presentation with a
Computer programming. Every child needs experience
programming computers, and not just for their future careers. This important
skill plays a major role in many other disciplines, and it can give students
control over their increasingly technological world. Computer programming even
prepares students to be better citizens in an age dominated by debates over
privacy, intellectual property, polling and investment in the computer-based
modeling that’s central to scientific inquiry.
Advocacy events like the Hour of
Code represent progress, but the truth is, an hour of anything is
insufficient. Programming is a skill developed over long periods of time. It is
like learning to write, paint or dance. You become a better programmer by
programming, and access to a teacher with expertise doesn’t hurt.
A maker option for school computing
The edtech community is engaged in a seemingly endless battle over what
device provides the most bang for your district’s buck — laptops, iPads or
Chromebooks. Yet there is now another option: microcomputers.
Eben Upton was a
computer science professor at Cambridge when he grew concerned that computer
science majors had little experience making things with computers. He imagined
producing a computer so inexpensive that universities could give it away to
potential students and ask them to show what they made with it when they visited
campus for the interview. This idea gave birth to the Raspberry Pi, a baseball-card-sized $35
Linux computer with USB, composite video, Ethernet and HDMI ports.
Unlike a microcontroller, the Raspberry Pi is a complete computer. You can
use it to program microcontrollers or interface with them. Connect an old
keyboard, mouse and display, and you’re all set to run OpenOffice, Scratch and other software. You can use it to
power your home entertainment system, or you can ask a fifth grader to build a
Minecraft server with it. New hardware,
like the Arduino
Yún and Intel
Galileo, combine both computer and microcontroller in the same small
Makerspaces for all
Classrooms should embrace the joyful approach of Maker Faires by creating
space for kids to engage in complex, personally meaningful projects. But some
schools seem more willing to spend a lot of money building special makerspaces
or fablabs (fabrication labs) to house professional-grade hardware than they are
to change classroom practice. The lessons from three decades of computer labs
should dissuade us from building a special bunker that kids visit once a week.
This is not to say that you should not have a killer
makerspace filled with state-of-the-art technology, proper ventilation and
comfy working conditions. But you should keep in mind that every classroom
can be a makerspace where kids have the materials, time, flexibility and
support to learn by doing. Educators need to create space for making in their
heads as well as in their classrooms.
They also need to drop any preconceived biases about who can be a maker. The
range of potential projects and constructions available to makers supports a
diversity of activities, genders and
learning styles. When presented with multiple activity centers featuring a
variety of materials, boys may gravitate to Arduino and girls to wearable
computing/e-textiles. Both activities require engineering, circuitry,
microcontroller programming and debugging, and although there may be surface
differences in the product, the process is the same.
For example, the Flora
wearable microcontroller system includes a sewable GPS element that lets your
clothing determine your location. Designing a shirt or necklace that warns you
of an approaching friend or arrival at your favorite classroom may include more
complex engineering and computing challenges than your standard robotics
competition, and it may appeal to children who would otherwise miss out on such
Our colleague, teenager Sylvia Todd, has done as much as anyone to inspire girls to engage in engineering
projects through her popular website, Super
Awesome Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show. Millions of viewers have learned
about the joy and power of making from her since she produced her first video at
age 8. Scratch users have also shared more than 4
million projects online — a testament to the creativity of kids.
Much of what is presented as school technology is concerned with doing work
more efficiently. But when educators embrace a more expansive view of computing,
provide access to a variety of high- and low-tech construction materials, and
encourage choice in project selection, a larger population of children will
enjoy rewarding computing experiences. These experiences may not result in more
professional computer programmers, but they will produce more adults who are
capable of understanding and mastering their increasingly technological world.
If you care about equity or closing the digital divide, you will advocate for
all children to have rich computer programming experiences with a competent
Time for change
Schools usually do not consider the worldview of their new kindergartners.
Before they start school, many children have already used Skype or FaceTime to
communicate with others over great distances. They already know that when they
have a question, an answer is just a click away.
A kid who has had the ability to Google anything since she was a toddler has
a different sense of herself as a learner. Unfortunately, this image of learning
as an active personal process may be in stark opposition to what she will
experience in a “standards-based” school, where the teacher and textbook are the
limits of allowed expertise. When a child can 3D print and program her toys at
home, school as it currently exists will feel like an episode of “Land of the
The maker movement treats children as if they were competent. Too many
schools do not. Making builds on each child’s passion by connecting their whole
being with constructive materials in a flow that results in fantastic artifacts
that almost always exceed our expectations. We want our kids so engaged in
projects that they lose track of time or wake up in the middle of the night
counting the minutes until they get to return to school. Never before have there
been more exciting materials and technology for children to use as intellectual
laboratories or vehicles for self-expression. You can empower your students
while preparing them to solve problems their teachers never anticipated by
embracing the tools, passion and projects of the maker movement.
The ISTE Standards and making in the classroom
are a few ways that making meets the ISTE Standards.
Standards for Students
• Standard 1: Empowered Learner. Students understand the fundamental concepts of technology operations, demonstrate the ability to choose, use and troubleshoot current technologies, and are able to transfer their knowledge to explore emerging technologies.
• Standard 4: Innovative Designer. Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.
• Standard 5: Computational Thinker. Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.
• Standard 6: Creative Communicator. Students choose the appropriate tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.
ISTE Standards for Educators
Educators manage the use of technology and student learning strategies in digital platforms, virtual environments, hands-on makerspaces or in the field.
Standards for Education Leaders
Leaders create a culture where teachers and learners are empowered to use technology in innovative ways to enrich teaching and learning.
This is an updated version of a post that originally published on July 21, 2014.
Sylvia Libow Martinez is a writer, speaker, maker, mom, video game
designer, and electrical engineer. She co-authored the book,
to Learn — Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom.
Gary S. Stager is a veteran teacher-educator and keynote speaker. He
to Learn — Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom and is a host
He has taught making in the classroom, from kindergarten to graduate school, for
more than 30 years.