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4 easy ways to fit maker activities into your curriculum

If student engagement equals deeper learning, then making school fun might just be the key to improved learning. 

Imagine the looks on students’ faces when you tell them that today, right there at school, their job is to become toymakers. Once they get over the shock, they’ll be thrilled to create their own toys and channel their creative energy with an added bonus of fun.

It may be the best head-fake technique ever for embedding the problem-solving and creative thinking skills that students will need for digital age jobs.

Thanks to 3D printing and other maker tools, students can gain valuable STEM and technology skills while engaging their brains instantly and in new ways. And this will help them as they get older, according to Glen Bull, co-director of the Center for Technology & Teacher Education at the University of Virginia.

Bull’s teaching appointment is in education, but his lab is housed in the school of engineering. He said the first-year engineering students he sees are very good at taking pencil-and-paper tests because that’s what they’ve needed to succeed in their K-12 years. However, he adds, they are terrible at making things creatively because they have little experience in this area.

The takeaway: If we want kids to be successful in the digital age, they must gradually develop the ability to build and create.

“When kids build toys, they are engaged in the activity right away,” he explains. In turn, teachers are given a new, and possibly more efficient, way to teach content. The students aren’t seeing problems in an abstract manner, but rather, they are taught to solve them in a practical way.

Maker activities, Bull adds, build on an American tradition. We’ve always been a nation of tinkerers and innovators, he says. However, creating and building is being replaced by testing or more passive activities. That’s why he is excited about the White House’s initiative, A Nation of Makers, and its push to encourage students and educators to bring maker activities into the classroom and build on the history of “doers.”

While giving students a hands-on, creative experience is important — and perhaps critical — for real-world careers and experiences, Bull admits that there is a struggle to figure out how it fits into the focus for accountability in the classroom. The challenge for educators will be coming up with ways to take the skills and knowledge acquired in maker activities and transferring them to a traditional test format.

Bull suggests the following activities, ranging from low-tech to high-tech, to give kids a chance to create something fun:

Build with paper. RobIves.com offers all sorts of projects kids can create with paper, ranging from working gears to a triceratops with moving joints.

Circuit stickers. After mastering the art of paper toys, students can take it to the next tech level with these specialized stickers created by an MIT student. According to the website, circuit stickers are “electronic stickers that you can use to build glowing, sensing and interactive projects without any complicated equipment or programming skills. All you need is your imagination.”

Sew-it-yourself technologies. Who says sewing is just for home economics class? Now students can sew their own wearable tech toys using components like the LilyPadArduino to build programming and electronics skills while they work with their hands.

Hackable notebooks. Students learn how to turn an ordinary notebook, sketchbook or journal from a paper product into electronics.

Kids like to learn by doing, says Bull. And the best way to start is by taking something simple and looking at the activity through a different lens, letting students connect crafting, engineering, science and art to learn new concepts. In other words, maker activities can inspire students to take the traditional subjects they are learning and soar with them in new ways.

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