How the Maker Movement is Transforming Education

By Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager

The Maker Movement, a technological and creative learning revolution underway around the globe, has exciting and vast implications for the world of education. New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace. The Maker Movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, while sharing tools and ideas online to create a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.

Fortunately for teachers, the Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. By embracing the lessons of the Maker Movement, educators can revamp the best student-centered teaching practices to engage learners of all ages.

One might try to marginalize robotics or 3D fabrication as having nothing to do with “real” science and dismiss such activities as play or as just super-charged hobbies. However, today’s new low-cost, flexible, creative, and powerful materials should be viewed as building blocks for today’s children. They offer much more than just “hands-on” crafting—these tools bring electronics, programming, and computational mathematics together in meaningful, powerful ways. We must reimagine school science and math not as a way to prepare students for the next academic challenge, or a future career, but as a place where students are inventors, scientists, and mathematicians today.

Three big game-changers of the Maker Movement should be on every school’s radar:

  • Computer-Controlled Fabrication Devices
    Over the past few years, devices that fabricate three-dimensional objects have become an affordable reality. These 3D printers can take a design file and output a physical object. Plastic filament is melted and deposited in intricate patterns that build layer by layer, much like a 2D printer prints lines of dots that line by line create a printed page. With 3D design and printing, students can design and create their own objects.
  • Physical Computing
    New open-source microcontrollers, sensors, and interfaces connect the physical and digital worlds in ways never before possible. Many schools are familiar with robotics, one aspect of physical computing, but a whole new world is opening up. Wearable computing—in which circuits are made with conductive thread—makes textiles smart, flexible, and mobile. Plug-and-play devices that connect small microprocessors to the Internet, to each other, or to any number of sensors mean that low-cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, and control your world.
  • Programming 
    From the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House, there is a new call for schools to teach computer programming. Programming is the key to controlling a new world of computational devices and the range of programming languages has never been greater. Today’s modern languages are designed for every purpose and learners of all ages.

“Hard Fun” and the Process of Design

The tools and ethos of the Maker revolution offer insight and hope for schools. The breadth of options and the “can-do” attitude espoused by the movement is exactly what students need, especially girls who tend to opt out of science and math in middle and high school.

However, hands-on Making is not just a good idea for young women. All students need challenge and “hard fun” that inspires them to dig deeper and construct big ideas. Making science hands-on and interesting is not pandering to young sensibilities; it honors the learning drive and spirit that is all too often crushed by endless worksheets and vocabulary drills. Making is a way of bringing engineering to young learners. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding the abstract science and math concepts traditionally taught by schools while expanding the world of knowledge now accessible to students for the first time.

Tinkering is a powerful form of “learning by doing,” an ethos shared by the rapidly expanding Maker Movement community and many educators. Real science and engineering is done through tinkering. We owe it to our children to give them the tools and experiences that actual scientists and engineers use, and now is the time is to bring these tools and learning opportunities into classrooms. There are multiple pathways to learning what we have always taught, and things to do that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Classroom Maker Ideas

Celebrating Young Talent

The Maker Movement celebrates the talents of young people such as Sylvia (aka “Super-Awesome Sylvia”) who has a webcast show, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, where she sings, plays, and teaches millions of viewers about electronics, Arduinos, and other fun projects. Joey Hudy is a young Maker and entrepreneur who surprised President Obama with a homemade marshmallow cannon in the White House. Caine Munro was a young man who made an entire game arcade entirely out of cardboard and tape. A passerby fell in love with Caine’s ingenuity and asked his father if he could make a video about the arcade. Not long after, Caine’s arcade lit up YouTube. Caine and his arcade inspired millions of people around the world. He received invitations to visit other countries, a scholarship fund was created for his college education, and a foundation was created to nurture creativity in kids across the globe. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even gave Caine a cardboard key to the city!

Of course these are extraordinary young people—but there are extraordinary young people in every city, every school, and every classroom who deserve the same opportunities to express themselves by inventing, creating, and making. When the same tools and intellectual processes are found and required in the physics lab, art studio, and auto shop, schools can finally stop sorting children into academic and vocational tracks. All students need experiences that call upon their heads, hearts, and hands.

Lessons from the Maker Movement

Doing” Is What Matters
Makers learn to make stuff by making stuff. Schools often forget this as they continuously prepare students for something that is going to happen next week, next year, or in some future career. The affordable and accessible technology of the Maker Movement makes learning by doing a realistic approach for schools today.

The Maker Movement is a child of the Internet but does not fetishize it. Makers share designs, code, and ideas globally but making occurs locally. Makers share their expertise with a worldwide audience. “We” are smarter than “me” is the lesson for educators. Collaboration on projects of intense personal interest drive the need to share ideas and lessons learned more than external incentives like grades.

Give It A Go
Back in the ’80s, MacGyver could defuse a bomb with the chewing gum and paper clips he found in his pocket. Modern MacGyvers are driven to invent the solution to any problem by making things, and then making those things better. Perhaps “grit” or determination can be taught, but there is no substitute for experience. The best way for students to become deeply invested in their work is for their projects to be personally meaningful, afforded sufficient development time, given access to constructive materials, and the students themselves encouraged to overcome challenges.

Iterative Design
Computers make designing new inventions risk-free and inexpensive. You can now tinker with designs and programs and make prototypes easily and quickly. This is a departure from the linear design methodology that assumed that mistakes were expensive and need to be avoided. However, many educators are still clinging to old design models where students are provided recipes and prescriptive rubrics that hamper student imagination and preclude serendipitous learning. This practice deprives students of the opportunity to take risks and learn how to navigate their way to the end of a sophisticated project.

Aesthetics Matter
Many Maker projects are indistinguishable from art. It’s human to embellish, decorate, and seek the beauty in life. In schools, there is a movement to add the Arts to STEM subjects (STEAM). That’s a good instinct, but if school hadn’t artificially removed all traces of creativity and art from STEM subjects, we wouldn’t need to talk about STEAM. Find ways to allow students to make projects with pride and unencumbered by categorization.

Mentoring Defies Ageism
As Sir Ken Robinson says, school is the only place in the world where we sort people by their manufacturing date. The Maker Movement honors learners of all ages and embraces the sharing of expertise. Young people like “Super Awesome Sylvia” and Jody Hudy are valued alongside decades-older master tinkerers and inventors. Schools may create opportunities for mentoring and apprenticeship by connecting with the greater community. Access to expertise must not be limited to the classroom teacher.

Learning Is Intensely Personal
The current buzz about “personalized learning” is more often than not a scheme to deliver content by computerized algorithm. Not only is it magical thinking to believe that computers can teach, it confuses learning with delivering content. Learning happens inside the individual. It can’t be designed or delivered. Learning is personal—always. No one can do it for you. Giving kids the opportunity to master what they love means they will love what they learn.

It IS About the Technology
Some educators like to say that technology is “just a tool” that should fit seamlessly into classrooms. In contrast, the Maker Movement sees tools and technology as essential elements for solving unsolvable problems. To makers, a 3D printer is not for learning to make 3D objects. Instead it is the raw material for solving problems, such as how to create inexpensive but custom-fit prosthetics for people anywhere in the world, or how to print a pizza for hungry astronauts. The Maker philosophy prepares kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated, with technology we can’t yet imagine.

One motto of the Maker Movement is “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Educators often talk about how learners should own their own learning, but if the learner doesn’t have control, they can’t own it. Teachers should consider that prepackaged experiences for students, even in the name of efficiency, are depriving students of owning their own learning. Learning depends on learners with maximum agency over their intellectual processes.

A longer version of this article appears here, at the website We Are Teachers

About the Authors

Sylvia Libow Martinez, M.A. Education Technology Sylvia speaks, writes, and advocates for student-centered, project-based learning, gender equity in technology, computer programming, and life-long learning. Sylvia works in schools around the world to bring the power of authentic learning into classrooms, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects. .

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. Gary is one of the world’s leading experts and advocates for computer programming, robotics, and learning-by-doing in classrooms. In 1990, Dr. Stager led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools and played a major role in the early days of online education.