Building a learning space for students

New York hall of science makerspace

After my two week trip of New York, Providence and Rhode Island, along with combining a few comments from Makerspaces locally as well as schools who set them up in recent years, I have collated the info and summarised them below.

1) MakerSpaces put off (some) girls. A likely cause could be uncontrolled environments, like MakerSpaces, often provides boys to ‘have a go’ at girls with the projects they have made. A lack of appreciation and comparison with projects made by boys, can lead to a permanent ‘put off’, coming to a MakerSpace.

2) MakerSpaces without programmes do not provide the necessary inspiration to the majority (of people ) who are interested in trying it out for the first time. Only a few people who already know what they want to do, will return.

3) MakerSpaces are better off renamed Learning Labs/Innovation labs especially in a school setting. Again, this is feedback from people who are in those situations.

4) Success of a Makerspace depends on the availability of technicians who can maintain all the gear and run (3D print) jobs etc. when there is a backlog. Unused expensive gear gets outdated really quick and needs regular servicing.

5) Getting the full use of the MakerSpace depends on the manager of that space, and the possibility of collaborations especially with teachers (pre and in service) during downtime. This allows teachers getting confident in trying out the gear and making things themselves before trying it out with students.

6) Girls prefer to coming to these programmes in groups rather than individually. There needs to be more opportunities for them to come in groups and make something they would find interesting.

7) (Some) Programmes for under privileged groups lack a platform to demonstrate social concern and a voice for themselves. By creating programmes of learning which are genuine contexts for those specific groups, the learning will be more effective.

The valuable discussions I have had with people running these spaces has helped enormously in shaping our design and decisions as we build our own ‘learning space’. Resources- we will be looking at a sustainable resource plan, buying gear as and when needed rather than a big budget programme, reusing materials readily available, sourcing parts from recycling shops as well as crowd sourcing electronic components whenever possible. These components include using motors from old rc cars and printers, wires and cables from old computers, cardboard and corflute for prototyping, etc. This would not apply to anything that needs mains power as there is a risk of electrical/electronic faults in those components.

Robots made for uni labs

One really good source of projects I have found lately are old varsity engineering projects. University students make/ use a range of tools through their course, like the minions which I found, to complete assignments/lab work. Since they have been in storage as the technology has been upgraded, I decided to use them for outreach as they are in perfectly sound condition. It’s important to create an authentic context for those resources and ensure that the learning programme is adapted for the appropriate age. For example: a pathway of programming transition is needed for block based coding like Scratch to something like Python (Microbit) or C (Arduino). There possibly is some research done in the CSEd world done on this area which I will need to look further into.

Looking forward to 2020 with a new learning space for all groups at the University.

Book review of Invent to learn – Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager

Seven years ago, I was teaching Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint to my Year 11 Digital Technology students. It was an important skill (I believed) which could be used across all subjects. While recently clearing my old resources, I took a moment to ponder on how far we have come with learning and teaching Technology and what will it be like in the future! This book, Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager just gives you the perfect insight into teaching Technology for the future.

I came across this book last year while looking up good reading on making and tinkering in the classroom. While the sub title is self-explanatory, the book also provides software and hardware solutions for teaching technology in the classroom. Quite often, teachers are afraid to take on the challenges that come with upgrading technology, especially new equipment and software. This adds to the already existing stress of marking and reports. The book provides easy alternatives for planting the seed of the ‘maker spirit’ in the kids while reinforcing the concept.

While ‘making’ is not really a new concept, introducing it in schools has predominantly been difficult. The authors provide a healthy background on learning theories covering Piaget, Dewey and the lot which I recall reading about, in my teaching degree course. Most of the conclusions led to the importance of learning by doing! Seymour Papert, who has had a special influence on this book, asked why were computers being used in schools in unimaginative ways. The words, “Making lets you take control of your life, be more active, and be responsible for your own learning” (quoted from page 29), made a significant dent in my thought process towards teaching technology and I have bookmarked it as an inspirational quote!

The authors further go on to elaborate the difference between Making, Tinkering and Engineering. As teachers, we are familiar with using the computer as a tutor(computer displaying instruction and conducts assessment), tool (computer allowing students to perform tasks) and a tutee (as we learn by programming the computer) (Quoted from page 34). With STEM becoming a key focus in schools ( even in New Zealand), Technology is not just using computers to find and report information but utilizing given tools to imagine, create and publish content. Computational thinking is a hot topic in NZ education with the curriculum undergoing drastic upgrades by implementing a ‘Digital Technologies curriculum’ from Year 1 – Year 10 starting Jan 2018. The best way to get prepared is through a design thinking mindset which the authors have covered in chapter 3 and provide a range of design thinking models for teachers to use. In the next chapter, they discuss elements of a good project. Ever wondered what makes a good prompt? Make sure you don’t miss this chapter!

Often as a teacher, I end up talking too much! Class time should be more about the students being creative and less of teacher talk. By providing a range of opportunities to explore their creativity, we can achieve learning to the fullest. These opportunities can come via the provision of fabrication, physical computing, and programming tools. With a wide variety of low-cost tools in the market and a lot of documentation available through community forums, Teachers and Management can set up this gear within no time. If you are a teacher interested in using Arduino and Raspberry Pi, then the best way to get into it is to buy one yourself! They are low-cost single board computers with a range of different functionalities that can be used for prototyping. Just jump into it and you will learn a lot by tinkering. YouTube is your best friend. You will be surprised to know how many variants of those boards exist and most of them are easy to setup and use. The best place to know more about them is the Make website and magazine. The book also covers choice of programming languages. This can often be an issue as we usually have a range of learning needs in class. Students at a low level of coding and can use ‘drag and drop’ based languages like Scratch and Blockly whereas some advanced users could already be programming in Python. Be open and let them choose their platform.

One of my favorite things to do on weekends is going through community stores like Saint Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, looking for stuff! This stuff is my resource for technology. It includes broken toys, motors, speakers, lego bits, etc. This provides a collection of items that students can use for their projects. A well-stocked stationery cupboard also helps to complete projects. The book emphasizes the importance of student ownership and parental/community involvement through Maker days and CodeClubs. The teacher’s role is now more of a facilitator, ensuring safety, providing opportunities and coordinating events for their ‘show and tell’ of projects.

The authors, Sylvia and Gary are highly knowledgeable and experienced in their fields of product development and educational leadership respectively. They provide a lot of resources through web links and reading material. The book has assisted me in building on my teaching experiences and fine tune the way I teach Technology. I highly recommend this book as a must read for all teachers who wish to change their teaching style to incorporate and teach technology skills through a range of tools.