It’s a persistent challenge in science education to keep students engaged. So much is competing for their attention — streams of media are constantly coming through computers, handheld devices, iPods, television and radio. With all that chatter, educators must devise strategies that make the learning of science less dependent on textbooks — and more dependent on a hands-on approach to what is sometimes referred to as design-based learning.
Textbooks have never been the most effective medium for exciting students about science, technology, engineering, and math. They are thick, dense, and literally unable to be navigated alone.
The advantage of design-based learning is that it utilizes our innate tendencies toward curiosity and resourcefulness. In a word, we are all “makers.” We make things that help us do what we need to do and understand things we need to understand. This sensibility is inspiring a nationwide movement that has tremendous potential to improve education in those fields in the U.S.
In communities everywhere, people are drawn together by a common delight in the magic of tinkering, building, hacking, creating, upcycling, and inventing tools, gadgets and toys. They learn from peers and mentors while designing, prototyping and fabricating. They are the people who “just might spark the next generation of scientists and engineers,” according to Dale Dougherty, founder of Make magazine.
Six years ago, Dale founded Maker Faire in northern California. It’s a two-day festival that brings together makers and inventors from a wide spectrum of disciplines and interests. And last year, it was inaugurated at the New York Hall of Science. At Maker Faire, individuals organize into communities, personally motivating and socially engaging.
Making involves approaching a problem with an unknown answer, whereas traditional schooling has typically trained students by rewarding them for solving a problem with a known answer, often following a memorized formula or sequence. But unless we teach our young people to be creative in their problem solving, we will continue to become less competitive in the global economy.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently found that the problem is not just “a lack of proficiency among American students; there is also a lack of interest in STEM fields among many students.”
In 2009, President Obama said he wanted Americans “to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.” The success of Maker Faire — 25,000 participants in New York and 80,000 participants in the Bay Area in 2010 — shows a way forward that can get our students motivated about science, technology, engineering, and math.
From John Dewey to Ted Sizer, progressive educators have pointed out the limitations of an educational approach that encourages breadth over depth, efficiency over exploration, and acceleration over patience and persistence. By creating spaces where individuals can dig deeply into their passions and take time to explore, invent and tinker with like-minded others, the Maker movement affirms the kind of deep learning that matters.
Of course, if we want to engage students in making, we need to support and empower their teachers. The culture of K-12 education hasn’t historically encouraged the maker mentality. One great resource for teachers is Resource Area for Teaching, a non-profit with centers in California and Colorado. The organization helps teachers transform the learning experience guided by three principles: collaborative hands-on activities, access to a vast array of low-cost materials and the training to use them in hands-on projects, and an emphasis on 21st-century learning skills.
Equally important are opportunities for teachers to become part of the maker communities that can lend support, materials and expertise. The New York Hall of Science, and its science museum colleagues nationwide, have emerged as resources for teachers and makers because they share the essential commitment to hands-on learning. The Queens-based science and technology center sponsors large-scale annual events like Maker Faire, as well as smaller programs like make-it-take-it activities and upcycling workshops where everyday trash items get transformed into new, purposeful products.
Our goal is to show that learning science is not only important, but it’s also fun and fulfilling. When we make, we learn.
Margaret Honey is the President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science. Visit nysci.org/