In a global job market where it’s usual to change careers several times in a lifetime, being able to create opportunities is rapidly becoming a key skill. With its focus on invention, ‘maker’ or maker education is the best introduction we have to an entrepreneurial mindset. Why do kids need maker? Because it put them at the centre of their learning and gives them real-world skills. No coincidence that the questions of what do we have? what do we need? and how can we make it better? are the starting point for the most successful maker projects – and the most entrepreneurial tech companies.
Like the model of a dream startup, the makerspace or maker room is a 21st-century classroom where critical thinking, collaboration and creativity rule. Maker is all about project-based learning, long praised for its value in engaging students as the bridge between the classroom and the real world. It’s engineering, but in all its forms.
Hailed as the hub of enlightened learning, maker is the original cross-curriculum activity: to build anything from scratch in a modern tech-enhanced classroom, you are going to draw from all the STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths). Give the project a historical context and STEAM easily spills into Language Arts.
Although project-based learning implies something created over several weeks, maker projects don’t need to be overly lengthy or ambitious to be effective. Failure is a valuable part of the learning process, but for younger students, tasks they can complete quickly are essential for building confidence. Combine maker with coding and you have something magic, as I experienced running Codemaker Club at an Intel Computer Clubhouse over the past year.
With that Clubhouse moving location, I’m starting a new maker and coding class. Encouraged by the success of character-based coding activities used by code.org (think Frozen, Minecraft, Star Wars), Rafia Club is all about fun projects inspired by popular characters and themes.
As seen at Maker Faires, personal interests fuel the success of maker projects. The starting point for many Rafia projects will be a well-loved character from a movie or an animal they can animate. But while Angry Birds might demo a littleBits catapult or Frozen’s Olaf might be the model for a drawing bot, what the children actually make will reflect their own interests. A good, popular example of this kind of adaptable project is the mini motorized cups known as doodlebots: the demo for a workshop I gave at a local library was of a zebra, but the table at the end of the session displayed a superhero, a Dalek and a minion. Given enough but not too much choice of materials, children will draw from their own passions to build something they follow all the way through.
Allowing children to learn making and coding in the same space is, I think, essential for what is really an introduction to engineering. Tech can enhance maker projects just as much as maker can inspire tech ideas. Like maker, propelling children into coding often starts with an invitation to reinvent something. ‘Here’s the example, here’s what’s going on, now take it apart, build it back or turn it into something else’ is common to both. What also ties maker and coding together is collaboration and teamwork.
Child-focused curriculum like code.org are designed to be taught to a group. Walk into the beginning of a code.org elementary class and instead of seeing the back of children’s heads staring into a screen, you’ll find them in discussion, cutting and pasting instructions for making paper aeroplanes to learn about order in algorithms, or choreographing a dance routine to show they understand loops. At Rafia Club, when children are on computers, they’ll be as likely to be programming on the open-interface of an app on a tablet as on a desktop. Pair programming is the norm; two heads often make more a more ambitious maker project than one, and working in a group encourages children to share ideas for what they might create next.
Through projects that explore circuitry with littleBits, block programming on Wonder Workshop’s educational robots and creative maker projects, Rafia Club is all about hands-on learning, giving children the skills they need to be inventors. The value is in the process as much as the finished product, so there’ll be plenty of encouragement for students to document their work as they go with photographs, sketches and video. Maker learning is so exciting to teach because it creates an atmosphere where children are always discovering and exploring. Open-ended learning, a creative mindset, projects they want to share; it’s my bet that the kids who get into making and coding now will be the inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.