Re-“Making” Education

By on March 29, 2013

Jeremy Blum

This is the age of the maker.

There is no denying that at this time in human history, makers have the power to do extraordinary things – building social networks that connect billions of people, designing new medical technologies that save lives, and creating cars that can drive themselves.  

The increasing accessibility of educational technology platforms, largely in the form of open source hardware and software systems, has given people around the world new ways to tinker.  Makers are people who use these technologies to make something because they want to, not because they have to.

As far as technologists go, I’m young.  I’m currently wrapping up my Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University.  Yet, in just the last 5 years that I’ve spent immersing myself in academic study, I’ve seen an astounding flourishing of people around the world realizing what I had the fortune of discovering when I was about 10 years old: You have to be the change you want to see in the world.  

Being a maker empowers you to be that change by giving you the tools you need to do amazing things.  Now, here’s the twist: any person can be a maker, and you can start TODAY.

105-PomeriggioBeing a maker is not just about being an engineer.  Everybody, regardless of scientific or mathematical acumen, has the capability to contribute to the worldwide maker community in a way that will benefit both them, and the world the around them.  The first key step is to identify what excites you.

In many ways, I believe that our primary school system has failed to give students the tools they need to identify what excites them.  Obviously, an 8-year-old shouldn’t be expected to know what they want to do with the rest of their life.  Future career options and an enthusiasm for a particular topic are actually fairly decoupled.  

Think back to your time in primary school.  What did you spend your time doing?  You probably spent most of it memorizing mathematical equations, learning grammar, reading about historical events, taking tests, and maybe doing an occasional presentation.  

I’m not going to suggest that we eliminate traditional education – teaching these things is important.  But, I am going to suggest that we seriously rethink the ways in which the next generation is learning.  Are we training them to be makers?  Or, are we training them to absorbers? An absorber might learn new information, but they don’t apply it in any creative fashion.

20-AccoglienzaSo how do we deal with the fact that so many students never do a hands-on project, and more importantly, that they never even discover what excites them because they aren’t given the opportunity to explore the opportunities that the world has to offer?  

Obviously, not every student will be (or should be) an engineer.  But, as I mentioned before, the term “maker” has become unnecessarily coupled to engineering.  A maker is just somebody who puts their skills to use to do something they care about.  A good first step to facilitating this in primary schools is to reimagine interdisciplinary education.

It’s generally possible to identify students who prefer chemistry, English, mathematics, history, etc, pretty early.  Today, we have a tendency to separate students based on where they excel. For example, all the students who are good at history may take an advanced history class, while the other students will not.  This inherently subdivides the young population into isolated groups.  

But where does innovation and learning happen?  In my experience, I learn the most when I’m immersed in an environment with other people who have totally different backgrounds from me.  Collaborative learning, or the act of leveraging different students’ areas of interest to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion, is the crux of turning students into makers.

Consider why people invent things.  You wouldn’t invent a pencil that can withstand 3000 degree temperatures.  Why? Because it’s not solving a problem that anybody suffers from.  When students are given the impetus to simply speak with other students whom have different perspectives then they do, a list of problems can be generated quickly.  

Perhaps a scientifically-orientated student has issues quickly locating the right book that she needs to do some research, and a history-oriented student has an issue keeping her books organized.  Had these two students never interacted, then solutions might never be found.  But, if these generally disjoint students are put into this situation, the history student might suggest an excellent book-searching website, and the science student might recommend a database system for the other student to keep her books organized.  Obviously, this is a very simple example, but it shows the importance of incorporating outside perspectives to spur the maker mindset.

Naturally, it’s not possible to convince every student to adopt the maker manifesto, and you shouldn’t.  There’s no better way to make somebody believe less in an idea, than by trying to force them to like it.  We are not going to transform into a society of makers overnight.  However, we already have the resources and the knowledge to teach those who want to learn.  Until public and private schools start adapting their teaching methodologies to better align with the requirements of the 21st century, don’t be afraid to take it upon yourself to either become a maker yourself, or to start teaching the people around you how to become maker.  Remember, there are no degree requirements, no prerequisites, and no rules for how to become a maker.  Makers are those who apply their passions in the interest of solving real-world problems.

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So, how do you teach making?  There are no hard and fast rules.  If you want to take matters into your own hands and start teaching eager students about making, here are a few guidelines:

  • Be encouraging.  Mistakes are opportunities to learn, not failures of intellect.
  • Communicate!  Making is just half the battle.  If you can’t effectively communicate what you’ve done, then you can’t improve the world with your amazing idea.
  • Collaborate.  Even if you have a really good idea, resist the urge to keep it secret.  You have a better chance of success if you can garner feedback from your friends and family.
  • Start small.  Everybody has to start somewhere.  Building a car from scratch is probably a bad starting place for most people.  Pick reasonable goals so that you can achieve them, and iterate on them.

91-PomeriggioRedirecting our teaching efforts from traditional means toward more hands-on “making” has enormous potential to completely change the way students prepare themselves for the “real world”.  

What’s more, students who make things are more likely to get excited about a topic, and are therefore more likely to become really knowledgeable in that field.  Help lead the maker revolution – become a maker, or teach a future maker; all you need is an idea, and some free time.

 

About Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum is an Electrical Engineering developing open-source hacks, building robots, blogging, promoting sustainability, and heralding entrepreneurship. Further, Jeremy is also the founder of ©Blum Idea Labs LLC. 2013, an Engineering , Multimedia Production, and Education Consulting Firm.