It goes without saying that the 21st century is the age of the Digital. For those of us living during the transition from the Industrial Revolution into this period, it can feel quite conflicting at times. We are aware of the vital need to educate our young people to use digital tools. At the same time, we worry about the increased time spent in front of computer screens. There is no shortage of articles in mainstream media either striking fear in the hearts of parents regarding too much technology, or setting off worries about our kids’ futures if there is too little technology.
There is another movement underfoot, that parents might be unaware of. It is called the Maker Education movement. Maker Faires and Hacker Labs are popping up all around the world. In our Lake Geneva area, we have the Post Tenebras Lab in Geneva, the Hacker Space Fix Me in Lausanne, and the Fab Lab in Neuchatel. This past June, Nyon hosted the first Leman Maker Faire weekend.
Maker Education brings the two worlds of the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Age together. Maker Education essentially is about giving students open-ended time to explore physical materials to build new creations. Most projects are open-ended and up to students’ individual innovativeness and motivation. The Digital Age is brought in as they use their programming “super powers” in order to bring life and interactivity to their creations. Using technology to solve problems is one of the core tenets of the Maker Education movement. It is robotics, but it is more than robotics. Here we have a happy balance between children manipulating the physical world in order to learn, and the amazing engagement and powerful tools they have when on a computer screen.
The Future is in Computing
Code.org predicts that there will be 1.4 million computing jobs by 2020, but only 400,000 computer science students to fill them. This is a 500 billion dollar opportunity that countries around the world are hoping to have a piece of. To these ends, governments around the world are starting to insert computer-programming education within school curriculums. Since September 2014, the United Kingdom mandates computer science education in primary school and upward. They were only preceded by Estonia in 2012 and Greece 2013. Increasingly, country governments are awakening to this, including the United States. In fact, it is partly due to the push of Code.org that changes in the USA in terms of computer science education are currently underway. Obama became the first USA president to write a line of code during last year’s Hour of Code organized by Code.org.
The Maker Education movement gives immediacy to children’s computing education by providing opportunities for them to apply their new coding skills. Parents who feel a bit conflicted about 1:1 digital education (1 laptop for every 1 child) can feel confident that their digital education is for fruitful ends, when they see their child programming a hand-built weather station to collect temperature data for a scientific experiment.
Maker Education is Exploration of the Arts
There are two ways that children tend to explore their worlds. One way is the “Patterner” (often a boy) who loves creating patterns and following formulas and seeing them run. Programming robotics appeals to Patterners. The other is the “Dramatist” who is someone that prefers to tell stories (often a girl). Maker Education is not just for the electronic and computer geeks. It gives room for Dramatists to tell their stories too. An example of a dramatist project might be a bookmark with a Firefly on it that senses when it is dark and then lights up for reading in the dark. Particularly exciting is the recent invention of washable microcontrollers and conductive threads, creating possibilities for E-Textiles or Soft Circuits. Textile projects and clothing can now be embedded with technology to be interactive. An example of a Soft Circuit project might be a skirt whose lights twinkle according to the rhythm of your dance steps.
One of the greatest appeals of Maker Education is the possibility of integrating technology in with the Arts subjects. Educational circles call this physical computing. Indeed, computer scientists are needed in every sector and industry now, including the Fine Arts. There is something in physical computer for everyone.
Maker Education is Innovation
Maker Education follows the heels of the “20% Time” philosophy that Google provides for its employees. Google gives employees 20% “free time” during their week to work on their own projects, hoping that something innovative might be stumbled upon. (Gmail and Ad Sense are two projects that were birthed out of the 20% Time.) You may hear schools calling their 20% Maker Education time “Genius Hour” or “Passion Project” time.
Besides giving students time during the school day, schools that are passionate about Maker Education allocate space and materials for it. In many schools, the Maker-Space can be found in the library, alongside library computers and media stations for research help and digital tools for their projects.
Maker Education is Hands-On
Materials can be anything and everything: cardstock, wood, fabric, wool, LEGO, and even things pulled out of the recycling bin etc. The tools would be familiar to those of us who took Industrial Arts or Sewing & Textiles classes while in school: hammers, saws, soldering irons, sewing machines, etc. New tools might include microcontrollers (small embeddable computers) like Arduino or Raspberry Pi, programming software to run the microcontrollers, laser cutters, and 3D printers. The importance of introducing microcontrollers and programing in students’ computing education can be seen in the recent initiative announced by the UK to give every Year 7 student a free microcontroller called the BBC Micro: bit.
Besides supplying new tools and materials and teaching coding skills, some traditional skills are making a comeback. The ability to program physical objects requires the ability to build electrical circuits and to troubleshoot for conductivity. (The microcontrollers are attached to physical objects by way of electrical circuitry.) Here is a way where traditional teaching and learning of electrical circuits has immediate relevance and application for students.
Maker Education makes computer science education accessible to all
Maker Education does more than bridge the gap between the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Age, while appealing to both boys and girls. It also gives opportunities for early childhood to learn computer science and how it relates to their world. “Squishy Circuits” gives them conductive play-dough, electrical wires, and batteries in order to learn about electrical circuits. “Little Bits” and the “Makey-Makey” are examples of microcontrollers for early childhood that do not require soldering. Apps like Scratch Jr enable pre-readers and pre-writers to code. These all enable concrete learning experiences for very young children, at a stage when they can’t learn through the abstract.
Maker Education returns us to our roots
In many ways, Maker Education brings us back to the original roots advocating technology in Education. The philosophy of using computer technology to learn actually started with Dr. Seymour Papert in the 1960s. He was a famous MIT and Education professor who spent time teaching in the University of Geneva. His original idea was that children learn to program robots in order to enhance their education. Dr. Papert built the first programmable toy in the world, in fact. If you ever tried programming with LOGO while in school, it was Dr. Papert who invented this programming language for children.
Dr. Jean Piaget was another famous educator with Swiss roots. He was a developmental psychologist and one of Dr. Papert’s mentors. There is not an educator around who did not learn about Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. In his developmental studies, he proposed that children learn best when they can be hands-on in their learning. (This is probably where our fears of too much screen-time come from.) His ideas about hands-on learning might seem obvious to us, now. During his time, though, students sat in rows in school and only worked through their books; it was a huge shift in pedagogical thought.
So, the Maker Education movement is transforming education by allowing students to participate in the Design Cycle in ways that were unimaginable before. It is a happy marriage of the Industrial Revolution with the Digital Age; combing the two schools of thought of Dr. Papert and Dr. Piaget. I call it “TECHXture”.
Maker Education prepares us for the future
In our day and age of Education, it is no longer sufficient to have knowledge. Industry is looking for people who know what to do with the knowledge that they have. They want inventors who can harness their knowledge in novel ways.
This requires the ability to think creatively, critically, and to innovate to a degree that traditional book-study simply cannot address. In order to foster Innovation in young people, students need opportunities to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, to learn how to collaborate across networks, to lead by influence, to be agile and adaptable, and to be curious and to use their imaginations (Forbes). Giving them time and open-ended makerspaces for Maker Education goes a long way to fostering all of this in our 21st century world.
by Vivian Chow Kwan
About the Author: Vivian is a Canadian living in Switzerland. She is a PYP Classroom and Music Educator, and an International Parent to 4 of her own. Twitter @ChezVivian