Embracing the Maker Movement

After the successful implementation of STEM activities in our school, I have been casually researching the Maker Movement as another revolution in education through which to develop complex ideas through hands-on fun and creativity. The Maker Movement was born from the success of MAKE Magazine’s annual Maker Faire, a gathering in which “makers” from all disciplines (science, engineering, art, technology, performance, literature, crafting, etc.) share innovative things they have made or learned. These events have been replicated around the world, even in Detroit. This grassroots movement is quickly increasing momentum, and these crafters, tinkerers, hobbyists, tech enthusiasts, and students are creating new products and even starting their own companies. The movement is also finding its way into classrooms. 

The founder of the Maker Movement, Dale Dougherty, feels that students should be offered opportunities to make things in order to view themselves as producers, not just consumers. “My goal is that all people, young and old, come to see themselves as makers, creators and doers because I know that all people who have the skills and knowledge to make things have the power to make the world a better place,” says Dougherty. Consequently, the maker movement dovetails perfectly with best practices involving STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics), problem-solving, and hands-on, student-driven learning.

These ideas made sense to me, but it wasn’t until teacher friend Laura McDonell recommended a book, Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School by Laura Fleming, that I decided to get serious about exploring the Makerspace concept. Fleming’s ideas resonated with me and perfectly aligned with my philosophy of education. Fleming argued that to be successful in the knowledge economy of their future, students need to be skilled in using creativity and inventive thinking to continuously innovate and manage novel and improved goods and services. Making fosters those skills and also integrates multiple subjects. Making also connects concrete, hands-on learning with high-tech digital tools. Learning while making is student-centered and personalized. These concepts epitomized my vision of the ideal modern classroom, and I especially felt inspired by this quote from the book: “The Maker Movement is about moving from consumption to creation and turning knowledge into action.”

The inspiration was energizing, but providing the time and a space for students to “make” while in the midst of teaching the mandated curriculum was a challenge. Again, Laura McDonell solved that problem. She was experimenting with making in her classroom at St. Clair Middle School, and she had shared two videos of students participating in a “Makerspace Box Challenge” that she facilitated. Laura suggested sending a challenge to my class for one or more students to complete. I knew this was the perfect opportunity to dive in to the Maker Movement!

The materials and challenge arrived in my school mailbox, and I chose two students, creative in different ways, to work on the challenge in the hallway. Other than checking in on them and taking a few pictures now and then, I did not supervise the process. For about twenty minutes, the students took the lead to choose an idea, brainstorm, design, gather tools and extra materials, build, improve, test, and refine their invention. The result was incredible! The two created a very clever camera, but the success of the activity was not about the product or the materials used to produce it. My students had collaborated, applied their knowledge, made connections between concepts, and made sense of the world in a way that I couldn’t develop in a traditional lesson. Those were the outcomes that meant the most. I am so proud Carly and Isaac, and I cannot wait to offer “making” opportunities to the rest of my students.


STEM (STEAM) Education is Elementary!


What is the buzz about STEM or STEAM?

Teachers are always thinking about the world in which they will be sending students. It is a world that we might not experience ourselves, but it is important to get a sense of that future in order to prepare its citizens, workers, and leaders. Being mindful of the future led me to take a special interest in STEM education. STEM has become a huge buzz word in education since the United States took major steps to improve STEM education at all levels of schools and universities. It is apparent that the economy of the future will involve careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to develop new products and businesses that will make us competitive globally.  Workers will also need to be creative and innovative.

Innovation will drive the future. Because technology changes at a rapid pace, it is impossible to predict exactly what jobs will be available to the students in classrooms today. One cannot assume, either, that the United States will lead the world in innovation as it did in the 20th century. According to a study of 58 countries in 2008 published in the World Competitiveness Yearbook, the U.S. slipped from 1st as the most innovative economy to 3rd behind Singapore and Hong Kong with Switzerland in 4th place. More recently, the U.S. was ranked 4th, 6th, and 8th in the World Economic Forum ranking, Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) ranking, and Boston Consulting Group poll, respectively. If conditions do not change, the U.S. is predicted to slip even if it does not keep up with other countries in graduating locally trained scientists and engineers.IMG_0176

A way to increase the number of students in STEM fields is to attract more girls to those disciplines, and both girls and boys need to be exposed to STEM early in their academic careers. Research shows that students who receive STEM education in elementary are better equipped to be successful in those fields as they progress in their schooling. Without early exposure, girls are especially at risk for losing interest and/or self-confidence in these areas, particularly math. It has been shown that boys outperform girls in math in cultures, like we have in the U.S., where there is a belief that boys are stronger in math than girls. Studies also show that a negative interest in science begins in elementary school where about 33% of girls and boys express negative attitudes about science. By eight grade almost 50% of boys and girls have lost interest or deemed science irrelevant to their future plans. As a result of all of this research, it is obvious that there needs to be a strong emphasis on STEM in elementary school, or perhaps STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).


What does art have to do with these left brain, logical-mathematical disciplines? Art supports the creative and instinctual thinking necessary for creativity and innovation, developing the right side of the brain. It is interesting to note that almost all of the great inventors and scientists were also artists, writers, poets, or musicians. Albert Einstein played the violin, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter, Galileo was a literary critic and poet, and Leonardo da Vinci was an artist who also happened to be a scientist and inventor. China is one of many countries that understand the need to marry the arts with STEM through STEAM. The United States has not formally adopted the art component, but it must.IMG_0174

Pine River is working to develop STEAM education. Last year, the School Improvement Team explored STEM as a strategy to address a gap in achievement between our boys and girls in math and science. In order to improve the success of girls in math and science and expose all students to the engineering design process, STEM activities were developed for all grades. The students created amazing STEM projects that turned out to be clever works of art. It was obvious that the elementary art curriculum and fostering of creativity positively impacted the STEM work. More projects were developed by teachers this year, and we focused on aligning the projects closely with our science units. Through their STEM activities, students in kindergarten through fifth grade developed the concepts that they had just studied in science and also applied math and technology skills using engineering design methods. All of students saw themselves as scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and inventors. They also realized the value of creativity and innovation. Through STEAM, our students got a glimpse of the future.IMG_0172

Check out the video posted below to get a glimpse into our fourth grade STEAM lab. Watch how Sophie and David share and evaluate their design for a head lantern.

Launching Genius Hour

IMG_0183Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.  Genius hour originated from search-engine giant, Google. Google engineers are allowed to spend 20% of their time to work on chosen pet projects with the idea that productivity increases when people work on that which interests them. This policy has worked so well that it has been reported that 50% of Google’s projects have been created during this period, such as Gmail and Google News.


This genius hour concept is now being applied in classrooms, and we implemented our Genius Hour last week. Each week, the students are provided time in the computer lab to work on a chosen passion project. In addition to doing their research, the students are blogging about their Genius Hour experience in a collaborative digital forum with seventh grade middle school students in Laura McDonell’s computer class at St. Clair Middle School. Both classes will spend several weeks researching their topics, and then they will create a product that will be used to present. My fourth graders will be building individual web sites to present their passion projects.