Tuesday evening, I visited Georgia Tech’s Invention Studio; a field trip for my MakerSpace / Maker-Mindset course “Inventing to Learn.”
The space is nestled away on the second floor of the Manufacturing Related Disciplines Complex, which also contains larger labs for research, offices, and educational lab spaces. The lab where we debriefed was set up with speaker parts, designed to simply extraneous tasks (such as putting together amplifier circuits) to focus on the product. I’ll come back to this amplifier later.
Inside the space, there are five thematic rooms: Metal Shop, Wood Room, Electrolounge, 3D Printer Room, and the Waterjet/Laser Cutter room. Our guide explained the logic behind some of the divisions: Wood catches fire, and electronics make sparks. Beyond practical reasons for the different spaces, having different spaces within the MakerSpace helps build micro-environments that lure individuals. For example, one student in the 3D printer lab mentioned the music playing in the background; he likes working to music, so he felt more comfortable in this area. Whether it was the music, the couches, or the increasing interest in desktop fabrication, the 3D Printer Room was the most crowded; despite a slight DragonCon Gaming Room / college aroma.
During the tour, students came and went, ignoring us. We saw a few students working with PIs, Prototyping Instructors. These are student volunteers who are available to guide and trouble-shoot projects with students. The PIs’ involvement keeps the space sustainable. They provide the access and training, but maintenance and sustainability depends on a larger group of Makers. The acquisition of skills in this MakerSpace, and ideally all MakerSpaces, resemble a medieval guild. Not every learner needs to have access to a master of a specific room or tool; rather, they just need to learn from someone who knows more than they do about a specific tool or process. Like a squire, a learner may eventually seek out other experts and teach others. This network and community-based system of sharing knowledge depends on a healthy culture.
Where schools often make mistakes is they neglect the maker culture and community. “You can’t build a makerspace,” as our guide put it. They grow organically from evolving needs. If the tools proceed the need, then the community doesn’t have as much ownership over the maintenance and training of the tool, and the provider is responsible for it. But if the community identifies a need for a specific tool, then the group is invested and responsibility is distributed throughout the community. Also, MakerSpaces are a place to play and hangout. People must have the freedom to not always be making while in the space and to observe others working on their own projects. This is equally important as having access to tools and expertise. Curiosity and wonder motivate the learner to ask why and to figure it out. Ideally.
One of the criticisms of MakerSpaces is students do not learn concepts or STEM standards, but they stumble to solutions by trial and error. Rather than designing a product using math or science, students tinker and fiddle with pieces until something they do works. When teachers integrate a Maker activity with academic concepts, frequently the space is set-up with a variety of pieces that encourage students to learn by making mistakes. San Francisco’s Exploratorium Tinkering Studio designs their activities with many different components allowing students to explore what works and what doesn’t.
Tuesday night, during our debriefing session in the lab, we saw a similar activity: making speakers. Pre-made amplifier units were available for students to use while trying to build a speaker. Some circuit designs would work, but not all. The “work” of finding out which circuit functions “is part of the learning process,” our guide explained. This pedagogical perspective assumes that students will ask, “Why?” Educational psychologists will explain children are naturally curious about the world around them, and the teacher can then supply the scientific concept to explain why that specific component works but another doesn’t. In practice, the explanation may be on a handout, on a website, or left for homework. After all, the fun activity motivated the student to learn, right?
But, that’s not always the case. Why should a student who eventually found the right answer seek to learn the governing rule? Moving from the specific to the abstract isn’t easy.
So what could a teacher do to convince students that they need an abstract concept to explain why one prototype didn’t work and another did? The only comparison that comes to mind is Dan Meyer’s approach to mathematics: creating headaches for students where abstract math makes future problems easier. In a MakerSpace, that means understanding the concepts to make subsequent projects easier, which requires teachers to revisit projects and activities. Students should either take what they experienced and turn it into something they could teach another class. Imagine taking the micro-environments within the Invention Studio and distributing them across grade levels or classrooms. Each room has a different tool or activity; students make projects there and become Prototyping Instructors for other classrooms. Like a jigsaw activity but with making.