Making Time for Makerspaces: Teaching Through Making


What is it about the prospect of doing something tactile or physical—performing or making something with your own hands—that propels the interest and creative energy of even the most reluctant learner? Whether through the fine arts, the applied arts or other forms of innovative teaching, the importance of fostering creativity and critical thinking has become a central theme in education (Craft, 2003; Sawyer, 2011).

Ministries of education and school districts across Canada have been grappling with the challenge of identifying and adapting to a rapidly changing and highly elastic set of transferable 21st century skills. Because of their potential to foster creativity and critical thinking, two areas of study receiving a lot of attention these days are technology education and the applied arts (skilled trades), but these areas are conceptualized more broadly than in the past and place emphasis on understanding and applying new technologies in problem-solving contexts.

This resurgence in interest in technology education and the skilled trades has come on at least two fronts. In the 1980s and early 1990s many educational jurisdictions in Canada moved away from subjects like industrial arts (shop) and home economics in favour of a greater emphasis on other academic and entrepreneurial areas of study (McCann, 2012). As curriculum was reshaped to be consistent with this new orientation, some schools dismantled or repurposed their technology education facilities, but critics continue to be troubled by the demise of the applied arts and the loss of programming options for students who were traditionally drawn to skill-based, applied subject areas (Kemp-Jackson, 2016). In recent years, concerns have also been expressed about an unfilled labour market demand in Canada for skilled tradespersons and professionals in engineering and the applied sciences, as fewer students are being drawn to STEM-based occupations (Haynes, 2008; Morgan, 2014). In response, several Canadian jurisdictions have re-instituted course experiences in the skilled trades, and created curricular programs in design and fabrication involving a range of applied knowledge and skills including programming for application in ROV technology, computer numerical control machines (Hache, 2007) and, more recently, 3D printing. Extracurricular projects such as skilled trades competitions, robotics exhibitions and the emergence of makerspaces have complemented this renewal of curricular changes.

What is Maker Education?

Maker education can be thought of as a species of constructivist pedagogy that interprets learning as a highly personal endeavour requiring the learner to initiate the act of learning about technology in its broadest sense (Kurti, Kurti & Fleming, 2014). It is a creative process of designing, constructing (or deconstructing) and/or combining physical or virtual artifacts within the ambience of a supportive community of makers, while utilizing traditional and emerging methods and tools. In the formal education context, teachers are situated as guides or mediators for inquiry-based approaches to the development of knowledge and thinking processes (McWilliam, 2009). But the so-called “maker movement” is not a new idea; its roots are embedded in the constructivist and collaborative pedagogy of educationalists such as John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. Dewey was concerned with interaction, reflection and experience, and his interest was in situating these ways of learning within a community context. Vygotsky (1962) argued that learning is co-constructed under the guidance of teachers or mentors or in collaboration with peers. Papert (1991) drew on these constructivist principles and proposed a theory of constructionism that included the making of “public” artifacts. These ideas underpinned the emergence of the first hackerspaces as early as the 1980s and what we now know as the makerspace movement (Maxigas, 2012).

Who are Makers?

Makers are ordinary people who design and construct things for the intrinsic value and reward of making, modifying, repurposing, problem-solving, discovering and sharing (Kalil, 2013; Martin, 2015). Maker activities embody many of the older traditions of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers and menders who worked in local communities (Martin, 2015). In the early part of the twentieth century, the process of making useful objects was an everyday activity, both in schools and at home. From projects like building a go-cart or constructing a street hockey net to knitting a scarf or sewing a quilt, children and young adults had ample opportunity to co-create with their parents or other mentors in the community. This traditional practice of creating things seems to be enjoying a rebirth in Canada and is attracting the attention of a diverse range of individuals and groups. Today’s maker culture is seen as a stepping off point for informal learning, community-building and innovation and has led to the establishment of makerspaces across a range of public spaces from schools and libraries to colleges and universities. Widespread access to the Internet, the ability to source inexpensive digital tools (3D printers, micro-controllers, etc.) and community infrastructure, and the maker mindset (inquisitive, growth-oriented and collaborative) are all essential elements that have contributed to the growth of the maker culture (Martin, 2015).

Making as Experiential Learning and Community Engagement

Here at Memorial University, our work in conceptualizing makerspaces as teaching spaces is grounded in our interest in constructivist inquiry, teacher experiential learning and university community engagement. The Faculty of Education has been offering a specialized pre-service diploma in technology education for a quarter century; we have the expertise, facilities, equipment and community partners to establish community makerspaces and we took full advantage of these resources for this project. With the support of a public engagement partnership grant from Memorial University, we designed and implemented a project to engage and connect our technology education student-teachers with intermediate-level students, interested members of the general public, and selected partner organizations (e.g., College of the North Atlantic) through the creation of a series of makerspace sessions.

During the fall and winter of 2016/17 we conducted ten makerspace workshops (six sessions focused towards intermediate-level students and their teachers and four open sessions for the general public) where participants had the opportunity to design and create artifacts of their choice while utilizing the Faculty of Education’s technology education facilities. We worked with six volunteer pre-service teachers along with faculty members and master technology education teachers from local schools to help Grade 7 to 9 students and the general public design and make artifacts of their choice. In addition to the actual design and making, we facilitated sessions on safe use of fabrication equipment, application of design software, 3D printing and CNC routing.

The four public workshops were advertised widely in advance and were structured as full-day sessions on four consecutive Saturdays. The sessions were well subscribed and over the four weeks, all skill levels came to be represented—from novice builders/makers to journeyperson carpenters and master Technology Education teachers. Several participants came to the sessions to learn how to use computer-aided design (CAD) software or to learn about 3D printing. Others with specific smaller projects attended for longer periods, while several utilized the entire time available to design and build larger items, such as a benchtop games arcade cabinet, a park bench, and a wooden potato box, among other projects.

The Intermediate school sessions were more structured; we were able to host six intermediate schools (six teachers and approximately thirty students) over three two-day sessions. In each of these sessions students designed and constructed solar powered chargers for personal electronics (smart phones, audio players, etc.). We started with instruction on safe use of equipment, basic electronics and soldering; students were then introduced to drafting and design. Our pre-service teachers also facilitated a lesson on CAD using Sketchup. With this software the students designed a customized case and cover for their solar charger electronics. The first day concluded with a demonstration and workshop on how to transfer CAD designs to the 3D printer, again, led by the pre-service teacher volunteers. During the week between sessions, the cases and covers were printed and our pre-service teachers developed a step-by-step assembly guide. In the second session, students used the guide to help them assemble, solder and test the electronics for their solar chargers and build the units. Students worked in pairs, and our pre-service teachers, volunteers and faculty members provided support throughout the construction phase.

Learnings and Reflections

This project was intended to foster community engagement, creativity, communication and innovation. What we learned from this work is that makerspace pedagogy, as undertaken in this context, seems to be an effective method of (1) fostering experiential learning and (2) engaging and connecting people to be creative, to communicate with and learn from one another and to work collaboratively. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) argue that knowledge cannot be decoupled from the situational and contextual experiences that surround its creation. Learning about something in the abstract is not the same as learning through experience and does not lend itself to transferability. For the thirty intermediate students who participated in the project, we were able to provide a sustained, authentic and situated learning experience that immersed them in the processes, techniques, skills and procedures of constructivist pedagogy. For their part, the adult participants came away with tangible, useful items that they created with new skills and valuable learnings they can build upon.

For the pre-service teachers who volunteered, the project allowed them to gain valuable real-world experience as teacher-mentors. They were able to do some independent instructional planning and learning module development, and further develop their presentation, facilitation and troubleshooting skills. As they interacted with experienced teachers they were engaged in the actual work of the community of practitioners they are seeking to join. Lave and Wenger (1991) contend that it is through these social networks that novices gain the skills and experiences to emerge as experts, in their own right, over time. We believe this project gave students authentic experiences that will reinforce their technical and pedagogical skills and knowledge.

From an organizational perspective, this project opened space within an otherwise formal educational institution for the expression of new, innovative and (possibly) entrepreneurial activities by community participants as facilitated by student-teachers, professors, master teachers and community partners. Schools and education authorities have been looking for ways to foster creativity and creative pedagogy. This project represents a relatively small-scale effort to experiment with makerspaces as experiential learning and community building tools, however; we believe there is significant growth potential for makerspaces as teaching and learning spaces. This is the kind of project that can be adapted for broad application in any number of educational or community development settings. Providing opportunities for learners to develop and practise critical thinking skills by creating things is consistent with the kinds of constructivist pedagogies that have been a defining characteristic of effective schools and community spaces.

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Gerald Galway
Gerald Galway is an associate professor and associate dean in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University. In his career he has also served as a teacher, consultant, policy advisor and senior executive in the Newfoundland and Labrador education ministry. His current research interests include teacher education, research-informed policy, learning technologies, school system governance and education reform. His most recent co-edited book, Inspiration and Innovation in Teacher Education, is published by Lexington.

David Gill
David Gill is an assistant professor of technology education in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University. Prior to this position he was a technology education and learning resource teacher in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and is a past recipient of the Prime Minister’s Certificate of Excellence. His current research interests include K – 12 technology education, the development of technological pedagogical content knowledge, and experiential technical learning environments.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue.

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