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How ‘Makers’ Make the Classroom More Inclusive

When Jean Kaneko started volunteering at her son’s kindergarten class in Santa Monica, California, she was surprised by how hesitant the children were to play with toys they didn’t recognize, to make a mess and, well, to be kids.

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Melina Delkic
, New York Times

When Jean Kaneko started volunteering at her son’s kindergarten class in Santa Monica, California, she was surprised by how hesitant the children were to play with toys they didn’t recognize, to make a mess and, well, to be kids.

“'I can’t do that. I’m not good at that,'” she remembered them saying. Even at 4 or 5 years old, there was already a ‘be perfect, don’t fail’ attitude, she said.

So she started bringing in blocks, strange clay creations, crafts, and handing them to the students with no instructions. They warmed to it. The craft supply grew, the activities changed and soon teachers were asking her to go into classrooms and even host after-school programs and camps.

Kaneko describes herself as a maker, and she brings maker spaces to schools all over her area. Now, those include 3-D printers and virtual reality technology.

“Maker” is a vague term — and that’s intentional.

Making should be practical and relevant to some problem a student sees, Dale Dougherty, who is considered by some to be the founder of the maker movement, said in a phone interview. “It’s this sort of creative process of taking an idea, developing it, using tools and techniques to make it real,” he added.

Maker Faire, a gathering of makers and educators held each year in cities around the globe, was co-founded by Dougherty in 2006 in San Mateo, California. This year, the focus of the flagship Maker Faires, which draw some 200,000 people annually, has changed. “A lot of the previous years, we’ve been organized around how do you engage kids and making and the idea of maker spaces,” Dougherty said. This year it’s “on the future of work.”

Some who attend are educators who want to learn about it; some are students showing off their maker projects in a supersize show-and-tell; some work for education nonprofits and want to keep up with trends. Some are not so sure about it.

“I’m a little unclear about what being a maker is about,” said James Bacchi, a biology teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School who was at the event in New York City in September. He grew up working in his dad’s garage, fixing fuel pumps, modifying his bicycle. He was a hands-on learner. “I guess that’s missing from today’s kid culture,” he said.

He was interrupted by one of his former students, James DeLaura, who was there with his physics professor at Kingsborough Community College. He reminded Bacchi that he had been one of his environmental sciences students a few years ago.

“I have a 3.8 now,” DeLaura said with a smile. “I’m not a terrible high school student anymore.” And he has become a maker himself, teaching 3-D printing in middle school classes.

Like DeLaura, a growing group of students who haven’t responded to traditional textbook-and-work sheet learning are excited and inspired about making, teachers say. There are more than 400 active spaces for hacking and making in North America.

Carolyn Barnhart, a science teacher at Fredericton High School in New Brunswick, Canada, was about two decades into her teaching career when she heard about making, and cautiously began to apply it to her classroom. She had been accustomed to airtight lesson plans and scripted lectures.

It was an adjustment: “You’re not the expert anymore. You’re not seen as the sage on the stage,” she said of making. She found herself searching Google to answer things her students asked her, and sometimes simply saying: “I don’t know.”

At first, she was terrified. But the students never pushed back on her new methods. In fact, they grew more and more excited and engaged in her classroom — especially, she said, the students she had trouble energizing about math and science before.

“The kids need to be solving real-world issues in our classrooms, not just taking notes about it, not just reading about it,” she said. “Science is dirty. Science needs to be messy, and we have to be confident enough to get messy.”

Maker Projects

— Sika Attikesse, 16, robotics

Sika is a student in the Bridging the Gap/STEP program at New York City College of Technology (part of the City University of New York), a free program funded by the New York State Education Department. She built a robot in four weeks that beat out other robots from her classmates because she chose to put its “brain” or brick in the middle, centering its weight. It wasn’t easy: “I broke many nails, and the coding was extremely difficult,” Sika said.

— Yashas Anapindi, 15, EcoSoap

When Yashas noticed that the core of a bar of soap often went to waste — about 1 million bars are thrown away each day — he decided to insert a domino or other item in its center. “This is really good for not only helping the environment but also encouraging people to use bars of soap, since they are more eco-friendly when compared to other types of soaps out there,” he said.

— Isabella Monreale, 12, Izzy’s Cardboard Creations

It doesn’t always take fancy materials to make something amazing — take it from Isabella, who makes elaborate monsters and structures from cardboard. “I like monsters,” she said. “I think they’re the funniest, because I get to put my ideas into them.” Much of her inspiration comes from the game “Dungeons & Dragons"; some comes from her favorite YouTube stars.

— Andrew Dupuis, 22, and Xyla Foxlin, 22, Beauty and the Bolt

Dupuis and Foxlin run a nonprofit that provides free STEM education for schools. Their YouTube channel, Beauty and the Bolt, has engaging tutorials for various projects, including 3-D printing, lasercutting, soldering, engineering and much more. At Maker Faire, their booth featured young women dressed as Ariel, Rapunzel and Belle teaching people to use a power drill. The point was that everyone can be an engineer or a maker.

— Jennifer Herchenroeder, 35, prototype engineer and racer

Herchenroeder’s miniature pink Camaro won a sprint race (a race based on lap time that lasted about 10 to 15 minutes) at this year’s Maker Faire. She built the car with a software engineer in four months, and on the first day of Maker Faire, they burned out the entire electrical system by dropping a laptop into the Camaro while the car was open. They sometimes use the car for endurance races, which are 75 minutes long. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, during the endurance race,” said Herchenroeder, who has to use her entire weight (about the same as the car’s) to steer the vehicle.

— Engineering Brightness

A group of students at Riverview High School in New Brunswick, Canada, found out that children their age around the world couldn’t do things as simple as finishing their homework at night because they didn’t have reliable electricity. And they decided to do something about it. So they designed, 3-D-printed and soldered solar-powered lights they could mail to them across the world. “Every time we make a light, we learn something new, and then our learning helps somebody else’s learning, all the way across the world,” said Beth Stevens.

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