Maker learning in the 21st century

Employers want smart collar, self-starters who demonstrate problem solving, ingenuity, and resourcefulness
By: | Issue: July, 2016
July 14, 2016

It is no coincidence that at a time of staggering family college debt burden, hands-on learning is experiencing a revival in schools, colleges, and universities across the Nation and around the world. Students and families perplexed and frustrated by the gainful employment vs. tuition gap are looking for more practical (maker) skills from their next learning experience.

The wildly popular maker-style building design video game “Minecraft” is just the start of this megatrend. Increasingly, 21st Century employers want smartcollar, self-starters who demonstrate problem solving, ingenuity, and resourcefulness – unafraid to get their hands dirty and feet wet by jumping into their chosen career path early on in the career discovery process.

This maker learning culture focuses on the creation of new products and just-in-time solutions, rather than tinkering around the edges of theoretical and philosophical pursuits. Often seen as disruptive thinkers, maker learners are attracted to highly intelligent engineering and technology disciplines like nanotechnology, photonics, gaming and animation, robotics, and 3D printing. Maker students go even further by transforming these STEM fields into STEA(rts)M because these students are, at root, artisans – focused on the art and craft of their endeavors.

In furtherance of educating and training the workers of the future, we spoke to Superintendent Tim Piwowar of Billerica Memorial High School in Massachusetts about the impact of bringing the FIRST Robotics program to the school, thus providing an opportunity for students to apply their knowledge in a practical, exciting, and engaging way. Piwowar noted that the program has quickly become one of the cornerstones of the School.

At the Tremont School, co-located on the campus of Minuteman Career and Technical High School, prep school students explore career oriented, project-based learning experiences. Though one would think that Tremont and Minuteman students are the product of fundamentally different pedagogies, the maker learning linkages between prep school and vocational education provides students with an opportunity to imagine and re-imagine their life’s work and intellectual curiosity in an open architecture, open source learning environment. At the same time, maker learning reinforces individual student accountability for getting the job done – read as, competency based and skills based outcomes designed to demonstrate practical, can do fundamentals.

In the course of our investigation, we learned more about the Tremont living curriculum from Head of School, Bill Wilmot who put it nicely this way: the Tremont curriculum is devised to create problems of all kinds of just the right scope for students to solve – problems that grow out of their interests and what is real for them. Project-based learning or maker learning is about discovering problems, investigating them, and working toward solutions. As students move into careers, they will confront a world we cannot imagine. They will need critical areas of adaptive expertise nimble enough to respond to the demands of this yet unknown future, which can only be gained by exercising their intellect to solve real problems.

In New York City we found M.S. 245, better known as The Computer School, where maker education has merged with high-tech exploration. Students at MS 245 have dedicated time and space to create robots, build video games, and experiment with technologies of the future. We learned from the School’s Digital Media Teacher, Tracy Rudzitis, that her students live by the motto: everything you touch is an adventure.

In the South we learned about Virginia’s Albemarle County Public School System that has incorporated maker learning at every grade level. The school system focuses on infusing the maker mentality into everyday activities so students naturally develop a sense of wonder and curiosity – no matter what subject they are studying. Albemarle encourages students from different grades to participate in maker spaces for purposes of promoting collaboration and peer-led learning experiences.

On the West Coast, the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California focuses on design thinking to provide an immersive maker learning experience. We learned from Kim Saxe, Director of the Nueva School Innovation Lab, that the School wants students to collaborate with a plan towards action – to help them blast through intricate problem situations, particularly those areas that do not have one right answer.

Maker learning is ripe for partnerships as we discovered at MassBay Community College. We heard from Chitra Javdekar, Dean of STEM, that MassBay has created makerspaces that provide access to technological resources that help release the hidden talents and innovation potential of a community of makers – especially students. MassBay’s partnership with a budding makerspace at Natick Morse Institute Library is helping to address the growing educational needs of the community.

As students graduate high school with a maker background firmly in place and early college credits under their belt, they are poised to more fully engage in a broad and varied range of hands-on maker learning experiences – and importantly, prepared to compete in the 21st Century marketplace of new concepts, new thinking, and new products.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.