(istock)

Juan Carlos Galindo, a Wheaton High School ninth-grader with attention-deficit disorder, always had difficulty managing academic demands when he was younger. His mother, Virginia Munoz, a single mother of four, regularly found her son asleep with homework in his lap. She knew he was struggling, and she worried he would become a checked-out, rebellious teenager.

In seventh grade, however, Juan Carlos was invited to participate in a maker learning partnership between Parkland Middle School in Rockville and the KID Museum in Bethesda. The maker philosophy emphasizes hands-on, self-guided projects to build kids’ technical skills and confidence through tinkering, inventing and designing.

The program was a game-changer for Juan Carlos. Instead of growing increasingly disengaged from school, his focus and his confidence in his abilities expanded as he learned to code and use a 3-D printer at the KID Museum’s Invention Studio. Cara Lesser, the museum’s founder, says that the movement represents a paradigm shift.

“It feeds the sense of agency that is missing in many of our traditional school settings,” Lesser said. “At its core, maker learning equips kids with the skills to create something of their own design, challenging them to figure out what’s necessary to bring their ideas to life.”

As a school counselor, I value the philosophy’s potential to level the playing field for kids such as Juan Carlos, while also creating transformative educational and emotional experiences for all types of students.

At the Invention Studio, Juan Carlos was able to experiment and take risks in ways that didn’t always feel as safe at school. Tony Wagner, author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” says that children like Juan Carlos often feel penalized for their mistakes. When we bring the best of maker learning into the traditional school setting, Wagner says, “we encourage kids — especially those who are not good traditional students — to stay curious, to love learning and to value the process of trial and error rather than fearing it.”

In the innovation era, he explains, Google knows everything, and it’s less about what you know than what you can do with your knowledge. “It’s a radically new and very different education challenge.”

Maker learning can also help accelerated learners. For Walt Whitman High School senior Ari Mindell, a member of the Whitman Robotics team and a programming teacher at the KID Museum, the approach enables him to make connections between his studies and real-world problems.

“I can actually apply multi-variable calculus, which is full of abstract concepts, to solve engineering challenges,” he explained. When he instructs advanced young students at the Invention Studio, they thrive on the freedom to design something substantive that’s entirely their own creation.

“Two kids created a humidity, temperature and smoke sensor designed to detect house fires,” he said, noting that the self-directed process deepened their understanding of the material.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. recognizes maker learning’s power to bolster kids’ technical proficiency and its ability to promote emotional skills such as grit, creativity and collaboration. With vision and innovation, he says, we can augment traditional school programming with high-quality, hands-on learning. He urges school superintendents and principals to sign the Maker Promise, a pledge to incorporate making in schools, and he encourages librarians to design spaces geared toward open-ended exploration.

Lisa Hack, the media specialist at Silver Spring International Middle School, converted an alcove in the library into a full-fledged maker space by adding a green screen and space for projects. The school has a Maker Club, and materials are available to students before and after school. She also worked closely with teacher Lisa Labbate to integrate activities into existing school courses. Labbate brings robots and electronic circuits into her English as a second language classroom to teach scientific terminology in a relevant way.

“Whenever a teacher talks about what they’re doing, I am thinking about what types of materials we have that can enhance the students’ understanding using a hands-on approach,” Hack said.

The KID Museum is working with Google and other partners to provide educators such as Hack and Labbate with guidance. They are helping schools roll out initiatives in addition to bringing programming to schools. Last year, Invention Studio instructors worked on-site with the lowest-performing students at three Maryland middle schools.

“We had them build their own boomboxes,” Lesser said. “They had to wire speakers and amplifiers and connect the boxes to their cellphones. One seventh-grade girl started crying when she saw it working, and the instructor started crying, too. It was such a powerful experience for this girl who hadn’t been successful in school.”

Parents and educators can work together to bring authentic maker experiences to kids. Here are seven ways to get the ball rolling at home and in schools:

  • Take field trips to local maker spaces, museums and maker fairs to pique children’s interest in deeper exploration.
  • Encourage kids to use different tools and materials in response to classroom assignments. Instead of using a trifold board or creating a PowerPoint presentation, urge them to create physical objects that demonstrate their learning.
  • Support a trial-and-error approach to kids’ work, stressing the importance of tenacity and learning through failure.
  • Think creatively about extracurricular activities such as Girl Scouts, religious youth groups or team sports, finding ways to build in more collaborative maker space learning projects.
  • Create parent/school partnerships to bring maker learning to fruition, collaborating on fundraising, training, space and material issues, as well as scheduling concerns.
  • Learn about the maker movement philosophy through Make magazine and books such as “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager.
  • Visit online resources such as Makered.org, a nonprofit that facilitates meaningful maker learning; Instructables.com, a do-it-yourself website; and Scratch.mit.edu, which offers activities and a free, accessible way to learn code.

Juan Carlos still finds school challenging, but he knows he has the motivation and intellect to become an engineer.

“I discovered what interests me,” he said. “I may have trouble paying attention in school, but these programs have so many other components, from designing to understanding how things work.”

He participated in GEMS, an Army-sponsored summer STEM enrichment program, joined the Design Apprenticeship Program at the National Building Museum, and returned to the KID Museum to mentor the new group of seventh-graders going through the program. Munoz says maker learning has fueled Juan Carlos’s imagination and changed how she parents.

“I no longer need to keep pushing him,” she said. “His future is his incentive, and we both know he will persevere on his own.”

Phyllis L. Fagell is the counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

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