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The Why Behind The Making

The Why Behind The Making

Written by David Perlis
April 18, 2015

Last week, I read an article on, describing Nancy Pelosi’s “awe” for the maker movement. The article was old, (published January of last year), but I was still happy to see this opinion vocalized, being a maker-educator, myself.

We call our makerspace the “Creativity Lab.” In six years it’s grown from a single robotics elective into a full-blown making program at a community charter school in Oakland, CA. The Creativity Lab is a colorful, 640 square foot room, with tubs of motors, batteries, Popsicle sticks, and whatchamacallits, but, as much as possible, we try to integrate making into each of our K–12 classrooms. Having gone through the process of slowly designing and redesigning our own making program, last year we started offering professional development sessions to help other educators do the same. We get good attendance. People are interested in the all-powerful maker movement. It’s big! It’s exciting! It’s—trendy? 

It’s easy to see how people are hearing about and becoming interested in making, with mini Maker Faires springing up across the globe, and peeps like Nancy Pelosi voicing their support. So, that’s the “how.” But when we’re talking about bringing making into the classroom—using it as an educational tool—isn’t it important that we understand the “why?” 

Here’s a question: How do you integrate making into an English class? This question and other of its ilk are pretty common at our professional development sessions. Adding making to math and science classes seems pretty straightforward—any sort of engineering challenge has each of these subjects out the wazoo. But the humanities seem trickier. So how do we do it? And why do we want to?

Actually, I happen to think making already happens in the humanities. I call short story writing “making.” I call dramatic performances “making.” The same goes for cooking, photography, sewing, painting. And yet, we still get these teachers at our sessions asking how they can add making to their lesson plans. Aren’t they already doing it? Are they missing the point altogether? Am I? What’s the difference between an art class and a making class? Just recently we had a gathering of self-proclaimed makers, in which we tried to tackle that very issue. The result was inconclusive.

It’s interesting that so many people want to hop on board the maker movement, when we haven’t even definitively tackled what constitutes making. Maybe writing and drawing classes just feel too routine. Maybe they don’t push the boundaries enough. Out with the old, and all that. I get it. I will say that the making we do at the Creativity Lab tends to have an element of empowerment to it. Our kindergarteners use handsaws and hammers on an almost daily basis. By the time they’re seniors, they’re using laser cutters better than most of our teachers. Imagine going into a technical college and already having that sort of experience.

See, making is great as a means. A means of giving students ownership of their learning. A means of keeping classrooms engaging and exciting. A means of facilitating deep conceptualization. Not to mention the persistence, skill-building, and practical experience that almost inevitably go with it.

That’s the “why.” And the “why” is paramount. As far as I’m concerned, the making, itself—well, that’s just lagniappe.

In January, the question of integrating making into an English class came up again, when two teachers from San Diego attended one of our sessions. Their solution was a spin on an exercise called “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” (PPC), that comes from Project Zero—a research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Our two attendees proposed to have students look critically at a piece of literature, analyzing how the different elements of the writing worked together to form a whole. So, taking Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, students might look deeply at how the setting of the train station works in conjunction with the third person point of view, and so forth.

It’s not a bad idea at all. It makes students think critically about literature, and my colleagues and I certainly appreciated how PPC was being used to analyze ideas rather than physical objects. Overall, I think this sort of literary deconstruction would be great in any English classroom. But is it making? No. I mean, I guess you could open this one up for debate, too—it certainly encompasses the critical thinking we strive for—but, in my opinion, making means making. A more clear-cut making project would be for students to laser cut Hemingway’s story into a block of wood, which, upon seeing, those who blindly follow the maker movement would give fervorous applause, and cheer, “The makers have done it again!”

Uh-huh. I ask you: which exercise—the literary analysis, or the laser cutter—gives students a deeper understanding of Ernest?

This is what happens when making becomes an end over a means. Not that I think using a laser cutter to write literature is somehow subpar. I simply stand behind the “why,” over the “what,” and I’m not yet ready to declare those classes and assignments that take a more traditional approach to education as worthless. Have we come to the point already where we firmly believe that no making means no creativity, or worse—that it means ineffective? I love making, but I don’t know that it has to be the pièce de résistance in education. Maybe it’s just a piece. Maybe it’s just the square block, alongside the star, and triangle, and circle…

Don’t get me wrong. I still think there’s room for effective and meaningful making in the humanities. Take, for instance, those short story classes that maybe don’t have quite the oomph that we’d like. Aren’t they engaging? Don’t they give students ownership of learning, by asking them to share their work with fellow classmates? Sure—some. It hardly stretches them, though. Better yet might be telling students they have three months to submit a short story to The New Yorker. Give them the practical experience of submission and rejection. Motivate them with the cash prize for accepted pieces, and the opportunity to be published in one of the most recognizable publications across the world. Will any of them actually succeed? Doubtful—but the failure will likely push them as much as success. If they do get accepted, I suggest giving them the A.

So there’s one idea. I’m sure there are hundreds of others, if that one doesn’t strike you. Or maybe you’ll decide to forego the making altogether. But whatever direction you choose, don’t lose the “why.”

And don’t try to fit the square block in the circle hole.

In the weeks to come, we are focusing on Maker Faire prep, but I’m also working on an updated project guide for scribble machines.

It would be nice if I could fit this project guide to the template I just created for Turtle Art, but we’re talking about two very different kinds of projects. The Turtle Art project guide is designed to teach a specific curriculum over a series of lessons, while scribble machines are more of an exercise in creative design and observation. So I’ve been playing with different ways to structure this guide, which has led me to experiment with expanding the project, itself.

I’m wanting to add a greater complexity and technology aspect to scribble machines, beyond just taping markers to a plastic cup, so right now (as I type this), I’m 3D printing my own, customized scribble machine that I designed on TinkerCAD. I feel like this takes scribblers from an elementary school project to a middle and even high school project, giving students the opportunity to really think critically about their designs, and spend time tinkering and fussing over the nuances of how their machine will work. I started my design yesterday, and have already had to tweak measurements five or six times.

Right now my idea is to create shafts that the markers can fit snuggly in, (because, as anyone who’s ever made a scribbler knows, getting the markers secured solidly and precisely is a pain), with holes throughout the body to tie a motor down.

A few tips:

1. Test run individual components before spending two hours waiting for the entire design to print. Don’t assume your markers will fit into your precisely measured and designed tubes that you’ve spent an hour printing. Make a tiny ring using those measurements first, then go for the gold. I learned this the hard way…

2. For my design, I had to angle the shafts outward for balance.

3. As much as possible I tried to fill my design with holes, to not only cut down on print time, but also to give as many options as possible for tie-ons to my design.

So, here it is, after just a few hours of tinkering and printing.

(The video is too big to upload, but click here to see it in action.)

I really like how snuggly the markers fit. (I think I used a diameter of 0.635 for the shafts.) I can see students taking this project even further from here. As I was printing mine, I considered how annoying it would be to have to design and print a whole new machine if I wanted different marker placements, etc, so I thought creating interchangeable parts might be fun, to keep the design as flexible as possible. And I think it probably wouldn’t be too hard to use an electronics kit with servos (like Hummingbirds) to program the machine to draw specific shapes.

Anyway, these are some ideas I’m playing with right now. Perhaps you’ll see some of them at Maker Faire.

This project guide offers a method for teaching basic circuitry and developing powers of observation and persistence by building simple robots that color as they move.

Open Scribble Machines.pdf

Frankly, I don’t know what our official title for this project is. Around the Creativity Lab, we generally just refer to it as “the hand project,” or “hands,” as in: “Students are working on their hands,” or, “Do we have any hands we can show off to a tour group?” So, here it is:

The Hand Project: Build a device that can be manipulated to pick up objects. Grading is based on creativity, effort, and the machine’s ability to effectively pick up a series of objects of different weights and sizes.

Students begin by studying their own hands—how joints and tendons work together to form grabbers, and so on. It’s a quick examination, just to give students some ideas to jump-start their design process. Our main material for the hand project is cardboard. (It’s cheap; it’s in abundant supply; it’s sturdy; it’s easy to work with…)

Here’s an idea of a basic design:

1. Students trace and cut out their own hands on cardboard

2. Attaching strings that run through straw pieces along the fingers creates tendons that let the fingers bend when the strings are pulled. The more straws pieces used, the more the fingers will bend.




(Note. Though the four main fingers tend to be easy to manipulate, creating a thumb is more challenging. This is where a lot of the design process and creative thinking comes into play. Just like a cartoon hand might be animated with three or four fingers instead of five, students are encouraged to reimagine what a hand should look like.)

Students are free to deviate from the hand idea altogether—and, frankly, students who branch out tend to be the most impressive in regards to creativity and persistence. (This is why calling the project “hands” doesn’t quite fit, but we’re going with it for now, anyway.)

One student designed hers to work like a prehensile tail.

The tail design was able to pick up a berry basket and cup of water, but denser objects proved too heavy for the cardboard. The student received an “exceeds expectations” grade regardless, for the effort and creativity involved.

We took our hands to Maker Faire this year, and they were a huge hit. Comment and let us know what you think!

“The Hand Project” designed by Jeremiah Jenkins. Pictures and videos feature 7th and 8th grade students at Lighthouse Community Charter School.

Our kindergarteners are some of our biggest makers at Lighthouse. They make year-round, usually with sewing and woodworking (using handsaws, clamps, drills, and hammers). Now, they are in their second week of testing out a programming unit, and so far it looks like it’s going pretty well.

The tool (toy?) they’re using is called a Pro-Bot, and our students are experimenting programming their Pro-Bots to move in specific patterns. You can actually stick a marker into the Pro-Bot, making it draw as it moves—and maybe our kinder classes will build up to that—but here’s what I’ve seen them trying so far:

1. Working in groups of two, students designed “roads,” keeping their turns at right-angles.

2. Unless you tell the car otherwise, a “forward” movement equals 25 centimeters. (Actually, according to Pro-Bot’s website, it’s a turtle disguised as a car.) Our kinder teachers are using this as an opportunity to give students practice measuring. Students design their roads by drawing a 25 cm long line, then putting a mark. That indicates a single forward command. From there, students will lengthen their road in the same direction by another 25 cm, or draw a perpendicular unit, also 25 cm.

3. They started small with their programming, only entering one (maybe two) commands at a time. So, for instance, if their entire road design required a program of “forward, forward, left, forward, right, forward, forward,” students would enter “forward,” let their Pro-bot move, clear the program, enter “forward” again (keeping the Pro-bot where it was), let their Pro-Bot move, clear their program, enter “right,” let their Pro-Bot turn right…

4. Their latest step has been recording their commands by drawing arrows to indicate what direction their Pro-Bots moved or turned. They are still building their programs piece by piece, but recording what they are inputing, so as to be able to build a single program that will let their Pro-Bots go the entire length of their roads.

Watch our students experiment and work through problems, and comment to let us know what you think.

(For more information on our making program, visit the Creativity Lab’s website.)

At the Creativity Lab, we understand the worries and headaches that often go along with trying to design and create a makerspace. Just knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. In fact, we hear enough concern over how to create a makerspace that we host an entire workshop on the subject. So, what’s the secret to a “correct” makerspace? (I’ll answer that below), and how do you get started? Here’s how our students did it.

Miniature Makerspaces—Bringing Making Into the Classroom

While some of the making happens in our physical Creativity Lab, we try to extend the making program at Lighthouse into each of the core classrooms. For their last project of the trimester, our seventh and eighth graders built miniature makerspaces for our kindergarten classrooms.

Our kindergarten classes make year-round. They use hand tools (like handsaws, hammers, and drills) to make their own toys and furniture. They make puppets with hot glue. They build scribble machines, sew, program computerized cars, and so on.

Kinder Wo IMG_2377

“It was clear they needed something for storage and organization, but, more importantly, they needed something exclusively devoted to making. I gave the seventh and eighth graders a limited introduction to the project—that the kindergarteners were making, and that we were going to make a space for them. From that basic starting point, we began to build our collective ideas through research.”
-Jeremiah Jenkins, Middle School Making Instructor

For the seventh and eighth graders tasked with building the makerspaces, this was an exercise in design-thinking,
problem-solving, persistence, collaboration, and craftsmanship.

Designing, Organizing, Planning

To start their project, the middle school makers discussed organization strategies, and creative solutions to practical issues. They compiled their ideas in journals, then designed their own ideal makerspaces (they were allowed to be as imaginative as they wanted).

“One student drew a layout of a 3 lift mechanic garage, and another student had a water slide that led to a petting zoo. The designs varied from the practical to the outrageous, but in all cases the students were asked to explain and support their design decisions.”
-Jeremiah Jenkins

Let me take a moment to talk about “design thinking.” Design thinking is a process of exploring creative ideas, with the goal of going beyond simple, primary functionality. We often think of it as designing with empathy. “What would people like?” over simply “What would work?” Design thinking often involves interviewing “customers,” and we consider it a big part of the making we do at Lighthouse.


So, once the students had gotten into a creative mindset, they interviewed the kindergarten teachers, asking what would best serve their purposes, and began to narrow their ideas into the more practical. To give the students a starting off point, Jenkins provided each class with discarded dressers that the students would repurpose, keeping in mind each teacher’s needs. Then students were divided into four groups:

Project managers: Scheduled tasks and checked on the groups’ progress.

Function designers: Developed the pragmatic use of the space. Researched storage ideas, and took measurements.

Creative designers: Developed the look and aesthetic experience of the space. Polled kindergarteners to create a space that they would be happy to use.

Fabricators: Worked with the designers to create construction strategies.

These roles were specific to the design phase, and were more or less dissolved during construction.

“When the roles and groups were assigned, students were not “into it” for the most part. As the project proceeded, they took ownership of the roles, and put their minds to them.” -Jeremiah Jenkins

“I liked getting to design the spaces, and having to figure out how to make everything work. It was hard sometimes, but fun to plan and be creative.”
-7th Grade Function Designer



Making Our Miniature Makerspaces

One of the tenants of our making mindset is giving students ownership of their learning—meaning we try to give them space to explore, ideate, and experiment on their own, before giving explicit instructions. Building these makerspaces was no different.

Students worked in groups to develop different aspects of the spaces, with Jenkins meeting with the project managers to give support as needed. (Making sure students stayed on track, and were realistic with their goals.) Seventh graders built a makerspace for one classroom, and eighth graders the other. Here were some of their ideas:

1. Put the dressers on locking casters.
2. Attach a pegboard for tool storage.
3. Build a step stool to help students reach high tools.
4. Secure a milk crate to the space, for extra storage.
5. Build a handle to help transport the space.

Students also had to find ways to brace the bottoms of the dressers, as the dressers had begun to fall apart in some areas.

The construction phase gave students the opportunity to develop their craftsmanship. Jenkins gave instructions on how to use a circular saw (we use battery-powered circular saws that require both hands to be away from the blade to work—for added safety), and students had already gotten experience using drills and handsaws throughout the year. With all of our making that involves tools, students are required to wear safety glasses and gloves.

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Reflecting on Our Makerspaces

Our kinder classes have already put their makerspaces to use. Are these spaces perfect? Not quite, but they are a step in the right direction. Emily Smith, one of our kinder teachers, liked that her space has kept students’ making more organized—that students have an easier time planning their projects because they can easily find and access all of their tools, and that students are tending to spend more time working on a single project now that they have the means to store them.

“I could definitely see that our kindergarteners were inspired just by the fact that other students designed and built these spaces specifically for them. The kindergarteners also were able to take ownership of their space, by deciding where they were going to put their tools, and how they would label them.”
-Robbie Torney, Kindergarten Teacher

So how could the spaces be improved? What went wrong? Torney says that although the space gives them some storage, they could use more. For his space, the eighth graders had tried to attach plastic garbage cans for lumber storage, but they were flimsy, and broke off soon after construction. Smith appreciates that the seventh graders built a stool for the kindergarteners, but wishes that the spaces themselves were actually lower, so her students could use the counter as a workspace.

And with all of that said, here is the secret to a “correct” makerspace:

Improving it. And then improving it again.

In fact, I’ll go ahead and say that that is the secret to making, in general. Plan your project out, but don’t be afraid to dive in and make mistakes. As Seymour Papert says, “You can’t get it right without getting it wrong.” So be willing to get it wrong. Our seventh and eighth graders would be quick to tell you that they could have spent more time planning their projects, done a better job with sanding, and now they can see how their storage spaces don’t quite work for all of the tools that our kindergarteners use. And they’ll use what they’ve learned to do better in the future.

“Most of the projects we did throughout the year incorporated design and fabrication skills, but they were all ‘fun’ challenges. This project was fun at times, but also difficult. Having a client depending on them, and having so much to consider in terms of time and materials I think made students push a little more than with the earlier projects. With this project, I saw in many of the kids a maturing relationship with making.” -Jeremiah Jenkins

Makerspace designed by 7th graders     

Makerspace designed and built by 7th graders.

Makerspace designed by 8th graders     

Makerspace designed and built by 8th graders.

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