The Maker Space movement has taken the educational field by storm, empowering students to harness their own creative potential by solving challenges that matter to them and as a way to express their imagination. You’ve spent a good deal of time finding Maker Space challenges, have all the mixed media materials on-hand and grinning students eager to dive in…but have you considered that they may not have the necessary strategies in place to be successful?
Maker Space is more than crafting, it is a pathway of discovery, experimentation and learning that few kids experience now in the modern age. Before the crafting scissors come out, it is important to consider what learning strategies and skill sets need to be explicitly taught before unleashing your kids. Failure to do so can lead to poor results, frustration and ultimately disinterest in STEAM centred tasks. As educators, we can explicitly model and design protocols so that the outcome of any Maker Space activity is both efficient and effective. We want all of our students to succeed, so it stands to reason that they need the time to learn about and practice critical thinking, decision making, goal setting, effective communication and observation skills (to name but a few!). Maker Space can be a power training place where students make use of these skills and grow in confidence to face the increasingly messier problems of the world.
Dana MacDonald, teacher and FIRST LEGO League coach extraordinaire expressed an interest in designing a Maker Space for her classroom. She wanted a space that not only actively promotes the inquiry process but a place where students could acquire and practice the necessary problem-solving strategies and protocols, thereby making the entire learning process more effective and efficient. As these practices and protocols became second nature to the students, it was hoped that students would be better able to design and manage their own projects; setting goals that truly engage and challenge. Finally, it was hoped that by remediating the strategies involved with the inquiry process students would, could have meaningful opportunities to make new connections and transfer their own learning insights from one situation to another.
Having designed a series of LEGO Robotics camps and learning experiences, a simple framework was created to guide the students more effectively through the learning process.
Stage 1: Setting the Stage
With any great task, a person understands their own role within the project and believe that they have the ability to succeed. Recognizing the importance of this, Dana started this inquiry by looking at STEAM and the individuals who have contributed so much within each of its categories. By looking at both modern day innovators and those of the past, students were challenged to take on the awesome role of artist, engineer, scientist and mathematician. Moreover, students were challenged to accept these roles today, not in some distant future or after years of study.
Stage 2: Modelling the Process
A simple framework of inquiry was developed and then demonstrated, through teacher direct modelling. At each stage of the framework, we took time for students to brainstorm and document the particular actions or questions to be used during each phase of the inquiry task.
Phases of the Inquiry Process
1. Challenge: The challenge is presented.
2. Solve it: Brainstorm as many different ways the challenge could be solved.
3. Choose it: Select one of the solutions you have created.
4. Design it: Draw and label an image of your prototype. Include a list of all the materials you will need.
5. Test it and Improve it: Using a chart, students would identify a minimum of three instances where they test their creation, observing what worked, what didn’t and what changes they plan to make before moving on to the next building phase.
6. Communicate it: At the end of every challenge, all students share about their learning journey, demonstrate their solution and discuss some of the challenges faced along the way and what they did to overcome roadblocks. This can take many forms including video posting, business pitches, or writing pieces.
Explicit Teacher Modelling
Our challenge was simple: to devise a way to help Bob, our LEGO mini-fig across a 30 cm body of water. Students came up with a wide range of ideas. As teachers, we took care to document each idea, modelling the documentation process that was expected from students.
Before choosing the solution we were to attempt, students were then asked to consider the limitations placed on the challenge: time limit of 2 hours, the building materials being only LEGO (we later added string) and that at no time was any part of your body to pass over the river. After selecting a solution, Dana drew a detailed design that included multiple perspectives, labels and arrows indicating the direction of movement. We also included a materials list, although limited by the challenge itself. By modelling the process and demonstrating what the expectations were for each phase of inquiry students had a much better idea of the process.
Stage 3: Gradual Release and Skills Reinforcement
Students were then tasked with completing the challenge on their own. An important note that we have found critical to success. Before a student moved onto the next phase of the inquiry process, students would check in with the teacher who, after a short conversation, would sign off on the respective phase, offering input related to the documentation.
This was especially true during the prototyping phase, where testing and improving their solutions occurred. A major goal was to slow down the pace at which students move through the phases, allowing for periods of reflection before enhancing a solution. Students typically opt for the first solution that pops into their heads, rather than carefully considering all potential options and selecting the one that best fits the situation. By signing off on each documented prototype observation and improvement phase, the teacher could have highly constructive conversations and ensure that student thinking has been properly documented, as a scientist or engineer would. Students were required to complete a minimum of three prototyping phases in order to pause, evaluate and determine the next steps in the building process.
As each student-teacher conferencing opportunity occurred, students gained greater insight into the inquiry model. Having achieved a solution, students were also challenged to increase the level of difficulty on their own; moving away from straightforward solutions to solutions that involved greater engineering challenges. As students came to recognize their own role in determining the criteria for success, they likewise became more empowered to set the bar high, adding increasing layers of difficulty to their own design criteria.
This speaks to the striking advantage of Maker Space, in that it challenges students not only to come up with a solution but to dream up a solution where they are challenged to innovate, learn and test. Many students were able to solve the challenge quickly, yet were excited to have the opportunity to push their own learning towards tough solutions that would hopefully prove more effective (many original solutions would have required Bob the mini-fig extensive recovery time at the hospital). With a successful outcome becoming less important in the eyes of the student, the challenge of the learning journey becomes the priority; ultimately the joy of learning and discovery being the source of pride, rather than the win.
Next steps will include rolling out this approach in the Kindergarten classroom and to try out the use of STEAM student facilitators to guide, assist and document new Maker Space initiates. Stay tuned!