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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Model Projects: Maker Faire Inspires Learning and Creativity

This event on do-it-yourself projects offers ample fodder for classroom STEM activities.
By Lisa Morehouse

Seats of Learning:

At Maker Faire Education Day, 500 students and teachers gathered on a single day to learn from inventors and participate in hands-on projects.

Credit: Katherine Emery

It's a rare occasion that draws 500 students and their teachers across school district lines to attend one giant educational workshop. It's even rarer that the field trip presents them with scores of hands-on projects that reinforce the everyday lessons being taught in the classroom.

But that's exactly what happens in the San Francisco Bay Area when secondary school classes flock to Maker Faire Education Day. At the May event, the first of its kind, two dozen inventors shared their ideas and creations -- from electronic gadgets to homemade instruments -- and discussed the scientific principles that make their work possible.

Dale Dougherty, founder of Maker Faire -- the larger, weekend-long public event on which the Maker Faire Education Day is based -- says traditional vocational-arts courses are disappearing from school curricula, but many professions still require hands-on skills. This event is one way to keep interest in manual efforts alive.

Natalie Roman, who teaches middle school math and science at San Francisco's Creative Arts Charter School, subscribes to Make magazine, one of the hosts of Maker Faire. "I'm a really big fan of the do-it-yourself spirit and everything that it's about -- science, art, technology," she says. Roman adds that she took her students to the event for inspiration. "We're a project-based school, so I'm always looking for creative new ways to get my students to use their hands."

The Eyes Have It:

Even small hands can build the circuits for the Blinkybugs.

Credit: Katherine Emery

One model-building project, called the Blinkybug Workshop, fits that bill. Students create electromechanical insects that respond to movement, wind, and vibrations by blinking their eyes. Teachers can duplicate the project, which uses simple materials, in the classroom to teach basic lessons in conductivity to elementary school and middle school students. The Blinkybugs -- which cost less than $4 per student -- consist of pipe-cleaner legs, watch-battery bodies, guitar-string antennae, copper tubing, and flashing, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for eyes. The cute factor of the project draws kids in and interests them in learning a little about currents, circuits, power sources, and switches.

Several students from the Creative Arts Charter School cluster around a table of the Blinkybugs. "Oh, they're so funny!" exclaims Leah, a seventh grader in a cupcake-emblazoned sweatshirt. Blinkybugs creator Ken Murphy explains, "When this piece of metal touches that piece of metal, the eyes go on. A little breeze will make them blink." Leah asks a string of follow-up questions: "Can you use them for finding the wind? How do you turn them off? Do you just take the wires out of the loops?" Murphy's answers give the whole group an introduction to how electricity works.

Murphy, a Web developer who originally created Blinkybugs as a type of lighthearted urban-graffiti art, presented his project to about seventy-five students at Maker Faire Education Day. He also held a special workshop for teachers, during which he recommends creating centers led by volunteers (or a few trained students) for each step of the process. Teachers can expand the lesson to cover basic physics by having students compare how using different lengths of wire for the antennae affects their movement.

Murphy sells four-bug kits online for $15 and says that, due to teachers' interest in using Blinkybugs in the classroom, he's developing a twenty-bug kit with spare parts for an even lower per-unit price. Look for these teacher kits to be available this summer.

Bugs in the System:

Blinkybugs use simple materials to teach basic lessons in conductivity.

Credit: Katherine Emery

At one of Murphy's workshops, middle school students Arno and Dakota assemble their own Blinkybugs. Arno adjusts the guitar-string wire to go through loops he creates in the LED wire leads to make his bug's eyes blink when it moves. "It's just the guitar wires touching the other part," he notes. "They're supposed to go through these holes without touching the sides." Dakota, happy to be done with the standardized testing of the prior week, says the activity was fun. She explains that the bug's eyes blink "because of the negative and positive energy from the battery, the wires, and the antenna thingies." Murphy elaborates, saying that when the long wire antennae touch the LED loops, the contact closes the switch of the electric circuit.

Mollie, a Creative Arts seventh grader, says she visited most of the exhibits at the Maker Faire Education Day and adds that she especially likes Blinkybugs because of the "wire's sensitivity to touch and feel." She also seems to understand the larger point of the event: "Well, our science teacher wants us to learn how to make things and be inspired and just bring out our inner creativity."

Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in San Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public radio journalist and education consultant.

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