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Maker Education

Middle School Maker Journey: Everything’s Going Well . . . We Think

In part six of his year-long series, Kevin Jarrett reflects on his middle school makerspace’s successes and growth opportunities, with an eye on the upcoming capstone projects.

January 19, 2016
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Well, it's been three and a half months since the launch of our new Technology, Engineering & Design (TED) program and the christening of #NCSDigitalShop at Northfield Community Middle School. My students and I are deep into the third of six Design Experiences, and the curriculum arc that I've been imagineering since this past summer is coming into focus. We're building a culture of wonder, possibility, and innovation; we've adopted a common language around creativity; and we've identified three of our four grade-level year-ending capstone projects. We've got this thing turned up to 11, and we're having the time of our lives.

So what's ahead? What course corrections might ensure smooth sailing through the rest of the school year? What will we keep or discard? And can we somehow finish stronger than we started?

Silos Are Bad

We knew from the start that for this program to live up to its full potential, our energy, creativity, enthusiasm, and innovations needed to spread to the rest of the school. We're starting to see that happen:

Takeaway: Keep pushing in new directions, and do whatever is necessary to support colleagues as they experiment with and embrace the innovations and methods we’re pioneering.

Rough Sledding

One thing we have to work on is expecting the unexpected:

  • Mrs. Stephanie Terista's seventh-grade students have been patient, hardworking angels as we've fought our way through a super-cool project based on the article "Creating book-based video games using Raspberry Pis" -- which is about an 11th-grade AP literature class. No worries! Press on! Sure, it turns out that the latest version of Scratch isn’t compatible with the Raspberry Pi -- but it's just a minor setback when these kids have to rewrite their code! Sure, we’ve got weeks to get this project done. (Whoops, there goes the marking period!) Yet we're still in the hunt and we will prevail -- it's just taking waaaaaaaay longer than we anticipated.

  • Is 3D printing for you? Sure it is -- if you have nights and weekends to spare, endless patience, mechanical aptitude, and the ability to reassure (and teach) crestfallen students when their prints fail. No, seriously, 3D printing is crazy awesome and in my opinion has the greatest potential of any educational technology available today (outside of laser cutting) to completely capture student imaginations. Your classes will immediately become cooler as kids think up designs relevant to your curriculum. Just be prepared to spend quite a bit of time watching, maintaining, and caring for your 3D printer, which isn't plug-and-play technology yet. Even the best 3D printers (such as our beloved Lulzbot Minis) need lots of TLC.

Takeaway: Everything is awesome, until it's not. Power through. It will be awesome again.

Too Much Is Never Enough

Planning my Design Experience (DE) lessons is the hardest work I've ever done as an educator. In fact, I ran out of weekend recently in the process of designing about 30 Challenge Cards (introductory maker activities) that students got to choose from in DE.2.

I started with a list of technologies that my kids needed to know and use later during our capstones, and then scaffolded them to three levels: Apprentice, Craftsman, and Master. Just some of the activities:

  • Basic Arduino (Lilypad & Uno) programming
  • LEDs (did someone say straw lightsaber?) and simple circuits
  • littleBits
  • Digital photography
  • Video production
  • Robotics
  • Using our Cricut electronic cutter
  • Coding
  • Makey-Makeys
  • 3D design
  • Minecraft

As hard as it is to plan these experiences, actually leading them -- especially the first time through -- is pretty harrowing. Imagine playing multi-dimensional chess in the middle of an earthquake while your house is on fire. Imagine 20+ kids, all working on different projects simultaneously, some needing assistance, but most not, with all manner of gleeful sounds, clicks, and scampering around the room. Imagine kids collaborating, helping each other, exclaiming when something works, getting help when it doesn't. It's exhilarating, terrifying, and awesome.

Takeaway: Choice is great, but too much choice is counterproductive and overwhelming. I need to limit the number of activities, and ensure that the highest-level projects are challenging but still attainable.

Curriculum Arc and Capstones

So far, we've found that building this ship while we're flying it requires a special combination of experience and curiosity; comfort with extreme levels of ambiguity and pedagogical chaos; a powerful personal learning network; and relentless, continual introspection. We are striving to make each Design Experience meaningful, effective, and personal.

  • DE.0 was an introduction to our program, learning space, and philosophy of education. Here I told the students that they have greatness within them, that they matter, and that they can change the world.
  • DE.1 was a two-phase deep dive into design thinking. Students learned design by doing design in both highly compressed (one session) and more relaxed (four session) time horizons.
  • DE.2 (where we are now) focuses on tools and is intended to give students experience with a range of technologies that they may decide to use in their capstones. Every student doesn't have to master every tool, but enough students in each group need to be proficient with enough tools so that the team can execute any idea it has.
  • DE.3 and DE.4 have yet to be envisioned.
  • DE.5 and DE.6 will be devoted to the capstones.

So far, I've planned these grade-level capstone projects:

  • Fifth grade: This design study centers around one of our second-grade students who wears a hearing aid and has difficulty playing sports without it. (Added bonus: His older brother is in fifth grade, and his mom wears a hearing aid and is active athletically as well.)
  • Sixth grade: This design study involves one of our staff members who has multiple sclerosis and could use some help carrying her belongings into school every day.
  • Seventh grade: They don't have a capstone. Yet.
  • Eighth grade: They'll be designing, customizing, 3D printing, and assembling robotic prosthetic hands for approximately 26 different individuals worldwide.

These capstones will push students to apply and use their skills acquired through mindful exploration and purposeful engagement in an authentic experience that will change the world. It's all in The Manifesto.

Takeaway: Think global, but act local by tying the capstones to our communities whenever possible.

So there you have it. Things really are going pretty well. We must have overlooked something. But what? Next month, we'll focus on assessment. Thanks for reading!

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  • Maker Education
  • Design Thinking
  • Learning Environments
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School

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