Maker Education

Middle School Maker Journey: Shop Class Rebooted. . . Digitally

How do you make a makerspace? Middle school teacher Kevin Jarrett begins his year-long series by reimagining “shop class” with hands-on and online elements.

August 5, 2015
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

"Have you seen this video?" The Twitter message from my good friend and fellow thought-instigator Daniel Scibienski pointed me toward If You Build It, a recent PBS documentary about designer/educator/activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller persuading an underfunded school board to create a new kind of design-based program for the students at Windsor High School in Bertie County, North Carolina.

What I saw affected me profoundly: students, confused and reluctant at first, gradually developing skills and abilities with tools they'd never used before, designing and building increasingly complex things; failing, trying again, improving, collaborating, and ultimately succeeding and celebrating.

I, too, have a vision for a new kind of classroom. I, too, am building something radical, exciting, and even revolutionary. I want to tap the power of design thinking to transform learning in my classroom. We're bringing shop class back to my middle school -- but this time, it's digital.

Kindred Spirits and Shared Vision

In If You Build It, Emily Pilloton asks: "What if you could bring back shop class, but orient the projects around things the community needed?" For me, the connection was instantaneous. In my experience, most STEM/STEAM programs lack context -- community context in particular. It's great to successfully complete a project or challenge, using skills to explore materials, create things, analyze information, form and defend conclusions. But if the creation or solution doesn't solve a problem for someone, what good is it?

At Northfield (New Jersey) Community Middle School, under the leadership of Principal Glenn Robbins, we're building our program around design thinking -- a process, a mindset, a way looking at and seeking to improve the human-made world. We're confident that a focus on design thinking will give students the tools, collaboration skills, and creative confidence to solve problems that meet others' needs. More importantly, since empathy is the foundation of design thinking, we want empathy to be the foundation of our program. We'll challenge our students to identify things that the community needs – either individually (specific community members) or as a whole – and work to understand that need. Then they'll use what they know about the designed world to define possible solutions. They'll refine those ideas, build prototype solutions, test them, and repeat the process. And they'll do it all in a magical space that we're calling Digital Shop.

Learning Space Design

We're not building just any ordinary classroom for this program -- we're creating a full-on makerspace. A makerspace is many things to many people, but to me, first and foremost, it's a flexible learning environment where students tinker with physical objects like simple tools (and virtual systems like computer code) to make things that hadn't existed before. Things that solve problems (see above.) Things that matter.

Here's what we’re envisioning. Picture "shop class" from yesteryear reimagined as a design studio with modern, mostly digital fabrication tools:

  • Laptops and computers of all shapes and sizes
  • 3D printers, digital cameras, robotics, and LCD monitors
  • Lots of cardboard and connectors
  • Arduinos, Hummingbirds, Raspberry Pis, and littleBits modules
  • Journals for sketching ideas
  • LEGOs of all kinds
  • Fabric, other sliceable and shapeable materials, and hot glue guns
  • Upcycled electronics, including old toys
  • Writeable surfaces everywhere
  • Digital projection onto a massive floor-to-ceiling whiteboard wall
  • Duct tape, LEDs, conductive tape and thread
  • Lots of colorful bins with small parts of various kinds

Now, imagine kids working intensely, alone or in small, noisy groups at movable workbenches, on the floor, or anywhere -- experimenting, tinkering, failing, learning, ultimately succeeding, and celebrating when they do. This flexible space will support student learning by creating an environment unlike any other classroom in our school – a classroom where experimentation, innovation, and inquiry rule the day, and where failure is seen not as an endpoint but rather as a momentary pause on the path to success.

My program -- Technology, Engineering, and Design -- will be structured in two parts: a hands-on "studio" portion (described above) that meets all year, and an online component that students can use in school, at home, or anywhere, on any device with internet access.

Can You Say "Gamified LMS?"

In the studio portion of my program, kids are busy making and creating. The other component of the experience is a full-on learning management system (LMS) that is gamified. Why? I want my kids to be able to build the skills that they'll need to excel in my program whenever and wherever they want. I want them to decide how far and how fast to go, to be inspired, challenged, and see their progress at any time. And I want them to do it because they want to. I intend to accomplish this using a Wordpress blog powered by a free plugin called Game On.

This powerful plugin, developed by Mike Skocko and his team of high school students, turns a Wordpress install into a fully customizable, gamified LMS. That puts the LMS into a place where I can create a series of Quests (scaffolded challenges), each with supporting text, video, and other bits of instruction/documentation, for students to complete on their own. They'll submit artifacts electronically and automatically "level up" as they progress. The system tracks progress and generates leaderboards which will motivate kids to work through the modules. My planned topics are coding, digital citizenship, Google Apps, social media, simple machines, Minecraft, robotics, circuitry, and e-textiles. Kids will be able to work on any level challenge in any topic. Say you're in fifth grade and you want to work on the eighth grade's hardest Quest? Go for it!

The combination of these two experiences -- online and in person -- will be, in total, unlike anything these kids have ever done. All we need to do now is build it.

Students walk through the doors on September 8th. Will we be ready? That's the subject of our next post about a month from now. You can also visit our project blog to see how we're doing.

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

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