Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens

July 9, 2014

The rise of the Maker has been one of the most exciting educational trends of the past few years. A Maker is an individual who communicates, collaborates, tinkers, fixes, breaks, rebuilds, and constructs projects for the world around him or her. A Maker, re-cast into a classroom, has a name that we all love: a learner. A Maker, just like a true learner, values the process of making as much as the product. In the classroom, the act of Making is an avenue for a teacher to unlock the learning potential of her or his students in a way that represents many of the best practices of educational pedagogy. A Makerspace classroom has the potential to create life-long learners through exciting, real-world projects.

Making holds a number of opportunities and challenges for a teacher. Making, especially to educators and administrators unfamiliar with it, can seem to lack the academic rigor needed for a full-fledged place in an educational ecosystem. However, project-based learning has already created a framework for Making in the classroom. Let's see how Making could work when placed inside a PBL curriculum unit.

What Do You Want to Do?

The first step in designing a PBL unit for a Maker educator is connecting specific content standards to the project. The development and adoption of new content standards in math, ELA, and science has placed increased importance on the process and construction of a student's learning. Making loves the process and allows the teacher to move fluidly between levels and subjects. When I designed a middle school level Forces and Motion unit, NGSS MS-PS2 dovetails nicely with CCSS Mathmatical Practice. My students would have to interpret and communicate their results through mathematics. Once I chose the appropriate standard for my students, I could begin brainstorming projects.

Choosing, thinking, reflecting, and sorting possible projects should be a career-long process. Good projects don't fade with time -- they get richer and more exciting for both teacher and student. Great projects, on the other hand, are opportunities for learners and teachers to collaborate with those around them. As such, my students and I might spend weeks asking ourselves inquiry-driven questions and checking out online resources (such as those listed below) as brain fodder. Collaboratively, we narrow down our choices. I use my voice in the process as sparingly as possible, but I do guide my learners to projects which reflect our subject area, my own expertise, and my strengths as an educator to projects which can be completed in the time allotted. Lastly, we determine if we have the right resources and tools. It's a messy process, but the results can be incredible.

Essential Questions

With an appropriate project chosen, an educator can begin framing the learner's journey. Essential questions are best tool available for Maker educators to frame this journey. Essential questions are open-ended prompts which initiate, engage, and guide the student into the learning process. With practice, the students can frame the questions themselves. Collaborate with your students by having them list their queries and send them off to find answers from a myriad of sources. Keep the ones they can't answer yet. In a strong inquiry process, the students reveal their previous knowledge and their needs, allowing the teacher to craft respectful, differentiated learning goals that match. Once completed, the project becomes less of a daily race to fulfill lesson plans and more of a quest to document your students' growing capabilities. In my classroom, our Forces and Motion unit began with "How do we make a derby car travel faster?" Then it changed into "Does mass increase the car's velocity?" -- and a whole host of other questions. Making is a process, and strong essential questions allow the educator to frame the journey while allowing the learner to make inquiry-driven discoveries.

Making requires partners. Find a colleague in your school to support delivering cross-curriculum instruction. Chase down community partners, such as local Makerspaces and scientific organizations, who may lend expertise and resources. I've found Twitter indispensable for connecting with other educators with similar passions. Bring these resources into your classroom.

Finally, an educator can start thinking about individual lessons. The teacher can break down large units into smaller essential questions ("How does the arm length effect the distance of a catapult shot?"), and use these smaller questions to build to a monster prompt ("Can I make a catapult which shoots a marshmallow over 30 feet using these materials?"). With careful planning, these small labs take very little build time, often reuse materials, and allow for a gradual building and exploration of knowledge. Good preview and reflection cycles allow me space to introduce and reinforce the standards, and allow the students time to process and apply their knowledge. I often use blogging as an online showcase of my students' mastery.

Failure Is a Preferable Option

Good projects require failure. Great projects can teach a student grit, but you have to model it yourself first. Processing failure with your students turns a moment of fear into an opportunity for learning in a safe place. Strong PBL units increase student engagement while empowering students, therefore minimizing maladaptive behaviors.

Teachers new to PBL and Making often make similar mistakes:

  • Choosing projects too large for their comfort level and resources
  • Focusing on the outcome, not the process of Making
  • Thinking the educator must have the answer

Making is a discovery process for both educator and learner. Making allows the teacher to move from author of knowledge to master fabricator or builder. Making allows the educator to model the learner that he or she wants students to become.

Making requires support from all the stakeholders in the classroom: students, parents, colleagues, and administration. In order to build that support, an educator has to communicate by:

  • Giving voice to the students' desire to learn
  • Inviting parents to witness their students' learning and creations
  • Collaborating with other teachers to share and grow professionally
  • Building administration support by inviting them to see the growth of your classroom

Blogging in any form is the most effective tool available to the educator, a platform for all these levels of sharing.

If you're looking for more about Making, check out these resources:

And if you have experiences with approaching a PBL unit as a Maker, please share in the comments section below.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Maker Education

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.