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Project-Based Learning Through a Maker's Lens

Patrick Waters

Educator, Writer, Maker
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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.

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Bob Scarfo's picture
Bob Scarfo
Working to bring community-based service learning into K-12.

Simple message, move place-based learning out of the classroom and make it a collaborative student-local citizen endeavor.

Longer message, project-based learning has been the cornerstone of professional architecture, landscape architecture, urban and rural planing and, to some extent, interior design, programs since the early 1900s. I've had teams of alternative high school students working, over a semester, with my university students. The high school teams did better than hold their own. Given Patrick Waters' call for more project-based learning and Maker learning environments, which I thoroughly enjoyed and agree with, I'd suggest a couple modifications.

Use Patrick's recommendations as a stepping stone to move primary and secondary education from its location on the periphery of society to the center. Begin with the community bringing projects to the kids and then working, shoulder-to-shoulder, with them a few hours a week both in the classroom and where the project/problem is located in the community. As it grows, this community-driven, project-based approach to learning brings with it a number of benefits. Learning through community-driven projects is place based. As such the kids come to know the people and the place that are their community. Local citizens and business and municipal leaders come to better appreciate the youth. Education moves a step closer to being an integral part of the community's growth.

As welcomed, active participants and contributors to their community students gain in self-worth. Carried out across primary and secondary education the boundaries separating school and community begin to blur, life-long learning acquires a broader and deeper definition, and through the social relationships built across age groups and occupations, the kids' work fosters greater resiliency. By 12th grade the likelihood that a students has experienced something that gives direction to their life is enhanced.

Promotion of ongoing and completed projects, through local and social media, soon relieves any need for teachers to "chase down community partners." One additional benefit, for me, is that place-based projects usually, in some way, provide for STEM-related learning. But this STEM-related learning is more than robotics and bio-sciences. It is all about the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics of everyday life in the community.

Patrick Waters's picture
Patrick Waters
Educator, Writer, Maker

Thanks for advocating taking PBL to the streets. One of the reasons I advocate for teachers to involve community collaborations into their curriculum because of the organic developmental growth which occurs both in the students and the community. Thanks for bringing your own experiences into the conversation.

Don Daves-Rougeaux's picture

Great article. Check out the UC Curriculum Integration Institutes (UCCI) where teachers are developing fully integrated curriculum based on traditional academic subjects such as mathematics English and history with crew technical education curriculum from the various industry sectors such as arts media and entertainment, public service, engineering, etc. These courses are designed specifically to facilitate inserting project-based learning modules into the curriculum.

Shrikant's picture
Parent of 3 junior school students

Totally agree with what teachers have to deal with while incorporating such 'new' ways of teaching and its a challenge to 'justify' if the activity is subjective and hard to 'quantify' in some grade/marks.
Having said that, I think its time to evolve the system past grade/marks if the end goal is to prepare the students for 21st century global workplace where PBL is even more essential and practical. If we keep thinking how to fit this with current grade/marks system, we are working backwards (trying to fit square peg in round hole).
I am working on this challenge and have a system that monitor the 'performance' (a way to quantify / justify efforts) combined with 'subjective potential' (for the reviewer - kind of beauty is in the eye of beholder principle) = grade/marks (in traditional sense). This is what we do in real life during interviews even when the potential candidates have same degree/grades/GPAs - the recruiter looks subjectively beyond the grades for final selection. So, why can't that be part of our education system as well?
Would love here comments/ideas,

Virginia Malone's picture
Virginia Malone

The hardest part for kids is asking the essential questions. I no longer teach, but I used the following method in science, should work for makers, too. Basically the kids can ask all kinds of questions and then I separate out those that can be answered by them using the materials we had (which is not much) Then we look for patterns in the questions. In science some of the easiest for kids to ask "what will happen if I..." "how will ... behave in ... conditions." For details.
Go to Currki and search on Inquiry with Anything.

Patrick Waters's picture
Patrick Waters
Educator, Writer, Maker

Virginia -

Thanks for some guidance on questions. Essential questions make PBL & inquiry-based curriculum move forward. I use a similar method as you - the students brainstorm, I edit and refine, then we group them into categories/expected similarities. When everything clicks, it's incredible the amount of learning which can take place.


Justin Cook's picture
Justin Cook
Director of Learning, Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools

Two books that serve as great companions to this great post:

"An Ethic of Excellence" by Ron Berger:

"Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom" by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager

Patrick Waters's picture
Patrick Waters
Educator, Writer, Maker

Thanks for the resources - I really enjoyed Martinez & Stager's book. It breaks down lots of the tools available for making. I'll have to check out Berger's work.


Audrey Homan's picture
Audrey Homan
Edtech maker, gamer and blogger

Great article! I know that when we had middle school students approach their big PBL project for the year with iPads in hand, their enthusiasm for it went through the roof. I'd love to see what they could do with more canonically "Maker" equipment like squishy circuits, a 3D printer or arduinos.

I'm wondering, though: what's the best way to jumpstart a PBL project in a school without those resources? What is, say, the one best Maker tool to start with?

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