Maker Resources Rule!

A report from the 2017 FETC exhibition hall.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT FETC 2017.jpgLike one of those all-powerful entities from Sci-Fi movies of the past, sometimes a monster edtech trend appears spontaneously, coalescing from a collection of basic elements and just waiting for a chance to challenge the status quo. Or so it seemed to me as I viewed a very impressive body of Maker-learning resources found throughout the recent 2017 FETC Expo in Orlando. As I explored the exhibitor floor, it became clear that all the exciting maker stuff there was coalescing into an edtech juggernaut, one that will continue to make a major impact in the character of learning.

It is up to the teacher and his or her understanding of creative processes and how to foster and spark student creativity that makes the greatest impact on whether or not Maker-based Learning experiences will be the very rich and hyper-relevant instruction that today’s students need.

When one considers the bountiful body of available Maker resources and what they make possible for today’s students, what comes into focus is a very uplifting vision of a transformed school experience. And, as things displayed at this year’s FETC attest, it’s a vision that’s good-to-go right now. Truly, there’s a very impressive body of affordable and practically implementable things waiting to make the concept of Maker-based Learning come alive in our schools.

There were too many items on the floor to describe them all here. And in fact, some, like the Little Bits electronic construction kits and the Makerbot 3D Printer are already well known, popular, and making a difference in the sort of learning experience schools now offer.

What follows here though, are some resources and the important ideas behind them I came across that I think are truly worth making note of and that I think readers would do well to follow up on, consider acquiring and putting them to good purpose in classrooms.

Tinker Table

As I wandered the exhibit floor, I was attracted to the buzz of excited, joyful activity at a ‘Tinker Table’ where dozens of teachers took advantage of mountains of freely offered supplies to spontaneously create items powered by miniature electronic components. This hub of inspiration powerfully demonstrated the potential Maker Resources represent to breathe fresh life into teaching and learning. The Tinker Table was part of the display area of United Data Technologies (UDT). Chief Technology Officer Danny Rodriguez explained to me that UDT provides an array of Maker oriented tech resources to schools, helping them select appropriate and effective resources and supporting them in managing and implementing them. My takeaway? Maker-based Learning can provide excitement and spontaneous expression-fueled learning – it offers high student engagement driven by opportunities for discovery, reflection, and hands-on learning in action. It was great to see a large gaggle of teachers modeling and living all this at the very center of the exhibit.

Meaningful Making

For me, a crucial issue in the whole Maker-based Learning conversation has to do with the goals and hoped for outcomes of Maker experiences in our schools. Above all, while we do want schools to adopt this approach, we want them to do it for the right reasons, hopefully even discover some reasons of their own that are consistent with and extend their understanding and commitment to 21st-century learning. What I mean is, good reasons for supporting students in making things with the components and resources we provide them, reasons that reflect another stage in achieving meaningful learning and not simply adopt Making as an attempt to stay in step with something that’s currently all-the-buzz—without aligning these au courant efforts to our highest educational goals and aspirations.

A further key question is, as Makers, do we want students to simply follow directions to replicate creations that others before them have already designed and proven can be assembled from parts provided? Or, do we want to them to shift their focus to the way humans meet their needs with machines, devices, and constructed inventions; identify and address a need on their own, and go through the rich, enlightening process of conceiving, prototyping, and refining creations of their own design?

And yes, there certainly is much value to be had from the former, there’s a good deal of math and science involved and making things is, indeed, a very good way to learn them. The second approach, though, the one in which deep understanding of the phenomenon of technology is understood, and student creativity is sparked, unleashed, focused and learned is so much more of what today’s kids truly need.

The good news is that, to one degree or another, pretty much all of the Maker resources that I reviewed and explored at the expo provide the opportunity for both sides of this equation, obviously some more than others. I walked away, more than ever though, understanding that so often it is up to the teacher and his or her understanding of creative processes and how to foster and spark student creativity that makes the greatest impact on whether or not Maker-based Learning experiences will be the very rich and hyper-relevant instruction that today’s students need.

Electronics Kits

When they think of Making, many conjure up images of circuits, processers, power units, connected lights, motors, probes, and the like. These were offered in the highly usable format of kits made fully ready and accessible for students. I saw several of these highly worthy of mention. In fact despite my jaded sensibilities, the result of years of reviewing edtech resources, I found myself broadly smiling, even on the verge of cheering at just how right some of their providers had gotten them.

A few I’d like to mention are:

The soon-to-be-released Microduino kit offers components that are neatly stackable and that adhere to one another magnetically. Very neat and it’s easy to see that these components might be reused endlessly as part of a great many learning projects. The little Arduino processor that the gentleman at the booth showed me was well encased in a plastic frame making it safe to touch, easy to handle, and very easy to integrate into all sorts of machines that student inventors might come up with. I love the magnetic components and plug and unplug electronic cables that obviate other, more difficult and potentially hazardous ways of connecting components.

I fell in love with Sparkfun’s new Lillypad Sewable Electronics Kit right away. This kit’s cover shows a photo of a small group of young girls working on technology projects together. Seems to me to be (importantly) girl oriented, we need to encourage girls to take ownership of technology as their natural instincts and passions may dictate. Along with the now well known, Makey Makey and others, this kit was featured at the Sparkfun booth, nicely broadening the array of wonderful possibilities that the Maker Niche offers learners in need of hands-on, minds-on engagement.

The Piper kit got a big smile from me when I came across it at the booth. Kids construct a computer from its essential components and elements, including a cool looking wooden case that houses the computer and the parts and tools with which it is constructed. According to the rep manning the booth, as soon as students get enough assembled so that the small display is activated, the computer itself provides video instruction on how to build it out further until it is complete and does much of what one would expect from any computer these days. This could help a school establish a great segment of a technology education program. I was left wondering though about open-ended projects that students might do beyond creating the computer.

3D Printers

MakerBot, the first 3D Printer that many of us ever saw or even heard about, was widely represented at the booths of several re-sellers as well as at its own. This item bridges the gap between learning about making things, and actually making them. Currently, manufacturing involves the use of computer technology to aid in the research, design, and in the actual fabrication of so much. Computers drive robots and machines of all types. MakerBot paved the way, or at least a good part of it, with its affordable, easy to comprehend and use 3D Printer. Anyone still not aware of these wonderful little devices and their history and significance should check out the (YouTube available) video Print the Legend t which explores the growth of the 3D printing industry, with focus on Startup companies like MakerBot.

In a related vein, what I found remarkable at AP Lazer’s booth is that they were showing a commercial grade, industrial laser engraving machine. I chatted with one of the reps there who explained that they are just beginning to place these in schools, that is, beyond technical schools where one might reasonably expect to find such things. In fact, I was informed that this company had placed one recently in a middle school. This is really quite something, because following the logic of Maker-based Learning; the advantage is for the student to produce a real ‘something’ in the real world. This item though, elevates this prospect from producing a small plastic thingie that sort of resembles an authentic artifact to something with a very strong presence in the real world. I was shown beautifully etched items with designs laser cut into wood and stone. Some schools just may want to consider this.

Virtual Making

If Maker-based Learning is about creating things, it’s things that kids make as an expression of their focused experimentation and their application of thinking skills. If their making is a response to challenges and issues they identify in the real world as well as those they imagine, then why wouldn’t “Virtual Making” be an effective and exciting part of this?

Actually, the folks at Tynker, a popular resource to support student learning about and applications of Coding, understand that well and have placed on their website an answer to that question:

“Coding is the Language of Creativity – Learning to code at a young age isn’t just about becoming a programmer—coding is a creative outlet, a way to challenge yourself, a collaboration tool, and a new way to interact with your digital world. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen from the Tynker community. Kids are creating incredible games and stories, they’re learning from each other, and they’re pushing themselves to create projects they’re truly proud of.”

This orientation, and things to implement it well with students, was much evident at the Tynker booth.

Making Crosses Over to Robotics

Interestingly, while there were many Maker resource booths to visit, and there was a similar number of robotics resources on exhibit, there were a few that also spoke to the crossover between the two realms of tech-supported learning, an opportunity that I think is important and needs to be expanded.

Sphero is already quite well known for its student robots. Interestingly, these are not in that niche of resources that call for students to construct their own robot. SPHERO is one of those that comes already assembled, encouraging students to learn coding by programming it. At the booth at FETC, though, there was an intriguing interactive exhibit in which a SPHERO robot was used as the power for a more elaborate robot in which it was mounted, thus making it something of an engine. I love clever adaptations of robotics materials like this. I hope to see Sphero expand its line of robots and its applications of them as learning resources. This display pointed out new possibilities and new aspects of technology for student discovery and inspiration, something that, in my mind, was emblematic of the whole of the FETC 2017 Expo.

Mark Gura is an Advisory Board Member and Contributing Editor at EdTech Digest and the author of the recently released book, Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School published by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education).

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