I was in second grade and had just been given an extraordinary assignment: build a boat.
Each kid had a month to construct a small boat out of any materials they could get their hands on. There were no rules, no instructions—it was the wild, wild West of homework. All we were told was that at the end of the month, there would be a competition. Our teacher was going to drop washers into each boat, one by one, and the boat that held the most washers without sinking would win.
Like most of my classmates, I went completely nuts for this project. I obsessed over building practice boats out of cardboard and milk bottles. I was desperate to get hold of a hot glue gun.
Progressive educators have adopted project-based learning like this in their classrooms for decades—long before the phrase “maker movement” entered the mainstream. Project-based learning encourages kids to investigate real-world problems, design solutions, and collaborate. Projects are often open-ended and there is not just one right answer. As kids learn through every step of the process, they are building the kind of design-thinking skills experts say are more important than ever in a knowledge-based economy.
Though the maker movement is often associated with things like 3D printers and circuits, it is really a fusion of newly accessible technology with old ideas about how we learn best.
“The excitement about these new technologies will reanimate the best traditions of progressive education in classrooms, of learning by doing, of working on meaningful projects, of developing agency and becoming lost in the flow of something you care about,” Gary Stager, co-author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” writes.
Whether we call it maker learning or project-based learning, deep learning experiences like these happen in the Pittsburgh region every day. There are more than 100 makerspaces in schools throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.
Take math teacher Nick Tutolo’s sixth-graders at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh. Last year, he tasked them with building a small car that would protect an egg when it crashed into a wall. To heighten the challenge, the students had to use algebra to stick to an imaginary budget, even incorporating shipping costs and taxes and immersing themselves in real-life applications of algebraic expressions.
They also learned to design their cars on basic 3D modeling software. “Some of the designs that the students were able to produce on a pretty low-end 3D modeling program really surprised me,” Tutolo said.
Students considered every scenario—even figuring out ways to protect the egg if the car flipped. They used sponges, pipe cleaners, bottles, cardboard, and more. One team built a car with no wheels. Tutolo said students were in a constant state of redesign, building and rebuilding, learning from their own mistakes and those of their peers. In the end, only one egg broke completely when it rushed down the hill and hit the wall.
“One of the students who was particularly engaged in the process told me, ‘Mr.Tutolo now you’re going to make me think about this all summer,’ ” Tutolo said.
Those experiences are not only happening in Pittsburgh classrooms. They also take place in dozens of informal learning spaces across the city. In late June, kids at the Children Museum’s MAKESHOP were given the challenge of building forts, making bags out of duct tape, and creating flotation devices in a “survivor” themed Youth MakeNight. Later in July, garden experts will take kids on a hunt for bugs and help them build “bug mansions” using what they learned about bug habitats. And the museum is partnering with Kickstarter to help bring makerspaces to even more area schools.
These projects stick in our memories not simply because they are fun. Getting lost in the challenge of making something work—something you care about—is a learning experience that sticks with kids and, it turns out, adults.
I’m pretty sure my boat—a combination of an old kickboard and dental floss—lost its balance and wobbled, catching water and sinking to the bottom of the tub in last place, ruined. I don’t think it even mattered. All I remember is wanting to go back, try again, and build a boat that actually floated.