Profile In Education - Winter 2019

Interview with Dr. Janette Hughes

By OPSBA Staff

Dr. Janette Hughes is Canada Research Chair in Technology and Pedagogy and Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). Her research in the field of digital literacies has been featured in numerous education journals and recognized nationally and internationally. In this issue, Dr. Hughes discusses the concept of Makerspaces and how fostering the development of a 'maker mindset' in students improves their engagement and learning in STEAM subjects. 

Q. What is a Makerspace?  It seems like a relatively new term? 

On a literal level, a makerspace is a space where people come together to make things. They tinker, build, hack, take-apart and re-build. More importantly, it's a space for a community of people to come together to learn through exploration, collaboration, problem-solving and being creative and innovative. Originally, the term makerspace referred to a physical space in the community (an old shop space, a garage, etc.), however, in recent years many schools and public libraries have incorporated these spaces into their building plans (i.e. by making room in the learning commons or by converting an old classroom, computer lab or wood-working space). Some schools that don't have the room to house a physical space have come up with innovative ways to incorporate making into their school community by putting together mobile maker carts. These can be wheeled from classroom to classroom (making for a kind of 'pop-up' makerspace). The emphasis for us is on developing a maker mindset and culture than it is on a physical place or space. 

Q. What inspired the Maker Movement?  

Humans have always been makers (think home D-I-Y projects, sewing, knitting, cooking, baking, wood-working, crafting, art projects, etc.); however, the modern 'Maker Movement' is usually attributed to Dale Dougherty, who founded Make Magazine. Their MakerFaire is a popular event where makers come together to showcase their creations and versions of the MakerFaire are now replicated on smaller scales worldwide (and even in school gymnasiums and classrooms). 

Q. In your research monograph, Meaningful Making, there is a reference to the importance of developing a 'maker mindset'.  What is that and how can educators help students to foster that way of thinking? What role does a maker culture play in fostering that mindset in students?

The maker mindset really draws on the transversal or global competencies (what some people refer to as 21st Century skills) that are getting a lot of attention recently in education. These include: i) the ability to problem-solve and persevere ii) to collaborate and effectively communicate with others iii) to be self-reflective and self-guided in one's learning iv) to think critically about conceptual and real-world issues v) to be aware of the needs of others on a local and global scale, and to iv) think creatively and to innovate. The kinds of open-ended, inquiry and passion-based learning activities that happen when students are engaged in making can foster the development of all of these competencies.

Q. The Maker Movement is often associated to STEAM? Why is that?

Knowledge of and skills or concepts related to many (if not all) of these 'subjects' are involved when one decides to engage in making. Each subject area might be emphasized to a different extent, depending on the project; but the core idea is that, in the real world, nothing is done (or made) in isolated, subject silos. In art, there is math; in technology there is science; in science there is engineering, etc. All of these subject areas converge in the making process which is rooted in design thinking methodology and innovation. Design thinking is a fluid and non-linear methodology that involves tackling complex problems in our local and global communities.  Using design thinking, learners exercise their agency to define real world problems that they are passionate about by first empathizing and trying to understand the human needs involved.  They brainstorm to generate multiple solutions and begin to prototype and test their solutions.  The teacher's role as critical facilitator of student learning and nurturer of student metacognition is crucial in this process of constant reflection, collaboration and sharing, which are built into this iterative cycle. This process is similar to the writing process in language arts, the creative process in the arts, and problem-solving in social studies, or math.

Q. You draw a distinction between students engaging in meaningful making versus just making 'stuff'. What's the difference and why is that distinction so important?

Meaningful making means being purposeful, selective and critical in what and how one chooses to make. We are trying to avoid what Blikstein (2013) called the 'keychain' syndrome, which is a result of our modern 'throw-away' culture. In this scenario, a student designs a keychain to be printed on a 3D printer, prints it and then throws it in a drawer or the trash can after the initial interest wears off. We strive to encourage students to make and innovate in order to solve a personally meaningful problem and not to add to other problems (i.e. waste management). The maker movement, in its essence, is a reaction against consumerism and all the environmental, social and political problems associated with it. 

Q. What are some of the challenges to creating a makerspace in schools and what are some tips for educators on establishing a space on a limited budget?  

As previously mentioned, space can be an issue. However, it is important to emphasize that a dedicated 'makerspace' area or room is not nearly as important as fostering the maker mindset and developing the maker culture (collaborative, innovative, etc.). A limited budget also presents unique challenges; however, there are many low-cost ways to source a variety of materials and not every makerspace needs to be high tech. We have seen many successful low-tech/'unplugged' spaces that are thriving and innovative. Some low-cost ways to source materials include: i) ordering in bulk from Amazon (i.e. LED lights, coin cell batteries); ii) sourcing materials at places like Home Depot (i.e. aluminum tape for making paper circuits); iii) asking the community for any old or unused tech devices (these can be taken apart in order to explore components and rebuilt or repurposed for other projects); iv) recycling (cardboard, washed out containers, etc.) can be used for construction projects and v) the dollar store is a great source for many craft supplies and even some electronics.

Q. What has your research identified as the overall benefits of makerspaces in terms of supporting student learning particularly in STEAM related subjects?

The overarching benefit is that the maker approach is a truly student-centered approach to education. The inquiry-based projects are based on student interest; the making is student-led and paced (i.e. it is an organic learning process); the assessment is process-based and holistic (involving the insights, perspectives and reflections of both the teacher and students); there are many entry points into the learning (i.e. if a student is interested in art s/he may use that as an entry point into concepts related to mathematics or science); a maker approach also helps students develop transversal skills and competencies as mentioned earlier. Finally, a critical maker approach can also foster global citizenship and encourage deeper engagement and better solutions to complex problems and social issues.

References:

Blikstein, P. (2013). Digital Fabrication and 'Making' in Education: The Democratization of Invention. In J. Walter-Hermann & C. Buching (Eds.), FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publishers. Retrieved from https://tltl.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/files/documents/publications/2013.Book-B.Digital.pdf.

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