A coating of fresh snow reflects the lights shining from the windows of a suburban Boston high school on a cold, dark night, long after classes have ended. Inside, in a large, high-ceilinged space behind a door that says “TECH ED”, students hover over laptops, lathes and 3D printers, fully absorbed in the process of designing, assembling and programming a robot capable of lifting heavy objects and balancing them on a precarious surface.
The LigerBots robotics club, at Newton South High School, is one example of the growing “maker” movement in US education, which encourages students to conceive of and build things through hands-on projects. The movement’s supporters claim that this practical approach to learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects allows students to use skills they might otherwise passively struggle to memorise in lectures because they never get to use them in the real world.
“I’d been learning maths and science but I didn’t see how those would be applied in real life,” says Arushi Singh, a 17-year-old senior student wearing a T-shirt from Carnegie Mellon, the highly selective university to which she’s been accepted and where she plans to study mechanical engineering.
The maker idea continues to seep into US education, taking the form of everything from voluntary after-hours clubs like this one to integrated all-day programmes in classrooms rebuilt into “makerspaces”.
The programmes have gained fresh momentum because of falling prices for such essential ingredients as laser cutters, 3D printers and robotics kits, and owing to a backlash against the spread of high-stakes standardised tests increasingly believed to discourage individuality and creativity.
They also got a major lift when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began accepting maker portfolios from candidates for admission.
Boosting student confidence
But while early returns appear impressive, with a few studies suggesting maker education boosts student confidence and willingness to go on to further and higher education, proponents continue to cast about for ways to definitively prove its value.
Some fear that policymakers may eventually abandon maker education in favour of the next new trend, as has often happened in the past with other innovations. Critics, meanwhile, contend that the results have been uneven, benefiting wealthier students in better funded public and private schools, and boys more than girls. For example, more than twice as many male applicants have submitted maker portfolios to MIT than female applicants, the university reports.
“An awful lot of schools will have nothing to do with this,” concedes Gary Stager, who, as speaker, advocate, and co-author of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, is the de facto dean of maker education in the US. “But I’m also optimistic because there’s never been more educators and parents interested in it.”
Those enthusiasts have brought maker education to libraries, museums, schools and entire districts. Some charter schools are designed around it, such as San Diego’s High Tech High, which has spawned four elementary, four middle, and four other high schools in and around the Californian city.
Almost the entire schedule at High Tech High and its sister campuses is given over to building things that tie together different academic disciplines. One that the school displays prominently is a huge wooden wheel that turns to animate the rise and fall of ancient civilisations, covering history and engineering. Students have reviewed the physics of baseball, measured how far each of them commutes to school to demonstrate the racial segregation of the city’s neighbourhoods, built cannons out of wood and PVC pipe and calculated their trajectories, and bred coral to help repair reefs.
Among public school districts, few have embraced maker education like Albemarle County, a district that serves 13,000 urban, rural and suburban children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, just south-west of Washington, DC. There, science and engineering classes came together with a history class studying the 19th century to build a telegraph. Younger students designed a playground. Others converted their drab cafeteria into a forest of tables mounted in treehouses. Another group designed and built a car alarm that could automatically contact owners on their phones.
“No one could have imagined that a bunch of 12-year-olds with no prior coding experience could have done that, but by letting the kids get together and go, you get these kinds of results,” explains the district’s director of technologies and innovation, Ira Socol. “We can change kids’ attitude towards learning and their conceptions of themselves.”
But the degree to which this enhances learning is only slowly coming into focus. In October, the National Science Foundation awarded $300,000 (£215,000) to MIT to spend two years studying how to assess the effectiveness of maker education beyond the anecdotal evidence available so far.
“It’s a very new movement,” explains Paulo Blikstein, who directs the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. “We have 100 years of tradition in maths education and 70 years in science: the maker movement is only 10 years old.”
What results have been collected before vary widely. A survey conducted by the research firm SRI International, for the organisation Maker Ed, found that teachers think maker education helps students develop creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and other skills. But they also said maker programmes are underfunded and often inconsistently staffed, sometimes by educators who have to volunteer their time.
Meanwhile, more than 460,000 American six- to 18-year-olds participate in 52,000 robotics clubs, such as the LigerBots, and competitions between them are organised nationally by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), co-founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway.
Students who take part are two to four times more likely to improve their Stem knowledge after three years than their classmates who are not involved, according to a study by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
They’re also more likely than the national average to go on to higher education, the study found, and, once there, 2.6 times more likely to take an engineering course. Overall, 43 per cent took an engineering class in their first year of college while 33 per cent took one in computer science. Alumni of the programme say they are more confident and more likely to have had hands-on experience related to their courses of study.
Girls show even greater gains than boys, researchers found, although they remain outnumbered. While 8.8 per cent of male applicants to MIT submit a maker portfolio, only 3.4 per cent of female applicants do.
And in Albermarle County, which has gone all-in for maker education, high school standardised test results since 2014 have been flat in reading, writing and science and have declined to below the state average in maths, history and social sciences. Could this indicate that the benefits of maker education are spurious?
“We don’t panic about it,” says Socol. He points to two other indicators: 95 per cent of the district’s students graduate on time compared with a state average of 84 per cent, and the drop-out rate has fallen from 8 per cent to less than 2 per cent, according to figures from the state education department.
Besides, says Pam Moran, the county’s superintendent of schools, Americans are losing faith in examinations. “People are questioning this effort to create accountability through standardised tests,” she says. “Parents and educators have known all along that kids have so much that they’re capable of doing that isn’t measured by a test.”
Self-described “maker-vangelists” use other assessment measures, by which even the most troubled kids have shown improvement. Socol gives the example of a 12-year-old who built a suspension bridge from newspaper and yarn at a summer school for low-performing students that was transformed into “maker camp”.
“He said to us, ‘When you’re building a suspension bridge, you have to make sure the cables remain taut.’ And we said, ‘We just won.’ This kid has learned technical vocabulary and he’s learned a confidence level that he could build something.”
Moran agrees: “We’ve discovered kids who had amazing gifts that, if all they were doing was traditional school, we would never know they were capable of.”
Blikstein believes the problem with tests is not just that they determine what schools teach and how, it’s that they measure content that is obsolete. “There’s lots of new content we want kids to learn,” he says. “But there’s no space in the curriculum because it’s bogged down with these legacy classes.”
If students don’t know why they’re learning something – other than to pass an exam – it won’t stick, he adds. “What you see in the maker labs is that people are intrinsically motivated because that’s their project. They’re not just doing someone else’s project, for which they don’t see the point.”
As for how to measure success? It’s simple, Stager says. “Talk to the kids,” he advises. “Look at their work.”
Back at the LigerBots’ workshop, a few students are assembling a wooden frame on which they’re hanging a robot’s moving parts for testing. Another group is assembling an electrical board, while the programming team is busy coding. Among other things, these teenagers are learning computer-assisted design, which is typically not taught until university.
Rachel Rensing, 24, a club alumna who has returned as a coach since graduating from the University of Toronto, said that kind of thing put her ahead of her university peers.
“It gave me a good introduction to hands-on work – like building a prototype, testing it, saying ‘this didn’t work, let’s try it again’,” she says. “It helped my mindset. When I started taking third- and fourth-year classes and they said, ‘Here’s a problem, solve it,’ I felt I was more prepared than average.”
Cameron Mastoras is 17. He has one of the best reasons for balancing these nightly building sessions with a busy academic schedule. “We wouldn’t be here,” he says, “if it wasn’t fun.”
Jon Marcus is a freelance writer