The goal of maker education is not college and career preparation.
The goals are deeper learning and authentic engagement, with an emphasis on turning learning over to the learner.
However, making is the best college and career preparation that I have encountered, in part because it isn’t the core goal. Through making, students build their agency and find new passions.
Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, Calif., where I work, serves students from low-income communities. Five years ago, if you asked seniors about their visions of themselves as adults, they would have envisioned themselves as doctors, teachers or in a vocational job — the careers they encountered in their everyday lives.
It’s hard to imagine yourself doing something when you haven’t seen or experienced it. But now students are engaged in becoming designers, artists, auto-mechanics, engineers, software developers, scientists and teachers through their involvement in making — in core classes, electives, and after school.
As they engage in these areas at school, they start to see themselves in these fields. A year after we started a robotics class in the high school, we had our first graduates interested in majoring in computer science and engineering. Through robotics, we introduced students to tech fields, and, in so doing, they started to see themselves as programmers and engineers.
A year later, we added more diversity (woodworking, sewing, physical-computing and design) to this class and opened the doors even wider. This led students to see themselves as designers, artisans and architects. Now our Creativity Lab is working with students from K–12 to build these visions of self-starting with our youngest students. Our focus has never been to fill the “STEM pipeline,” but rather, to expose students to passions they didn’t know they had, and, in so doing, open up future options for them.
So, exposure to what is possible is one way in which maker education prepares students for college and career. But college and career prep is about more than knowledge of different fields.
By turning learning over to the learner, we develop student agency — their own interest and ability to learn about the work around them, and to solve the problems they encounter. What better preparation is there for a career than the ability to identify what needs to be learned and then learn it?
Two years ago, one of my students, Katia, saw a visually-impaired person almost walk in front of a car. The experience inspired her to develop a cane that would warn people of approaching objects. Over the next five months, she learned to program an Arduino, use sensors to detect distance, and create an output the user can hear. She taught herself CAD and the use of a 3D printer to design a case to hold her project. She learned all these skills in order to solve a problem she had identified herself, a mindset which will clearly serve her in college and any future career.
As one of my students, Arya, told me, in the making class “they don’t judge your ideas; they won’t laugh at them. They will ask you questions about how you will research it, your plans. You give yourself an assignment.” This sounds like what I would like in a colleague — how about you?
Aaron Vanderwerff is a K-12 makerspace and science coordinator at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, Calif. Aaron also is a SmartBrief Education Educators’ Choice Content Award winner. Listen to an interview with Aaron on Education Talk Radio.