Maker Education ~ A Nimble Model

Maker spaces are popping up all over the globe and differ radically in how they are configured and used. So, what makes the Cambridge Friends School MakerSpace unique? And, why are educators from as far away as Brazil, Egypt, and Los Angeles coming to see how the CFS MakerSpace works?
 
The answers to these questions lie in the history and mission of Cambridge Friends School. From the day the school opened, CFS faculty and students have been “making” as a way of learning, discovering, testing ideas, or just plain creating something from one’s imagination. It was not such a leap to conceive a space dedicated to the types of materials, equipment, and technology that would encourage faculty and students to explore topics and concepts in more depth.
The very nature of project-based inquiry, the primary method of teaching and learning at CFS, lends itself to “making” and design thinking. The challenge was easing the faculty and students into using, with confidence, the MakerSpace as a tool in their inquiry. MakerSpace curator Fonda Chin is a former CFS classroom teacher, a great advantage for operating a maker space as part of a school. Fonda knows the Cambridge Friends School curriculum intimately and the faculty very well. She works closely with teachers to incorporate the MakerSpace capabilities in support of their curriculum.
 
The model of a maker space interwoven with a school’s curriculum is new, and many are curious how it works and if it influences learning. Cambridge Friends School, in partnership with learning scientists from TERC, Tufts University, and the University of Tennessee, has been awarded a multi-year Research in Service to Practice grant from the National Science Foundation. The research project, Investigating New Literacies in Maker Spaces, will investigate new literacy practices within and across a number of different maker spaces that serve adult, high school, and middle and elementary school-aged participants. Part of the work will be to develop a common protocol, including tools and methods, for documenting, describing, and understanding literacy practices in maker spaces.
 
At the frontier, Fonda is defining what it means to curate a maker space integrated in a school. Her main objectives are to be comfortable with what is available in the MakerSpace and to formulate ideas for projects to do with children that complement the curriculum. It is invaluable that Fonda has a solid sense of how children learn and what sparks their interest, which arguably is more important than being an expert on any of the equipment with which she is familiar. She also is instrumental in teaching the process of design thinking, framing how to approach a project. Working individually with a teacher, Fonda tailors ways the MakerSpace can be used to deepen students’ understanding of a concept, event, principle, or process that is a specific part of the teacher’s curriculum.
 
At Cambridge Friends School, the MakerSpace is not a scheduled class; it is used in conjunction with the classroom or subject curriculum. Since CFS curriculum is project driven and not schedule driven, there is the flexibility to incorporate or take advantage of the unplanned. As Head of School Peter Sommer often has expressed, “The capital of a school is time, not dollars.” Demands on the MakerSpace change with the curriculum and reflect the ideas and needs of both students and teachers.
 
Whether it is a social studies, music, or science project, the subject teacher is responsible for the students understanding of the overall goals of the project. As curator, Fonda oversees the process, provides basic guidance on equipment, supplies the materials, and most importantly models the “maker” spirit – the willingness to take on learning. The students are responsible for being actively engaged in learning and in understanding both the topic and the design process, as well as for making choices that reflect their interests within the framework of the project outline. Fonda regularly encourages adults and children alike by saying, “I don’t know, but let’s learn together!”
 
“I would love to create opportunities for people, to support teachers to play and develop curriculum,” Head of School Peter Sommer explained recently to a group of Brazilian educators visiting the CFS MakerSpace. In the future, Peter envisions building intensive periods of tinkering into faculty schedules, in order to foster insight on the possibilities of and a comfort with the MakerSpace. Coaxing the “inner maker” to the fore, Fonda plans for a teacher exhibition, where faculty, like Cindy Mapes, Vanessa Savas, Jessica Kagle, and Carrie Asselin who already have used the MakerSpace effectively in their curricula (Connections, Fall 2015), would share their projects to demystify the process and generate ideas peer to peer.
 
The Cambridge Friends School model of an integrated school-based maker space is one that is nimble enough to evolve quickly in form and function, flexible enough to make use of unusual opportunities, accessible enough to be practical, and egalitarian enough that learning is fluid and the “expert” can be a student as easily as a teacher. Adding “making” and design thinking to the toolkit of CFS students puts into practice the school’s mission. Testing ideas and designing projects from start to finish helps students to develop their intellectual and creative potential, teaches them to be problem solvers, and prepares them to let their lives speak. It is something powerful enough that people just have to experience for themselves.

Maker Education ~ A Nimble Model, (Connections, Winter/Spring 2016)
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