Start making from day one

Don't wait to give students empowering, hands-on experiences
Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of the book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

You may have heard that it’s best to “ease” into hands-on project-based learning and making at the start of the school year. Maybe you feel your students aren’t ready, need some skills development, or just need to have a few weeks of settling down before getting started with more independent work.

I think this is a big mistake.

Why? Two reasons: habits are formed and messages matter starting day one.
If you are looking at making and makerspace activities as a way to give students more agency over their own learning, why not start building those habits immediately to send that message early and often.

Start small

Many teachers feel that they have students who aren’t ready for a more independent approach to learning. However, how will they get ready if they don’t practice it? Many teachers say that students have to be “unschooled” out of practices like constantly expecting to be told what to do. So why not start to build those habits and expectations on day one?

That doesn’t mean that you have to start with a monumental project. Start with something small. Shorter, more contained projects will build confidence and skills. Mix these projects with less structured time to explore, invent, and tinker. If it’s chaos, you can add some constraints, but don’t give up!

  • Introduce materials and tools early. If you have plans to use materials or tools for more complex projects later in the year, use the same materials in a simpler project. Students benefit from getting to know workflow, materials, and tools, and your later projects will go smoother because of this familiarity.
  • Familiarize students with design software. Take opportunities to use design and creativity software in early activities. Use software in icebreakers or get to know you activities, like designing a backpack tag for someone using their favorite action hero.
  • Be explicit about grades and assessment. If you are asking students to do iterative design and learn from mistakes, you need to help them get past the idea that there is a right answer, or that they will be punished for making mistakes. This may take time as students have learned the lesson of school, that everything they do will be judged, and every mistake means their grades will go down.
  • Organize your space with student input. Allow student input on space design and organization. Students can sort out kits, organize bins of parts, and create anything from sign out sheets to signs. Teachers may want to do all of this themselves to start from a perfectly organized space, but giving students ownership over the space, tools, and materials shows students that their ideas and efforts are important.
  • Tinker with time. Mix up short hands-on activities, practice with tools, open tinkering time, and structured projects. Students need to know that not every project has the same structure, and learn how to be flexible while making every minute count. Productive tinkering is something that students may not understand at first, but with practice, tinkering can be a mindful practice that generates new ideas and builds skills.
  • Don’t forget digital making, including coding. Some people wonder if computers are “real” materials, thinking that what happens on the screen is virtual, not real. But if students are allowed to use computers as part of their toolkit—making things can include digital things.
    Making, doing, constructing are all possible on a computer, and part of many student’s everyday lives, outside of school, at least. Empowering students to believe in themselves as capable of making things that matter, both in the physical and digital world, is a crucial part of learning.

Parents matter

The message is also going home to parents every day—what they expect to see all year starts today. Explain what you are doing and why, and reinforce that with every communication with parents.
So whatever you call it, making, project-based learning, hands-on, or inquiry learning—the time to start is now.

Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of the book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called “the bible of the classroom maker movement.” She was a featured speaker at DA’s FETC.

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