Identifying Core Outcomes of Maker and Design Thinking Education: Fostering a Sense of “I Can Do That!”

Science teacher Bruce Hamren shows Agency by Design researchers an early prototype for a speed crutch developed by students and faculty at the Athenian School to help young people in wheel chairs experience the feeling of jogging on a track.

Science teacher Bruce Hamren shows Agency by Design researchers an early prototype for a speed crutch developed by students and faculty at the Athenian School to help young people in wheel chairs experience the feeling of jogging on a track.

There is a growing body of literature advocating for the incorporation of maker and design thinking experiences in a variety of educational settings. Much of this literature suggests that maker and design thinking curricula have the potential to increase student engagement, promote “hand-mind” expertise, and/or bolster performance in STEM subjects. Though such outcomes make intuitive sense, there is little research to back these claims.

This being the case, we’ve been deeply interested in finding out what are the real benefits of maker and design thinking experiences, and how do educators recognize evidence of those outcomes in their students.

Pedagogical approaches to maker and design thinking curricula vary widely from one context to the next. Nonetheless, one of the big questions we consistently ask people who teach such courses is: what do you consider to be the core outcomes of maker and design thinking curricula? When we visited with Bruce Hamren and David Otten at the Athenian School’s Makers Studio we received an exciting answer to our question. Simply put: maker and design thinking experiences foster a sense of “I can do that!” in young people.

Doors to Innovation: The entrance to the Athenian School's Maker Studio presents guests with some exciting options...

Doors to Innovation: The entrance to the Athenian School’s Makers Studio presents guests with some exciting options…

During our September 2012 visit to the Bay Area, the Agency by Design team cruised over to Danville, CA to visit the Makers Studio at the Athenian School. When we arrived we found our way across the school’s campus to a building with two doors. The door on the left was marked with a sign that read Robotics Barn, the door on the right was marked Airplane Barn.

“Airplane Barn?” we thought to ourselves…

Once inside Athenian School’s Makers Studio (entering through the “Robotics Barn” door, of course) we soon connected with Bruce, a science teacher who has seen the Makers Studio—now an exemplar school in the MENTOR Makerspace program—develop from the ground up. In the early days, the Maker Studio was just a quirky idea started by two teachers who spent their spare time coming up with fun projects (like attaching a laser pointer to a rubber band gun and shooting it through the air), but today Athenian students regularly produce technology that wins NASA sponsored robotics contests and yes, real airplanes that fly through the sky.

They Can Do That!: Casually displayed in a corner—amidst 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other technology—first place robotics competition banners exhibit evidence of Athenian student's achievements.

They Can Do That!: Casually displayed in a corner—amidst 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other technology—first place robotics competition banners exhibit evidence of Athenian student’s achievements.

Based on their experience, it became clear to us that Bruce, David, and their colleagues at the Makers Studio have devoted many years of their practice as educators towards figuring out what it takes to develop and implement maker and design thinking curricula. This being the case, we thought—who better to answer our big question about the benefits of maker and design thinking experiences? and so we asked: What do you see as the core outcomes for your students? Without hesitation Bruce said that the primary outcome of bringing maker experiences to his students is to instill within them a sense of “I can do that.” By working with young people in his Art and Science of Making Things class, Bruce helps his students see both the “beauty and the mechanism in something” by “looking in two worlds” and finding objects and ideas that not only spark curiosity, but also drive young people to say “I can do that.”

Inherent in Bruce’s approach to engaging young people in maker and design thinking experiences is the idea of agency—the concept of knowing that given the right materials, and provided with the right support, young people will come to see opportunities that they can act on where others may only see obstacles—or see nothing at all.

But is it enough to instill a sense of “I can do that” in young people through maker/design thinking educational experiences? Are there other valuable outcomes to such educational experiences? Is “I can do that” unique to maker and design thinking curricula? If so, how can teachers be intentional about developing a sense of “I can do that” in their students?

Bruce, along with many other maker and design thinking instructors we have met, continues to wrestle with these—and many other—pedagogical puzzles. As they work to redesign their courses each term we join these innovative educators in trying to reach further clarity concerning these questions, as well as the trickiest question of all: how does one measure “I can do that?”

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About Edward P. Clapp

Edward P. Clapp is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Project Zero research specialist working on the Agency by Design initiative. In the past, Edward has worked with Project Zero as a research assistant on the Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education project. Edward’s current research interests include collaborative approaches to creativity and innovation in arts teaching and learning environments, particularly as these concepts relate to leadership, quality and excellence, and institutional change. In addition to his work at Project Zero and HGSE, Edward is also an Editorial Board member of the Harvard Educational Review where he serves as the Co-Editor of the HER special issue “Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education.” In 2010 Edward edited the anthology 20UNDER40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, a collection of twenty essays about the future of the arts sector written by young and emerging arts leaders under the age of forty. In addition to his academic pursuits, Edward has also published his poetry and fiction in national and international literary magazines and has had his plays produced Off-Off-Broadway in New York.

3 thoughts on “Identifying Core Outcomes of Maker and Design Thinking Education: Fostering a Sense of “I Can Do That!”

  1. Pingback: A Culture (and Economy) of Making and Sharing | Making Thinking Happen

  2. Pingback: Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency? | Making Thinking Happen

  3. Pingback: Maker Movement in the Media | Making Thinking Happen

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