Exploring the Role of the Arts in Maker-Centered Learning Experiences

Time was of the essence as AEP participants worked hard to build the best contraptions they could to complete the task before them.

Time was of the essence as AEP participants worked hard to build the best contraptions they could to complete the task before them.

Earlier this month an eager crew of arts education professionals packed themselves into a hotel ballroom in Pittsburgh, PA to do something that has probably never been done in that space before.

Presented with a host of simple tools and scrappy recycled materials, the assembled arts educators were placed into groups and given the following design challenge:

Using the materials in the room, construct a contraption that is capable of conveying a rubber ball to the floor as slowly as possible when dropped from a height of five feet.

With only fifteen minutes to address this challenge, as soon as they heard the word “Go!” the participants sprung into action—and a joyful commotion quickly filled the room.

This wild maker-rumpus took place at the 2014 Arts Education Partnership (AEP) National Forum, an annual convening of arts educators designed to address “what works in arts education and to advance best practices.” The theme of this year’s AEP National Forum was Preparing Students for the Next America in and through the Arts.

Materials aplenty. Cardboard, newspapers, box cutters, markers, and lots and lots of masking tape (they used it all!) were essential elements of this AEP maker activity.

Materials aplenty. Cardboard, newspapers, box cutters, markers, and lots and lots of masking tape (they used it all!) were essential elements of this AEP maker activity.

Considering the popular rhetoric framing the maker movement as a driver of creativity and innovation, the future of manufacturing in America, and the “new industrial revolution,” my colleague (and former AbD affiliate) Raquel Jimenez and I thought the 2014 AEP National Forum would be a great place to explore the connections between the arts and making.

As individuals who bounce back and forth between the universe of arts education and the new world of maker-centered learning, Raquel and I have been deeply interested in the role of the arts in making experiences—and vice versa. Intrigued by the work we observed in a variety educational makerspaces, our early experiences with the Agency by Design initiative prompted us to ask questions about the tension we began to notice between aesthetics and functionality in maker education. We found these questions to be particularly apt when maker education has been heralded by some as the embodiment of “STEAM”—the combination of the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math education.

To pursue this line of inquiry Raquel and I engaged in an independent research study to better understand what arts learning looks like in maker-centered education. Our 2014 AEP National Forum session “STEM to STEAM” …or “STEM with Stickers?”: Understanding the Role of the Arts in Maker-Center Learning Experiences engaged over 60 AEP participants in a workshop designed to actively explore this problem space.

Being that the room was full of education professionals representing various arts disciplines, we weren’t surprised that two minutes into our AEP maker activity a participant asked: “I’m a dancer and I approach the world kinesthetically, can we incorporate movement into our work?”

This hotel ballroom will never look the same. AEP participants testing their ball-drop contraptions.

This hotel ballroom may never look the same. AEP participants testing their ball-drop contraptions.

A smile came across our faces as we nodded, “yes.”

From that moment forward—it was on. Not only were wild contraptions being constructed with the materials we supplied, but chairs were being stacked high in the air, table clothes were whipping around the room, conference goers in high heels were deftly wielding box cutters, and dance moves were being choreographed and rehearsed—all in service of the classic maker design challenge that had been posed to our participants

As observers, Raquel and I noted that arts practices were indeed being used for functional purposes. It was particularly interesting for us to see that some participant groups used arts materials structurally—rather than aesthetically—as the fever of competition and the drive to make the most effective contraption took hold. We found it curious that, even when performance elements such as song and dance were incorporated into our participants’ work, these elements were employed structurally and for highly functional purposes.

Participants at the AEP conference employed arts materials structurally.

Participants at the AEP conference employed arts materials structurally.

Once the wild rumpus stopped (and a winner was declared), the participants all cheered and applauded one another’s efforts. Then we got down to business. By engaging with an authentic maker activity, the arts education professionals in the room had developed new insights and puzzles concerning the role of the arts in maker-centered learning experiences. A healthy skepticism for STEAM rhetoric permeated the space as participants reflected upon their experiences and rightfully questioned the role of the arts in maker-centered educational activities.

Raquel and I likewise emerged from this experience full of new insights and puzzles. While we are still in the midst of writing up our independent research findings, we continue to be deeply interested in learning from others.

Whether you were in the room with us in Pittsburgh or not, we’d be delighted to hear your thoughts: what do you see as the role of the arts, if any, in maker-centered “STEAM” experiences?

Advertisements
| Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

About Edward P. Clapp

Edward is a senior research manager and a member of the core research team working on the Agency by Design initiative at Project Zero, an educational research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Edward’s current research interests include creativity and innovation, maker-centered education, design thinking, and contemporary approaches to arts teaching and learning. In addition to his work as an educational researcher, Edward is a lecturer on education at HGSE. Web: http://scholar.harvard.edu/edwardclapp Social: @edwardpclapp

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Role of the Arts in Maker-Centered Learning Experiences

  1. Pingback: Articles of Interest September 19, 2014 « National Creativity Network

  2. I am eager to read your report when it is finished. I too struggle with the role of the arts in STEAM and making. Where does craftsmanship fit in? What about objects or pieces that serve no function except to convey meaning or to push the creative conversation further-either a personal or communal conversation? Clearly the arts serve more than one purpose. Perhaps their role in Making is but one. After all, objects do not always have to have functionality. And mankind has been making art since the beginning and not all of it was functional. Constructing and conveying personal meaning was sometimes more than enough.

  3. Pingback: Exploring the Role of the Arts in Maker-Centered Learning Experiences | Tassie and beyond

  4. Thanks for your post Edward, it’s great to hear of the energy generated by the design challenge that set the wheels in motion on the PL day. I employ the locomotion metaphor intentionally, because I’m curious about whether the STEAM that powers STEM learning might be STudent Engagement through Arts and Making (a new STEAM for a new generation of learners)?
    I invite you to see how teachers’ curiosity around student learning in the arts is being explored by the University of Tasmania through the Curious Schools Project. http://www.utas.edu.au/education/curious-schools
    I appreciate the thinking the AbD team shares via the blog. Cheers, Sherridan

Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s