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.

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Maker Empowerment: A Concept Under Construction

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

Over the last 18 months, the Agency by Design team has visited several school-based maker spaces and maker programs, talked with many educators involved in maker-inspired teaching and learning, and read numerous articles and books about the maker movement and maker-based education. As part of our effort to distill common themes, lately we’ve been talking about a concept we’re calling maker empowerment. We arrived at this idea by distilling what we’ve learned, by applying a “maker” lens to the concept of agency, and by trying to articulate our best hope for what young people might gain through maker-centered educational experiences—recognizing that maker-centered learning can take many different forms and yield many different products and activities. Here’s our working definition—what it may lack in poetry, we hope it makes up in precision.

Maker Empowerment: A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so.

If you look at this definition from a design perspective you’ll see that it cobbles together three distinct ideas. The first phrase, A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, points to the importance of simply noticing that many of the objects, ideas, and systems we encounter in the world—from desktops to democracy to driver education classes—are human-made designs. They are comprised of specific parts that fit together to serve a purpose (or multiple purposes), and they can be understood and analyzed from the standpoint of design. Continue reading

Designing and Making with English Language Learners

Students at Oakland International High School get their hands dirty redesigning a corner garden at their school.

Students at Oakland International High School get their hands dirty redesigning a corner garden at their school.

By Thi Bui, Guest Author

I teach art and multimedia at Oakland International High School, a public high school for immigrants students’ where command of the English language is one of the last things to be taken for granted. Discussions are often clumsy or stiff because improvised speech in English is very difficult for beginners. As a result, sometimes it’s difficult for me to know what my students are thinking. Through the Agency by Design research initiative, I have the opportunity to explore, with support, this question: How might design thinking, maker culture, and Project Zero ideas help create an enriching and empowering learning experience for English Language Learners (ELLS)?

To seek answers, last June I decided to get my hands dirty.

My planning partner and I created a design course for Post Session, a 3-week period at the end of the year reserved for experiential art and physical education. classes. Twenty-five to thirty students, mixed grades, two teachers, all day. Here’s what happened…

Oakland International High School students use a variety of materials to prototype a redesign of the garden at their school.

Oakland International High School students use a variety of materials to prototype a redesign of the garden at their school.

Using the Parts-Purposes-Complexities thinking routine (from Project Zero’s Artful Thinking framework), students looked closely at the school for areas and systems that they wanted to improve. After narrowing down a very BIG brainstorm into a few priorities by discussion and vote, students worked in groups to rapidly prototype a system or area redesign. Then they presented their ideas to each other and another class.

During the prototyping and presentation phase I noticed two things about ELLs. The level of engagement in the redesign process is strongly affected by (1) the student’s comfort speaking in English and (2) by his/her comfort working with materials. Those with more English were able to involve their team mates in brainstorming and the exchange of ideas through words. They could also help negotiate differences of opinion and felt more comfortable presenting to others. Those with the ability to manipulate materials to express their ideas could often transcend language barriers entirely. It was a joy to see them smiling and getting through to others. Those with both English and material fluency had a blast! Unfortunately, I think students who were uncomfortable with both English and materials had a difficult time with this part of the design process, and began to disengage.

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Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency?

AgencyEarly on in our project, we put forth the hypothesis that developing a sense of personal agency may be one of the most significant benefits of engaging young people in making and design thinking learning experiences. This hypothesis is based on the following two-part if/then statement:

  1. By developing a sensitivity to the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, young people may develop a sense of agency towards the design of those same objects, ideas, and systems, and…
  2. If young people develop a sense of agency towards the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, then they can effect change for themselves, their communities, and the their broader environments.

This hypothesis—as simple or as complex as it may seem—is at the core of the Agency by Design initiative. While we believe it’s a powerful—and hopefully plausible—postulation, we also recognize it begs the most fundamental question: What is “agency?”

During one of our earliest research trips to the Bay Area the Agency by Design team visited the Athenian School’s Makers Studio to gain an initial understanding of what happens in authentic maker learning environments.

While at Athenian we learned from instructor Bruce Hamren that one of the core outcomes he has for his students is fostering within them a sense of “I can do that!” As we heard variants of this idea expressed at other sites we visited, we came to the realization that the “I-can-do-that!” spirit that Bruce mentioned was actually a way of talking about student agency.

Of course, human agency is a far more complex concept than the phrase “I can do that!” suggests. As such, our team has been focused in part on understanding what agency means, how we will define agency for our project, and how we may go about empirically investigating agency in maker and design thinking learning environments.

So far, our literature review has led us to consider agency from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, phenomenology, and even neuro-physiology. As we delve deeper into the scholarship on agency, we’ve also committed ourselves to situating making and design thinking learning experiences within the context of agency frameworks and conducting thought experiments that explore the nature of this elusive term.

In future installments of this serial blog post we’ll highlight our emergent understandings of agency and outline the evolution of our thinking. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: How do you define agency? and, How might agency be fostered in young people through making, designing, and hands-on DIY learning experiences?

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… Continue reading