When I was in school, along with my regular academic classes, I had the opportunity to take practical arts classes in drafting, cooking, and sewing, as well as shop classes working with wood, metal, and autos. These experiences, in addition to summers tagging along with my jack-of-all-trades grandfather, helped to instill in me not just an enthusiasm, but a need to fix, create, and make things.
After a decade of teaching high school math, when presented with the opportunity to teach a new class that promised to let kids just make things, naturally I jumped.
Over the summer, a dedicated handful of students and I moved tools and equipment from an abandoned lab on the campus of Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif., to a mostly vacant space down the hall from the headquarters of MAKE magazine. We built the tables and storage units, rummaged through surplus electronic components, and prepared to sail into the uncharted waters of Project Make.
The initial class consisted of 29 students ranging from sophomores to seniors, from AP students to those struggling in basic classes. The blend of grade levels and academic abilities provided a unique mix from which I believe all the students benefited.
Through the class, students have learned some basic construction tools and techniques, explored electronics by putting together simple and complex circuits, and dabbled in design, computer programming, and blogging. For several students, Project Make provided a first opportunity to use a power drill or pick up a soldering iron. Knowing that several people learned a new skill or understand a little bit more about how things work — how threads are cut into galvanized pipe, for instance — has been a very gratifying experience for me, regardless of whether or not they ever use the skill again.
As any maker knows, frustration and failure are most often a part of the process. Rarely does something work exactly as expected the first time; iterative adaptability is a requirement for success. One of my goals at the outset was for the students to develop tenacity and willingness to learn from challenges, to redefine and even embrace failure as a necessary part of the learning process. Results have been mixed but far more successful than in my regular classes. These lessons are hard to teach in a traditional classroom setting where success is measured through more standard means.
Besides sharing the joy and challenges of making, another goal of mine has been to develop and experiment with projects and activities that I could bring into my traditional math classes to help students grasp abstract concepts. Time and energy constraints have conspired to limit the achievement of this goal, but my idea notebook is full of sketches and possibilities that I intend to pursue over the summer for inclusion in Project Make version 2.0 next year.
From the start, the response from the community has been extremely enthusiastic. Parents have donated supplies and hackable gear, requests for visitations from school and community members have been numerous, and the reactions overwhelmingly positive.
A universal feeling that we are short-changing students by limiting options for engaging in their work and using their hands has sparked a dialogue of what a 21st-century shop class should look like. I would love to expand that dialogue to include anyone with experience or interest in making and education. A forum for this dialogue is available at makezine.com/go/makerspace. Please join in if you’re interested in helping make more makers.