Make: Education — Learn by Making


For more than seven years, Tom Zimmerman has volunteered in San Jose, Calif., schools, engaging students in hands-on activities and teaching science and technology. This summer, Zimmerman was recognized as the first-ever California Volunteer of the Year by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver. He called it a “fairytale day.”

Zimmerman is an IBM research scientist and a frequent contributor to MAKE — his Hydrogen-Oxygen Rocket project is featured in this issue. Much of what he’s written for the magazine originated as projects he developed for his students: an electronic drum kit, a mini Mars rover, and a digital microscope.

He created an Extreme Science after-school program to provide 60 Latino high school students with hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). And he’s particularly proud of his efforts to introduce girls to power tools. He also runs a summer camp, which this year featured workshops on building wind turbines and a geodesic dome. “I’m happy to have the opportunity to share the joy of designing, building, and teaching,” he enthuses.

In Boston, Ed Baafi runs the Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn (L2T) program during spring and summer at MIT and at the SouthEnd Technology Center and its FabLab. The idea behind L2T is that the best way to demonstrate that you’ve learned something is to turn around and teach it to others.

“We pay high school students to learn, build, and teach at over a dozen community centers,” says Baafi. One group developed a solar device charger, and another student, Mark Williams, has been perfecting his electric violin, which we blogged on, to his great amazement.

A seventh-grade teacher explains why she came to Maker Faire this year:

I try to incorporate some hands-on activities and labs into the classroom. I am still dissatisfied with the learning environment I am able to provide to my kids. The “holy grail” for me is to facilitate communities of independent learners, engaged in projects, assignments, discussions, etc. that motivate and challenge them. To this end, I’d like to make more stuff, and to have my students be makers.

Our communities are made up of makers like Zimmerman and Baafi as well as teachers and parents who see the importance of helping kids become makers.

But it’s become clear that making is missing from schools and from the lives of even the best students. “I have had freshman engineering students who have never used power tools,” says AnnMarie P. Thomas, an engineering professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

How can we create more opportunities for kids to make things? How do we create spaces inside schools or out in the community that support self-directed, hands-on projects?

Making is a way to engage kids in learning. It’s not work but a form of play. “There is a kind of magic in play,” writes Stuart Brown in his new book, Play.

“It’s paradoxical that a little bit of ‘nonproductive’ activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.”

Making is a way to enjoy trying to do new things (and often failing repeatedly) while learning more than any written test can measure. “Allowing children to build with real tools,” says Thomas, “gives them confidence and a skill set that they can build on for years to come.”

This magazine will do its best to advocate for the role of making in education. Makers themselves are an untapped resource for schools, especially as mentors. I know many makers who are exploring ways to share what they know and love with kids of all ages. Makers bring more than knowledge and experience — they bring endless enthusiasm, which they easily pass on.

If you’re interested in making and education, get involved in your own community. Join me and others at Make: Education ( to share ideas, stories, and techniques for helping more kids learn by making.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty
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