Two years ago, I made my first visit to a Maker Faire. I wrote about that trip and about how I was both excited and confused by what I saw. I loved the fact that there were far more different kinds of makers than I’d expected. The opportunities for sharing and cross-pollenization of ideas were exciting. I was also more than a little disappointed in the number of displays that were focused on making kits. They seemed to be too focused on building one little thing and not on extending the concepts and thinking into future projects. Rarely did I see folks who were presenting some concept that truly transcended the tool that it was made on. Someone who could take an idea and use various technologies, skills and concepts to explore that idea and present something truly unique.

IMG_0417Flash ahead two years. I’m back at Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire. I’m displaying for the first time with my Maker Club from school. We have a table full of little, primarily 3D printed, items that are attracting a fair bit of attention. And I’m on the cusp of starting a STEM program at my school. And I find myself stuck in a position of conflict. I have spoken to folks who have prodded me about the purpose of 3D printing. I’ve been asked, “Yes, but can you do anything functional with it?”  I’ve wandered about, when I can get away from my own booth, and talked to people who are running STEM programs and picked their brains.  And I’ve come away with a bit of a depressing thought.

Maybe STEM education is simply about making cool kits.  Certainly, some people I talk to, that’s pretty much what they seem to be doing.  “Come to a summer program and learn to build an X!”  “Learn robotics!”  “Learn Programming!” And everywhere on their brochures they talk about the power of STEM.  The STEAM folks can be just as bad, if not worse.  You can justify just about any kit when you throw the arts into the mix.  Now, I realize that I’m talking about short summer, weekend or after school courses in many of these cases and there simply isn’t the time to dig deeper.

I have spoken to a couple of people who spend more time and do go deeper.  They tend to let the students dictate what kind of projects they tackle.  They will teach them some electronics, programming, robotics, digital fabrication and other skills in short projects or kits, but then let the students extend that thinking into their own exploration.  This is very cool and I’ve heard some great stories about the wacked-out ideas students have explored and projects they’ve created.

But even in these, I’m left a little empty in the sense that I don’t feel like the learning has been explicit.  The teacher can point to some skills that the student has developed or some conceptual understanding that they must have had to be able to get to the point that they did.  But there is no evidence that the student actually did develop those skills and knowledge.  I don’t think that the conversations necessarily happened that would allow a teacher to say, “I am 100% confident that Jane understands the concepts of X because she has demonstrated that she knows a, b, & c.”  It is possible that Jane made some lucky assumptions or performed a task without really understanding how she got there.  Heck, I know I do this kind of thing all the time and wonder who I really got from point a to point b.

I’m confident that there are people out there who are doing what I’m intending to do.  Maybe there are STEM or STEAM programs that explicitly connect course content (and I am in a situation where content means broader concepts more so than trivial factoids) with design, problem solving and making.  There are a couple of displays that I feel much more motivated to explore today to find out how and if they are on the same page as I am.  But I also feel like I’ve stepped back two years and the thoughts that I was having about the Maker Movement then (being more quick kits than transformative thinking) are what I’m seeing in the STEM programs being advertised.  Hopefully, I will soon see through the initial impressions and get to the meat.  I know better than ever now, that the students have to start somewhere.  That a table full of 3D printed objects is really a table full over stories of thinking through design, geometry and sometimes programming and physics to get machines to do what is in a students head.  There is much greater value in that.  But things are different in a course than they are in a club and I’m faced with giving credit to students for their skills, thinking and content knowledge.  I need to be able to say that every student who passes my course knows certain things and can demonstrate that knowledge.  I need to be explicit in my thinking so that the students can be explicit in theirs.  Especially when that course content needs to be, to a degree, student generated.  This is where the challenge will fall.

4 thoughts on “STEM Education: Have you made promises you can’t keep?

  1. I have the same questions about the “canned” products. I also think about the missed opprtunities with the shift away from vocational ed and the loss of teachers who were trained and experienced teaching wood, metal, and auto shop classes not to mention art classes taught by art educators.

    Educators who are not trained in teaching artistic and design processes have a lot to learn from those folks. IB has a focus on design process: investigate; plan; create; evaluate, that teaches and assesses specific skills but we still struggle with how much we guide or structure the inquiry and the products or solutions.

    This is a very thought provoking post and I hope vocational ed teachers chime in and ate given the opportunity to lead in this not-so-new area of funding and attention.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jendust! I think that this all comes to down being intentional about what we are teaching. If the intention is to develop artistic or technical skills to a high degree in a specific area, there is immense value in that. I think that where we run into trouble is when we have folks who are using media and forms of making for other purposes. I think that there is great value in demonstrating learning or communicating through a medium that is not a traditional essay or more recently a slide presentation of some kind. There is also great value in using the making of something as a vehicle to learn. But there has to be intentionality in that process. We have to give room for less than masterfully skilled making if the communication or learning is happening anyway. We have to give time for students to build making skills in order to be able to learn and communicate in this way. But we have to know why we are doing what we are doing and what kinds of results we are expecting to see. My fear is that many of these kits or “canned products,” as you call them serve the simple purpose of building the kit with little or no thought beyond the making of the kit (or worse, selling the kit.)

  2. Good stuff Marc, good stuff. I’m so glad you’re always pushing beyond what is being done into the possible and extending learning as a result. I’d love to think through a course design with you that does what you describe. 🙂 Just let me know when. Les

    1. You bet, Leslie. July 1 my time gets much freer and we can maybe talk about the book, too?

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