Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh
Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh
In my last post, I discussed the “spirit of making” and argued that teachers should try to invite that spirit into their classrooms even if they aren’t read to fully embrace the maker movement. Pulling from the book Invent to Learn, I identified three activities that make up the spirit of making: making, tinkering, and engineering.
As promised, I’d now like to discuss two classroom projects that, while clearly not maker projects, embrace the activities that give the maker movement so much potential in education.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is an amazing game in which players build rockets (and planes, but those aren’t as fun) and then explore a scaled down solar system.
Making: Kerbal Space Program is a computer game, so we’re clearly not making anything in the real world. Does that disqualify us? I say no. Invent to Learn draws a lot on the learning theory of constructionism to explain the value of making, and Seymour Papert, the father of constructionism, talked just as much (if not more) about constructing virtual artifacts as he did about “real” artifacts. Besides, as I’ve previously written, there’s something to be said for semi-authenticity, especially if it involves rocket fuel.
Tinkering: Kerbal Space Program doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding. The best way to learn to play is just to dive right in, building rockets until you get one that doesn’t explode at launch. When you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you end up teaching yourself about orbital mechanics through a combination of asking more experienced players and, well, just messing around with your controls. I’ve learned a surprising amount about astrophysics (keep in mind that “a surprising amount” doesn’t necessarily mean “a lot) just by tinkering.
Engineering: Making a rocket is cool, and tinkering with rocket design is a lot of fun, but engineering a rocket that can take you to the “Mun” is exhilarating. Having that “real world” task (even if it’s in a virtual world) creates a goal for players’ learning and gives purpose to the making and tinkering.
Making is already strongly associated with STEM fields, so it’s a little unfair for me to start with this example. After all, my entire rationale for these twin blog posts was to show ways that we could adapt the spirit of making for other content areas. So, let’s look at one more example from a non-STEM field:
Lingoudim is a very bare bones artificial language that I created with some friends as a final project for a History of the French Language class we were taking. I’ve written about this project before, and I’ll probably write about it again because it made such an impact on me.
Making: I think it’s the “making” part of this project that impressed me the most. It would have been easy for the professor to ask us to just demonstrate some sort of understanding of the forces that drive language change, but instead he asked us to draw on that understanding by making a whole new language. That definitely got our minds thinking.
Tinkering: We did our best to have a rationale behind all of the vocabulary and grammar that we invented for this project, but there were times that we made decisions just for the heck of it. We asked a lot of the same questions that you would hear in a makerspace (“Why not try this?” “Do you think that would work”), it’s just that we were asking them about adjectives and past participles instead of LEDs.
Engineering: As I mentioned the last time that I wrote about Lingoudim, part of our project was to produce a translation of a text into our new language. We chose to tackle Genesis 1, and while “engineering” and “scripture” aren’t words that are typically associated with each other, this element of the project drove our making and tinkering. It was often while trying to figure out how to translate a particular phrase or capture a particular idea that we knew what decisions we had to make and what might not work after all. Once again, some sort of practical application gave purpose and direction to our work.
Neither of these projects would fall into the traditional conception of what the maker movement is. However, I would suspect that they would bring a lot of the same benefits into the classroom that a makerspace would. They also bring some of the same challenges: I think I’d be just as nervous introducing an artificial languages project into my French III classroom as I would setting up a Maker Faire. The more I think about it, though, the less that has to do with questions about educational value and the more it has to do with questions of teacher comfort and control. I think it’s time for teaching as a profession to start doing some making, tinkering, and engineering of its own. We may have a lot of constraints on our ability to do so, but I think it’s worth a try.
Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.