A while ago I came across a webinar on EdWeb about design thinking in the classroom (check it out - it's free and you get continuing ed credits). I was instantly hooked on the concept; bringing design thinking into my curriculum. I had done a lot of "making" with my students and my own children, but I was missing some critical pieces, one of which was to connect making experiences with real-world problems. The general idea is that learners develop skills and content by observing and identifying problems before them. They then solve these real-world problems by designing and creating solutions.
I am an experiential educator, so every action my students take is a step toward learning experiences that are entirely child-led (look back at some posts from my student-directed learning series for specific details - link in archives). Therefore, I created a "Maker Tool Kit" that combines the principles of self-led design thinking, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This tool kit is designed to walk learners through a maker project while giving them the freedom to lead the experience. Learners identify a problem and brainstorm innovative solutions. They design and build a prototype, test it, tweak it, and use the refined final outcome to make a positive impact on the community.
So, how to add design thinking to your curriculum? Start by purchasing my maker tool kit . Simply distribute the resource to your students and watch them thrive! This resource has all of the materials to help gradually move students toward self-directed making experiences.
If you and/or your students are new to design thinking as a learning tool, or student-directed learning for that matter, consider starting students off with a specific problem to solve. You present the problem, your students do the rest. Once learners become more comfortable with the process, you can begin to ask them to identify problems around a theme, such as "fall" or "morning routine". If you have the flexibility, students can eventually take the reigns entirely, identifying problems on their own, free from your influence.
OR you can all dive in head first. One of the best things about design thinking, and making in general, is that failure is not only an option, but is encouraged. Let them learn through experience!
How to Add Design Thinking to Your Curriculum
Use the following example, along with my Maker Tool Kit, to help facilitate the experience:
1. Observe and Empathize - In this phase, learners identify a problem and "empathize" with those impacted by the problem. You might present students with a specific problem, or they observe a problem on their own. Either way, this step is intended to help learners better understand the problem by communicating with those directly impacted.
Ex: A student notices decorative pumpkins splattered across roads and sidewalks in her neighborhood.
Check out this free problem identification resource. The purpose is to help beginners observe and identify problems to solve. This is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.
2. Define the Problem - At this point students have discussed the problem with a variety of people, so can hone in on the specifics. They state the problem.
Ex: Squirrels are taking decorative pumpkins from neighbors' doorsteps and eating them.
3. Ideate - This is my favorite part! Students begin to throw out product ideas to solve the problem. They "think outside the box"; they stray from the obvious. Innovative final products are also an important component of project-based learning.
Ex: 1) Create a barrier, 2) Develop a nontoxic, but annoying substance to paint on the pumpkins, 3) Design and create a pumpkin holder or stand that makes it difficult for squirrels to access the pumpkin, etc.
4. Prototype - At this point students draft a design and create their prototype. They go through a series of challenges and obstacles in the design and making phase, work through the issues, and make modifications.
Ex: The student designs a decorative wire pumpkin holder that prevents squirrels from taking off with pumpkins.
5. Test - Now that students have created a prototype, they can test their initial design on a relevant audience. They gather feedback from their test group and refine their product based on suggestions until it effectively solves the problem.
Ex: The student might gather from the test group that their pumpkin holder solves the problem but isn't attractive. They make recommendations and the student makes adjustments.
I highly recommend encouraging students to observe and identify problems on their own, but understand reasons for making a gradual transition to authentic student-directed learning. Some students might feel overwhelmed by this and need a little more scaffolding. I see this often, which is why I have maker project resources in my store that provide specifics and the problem or challenge is outlined for students. You may also be confined to specific topics and/or standards. That is fine. "Making" helps learners visualize abstract concepts.
Consider giving learners a theme to start with. Check out some of the "fall" themed maker project ideas below! Write the problem on the board, distribute the Maker Tool Kit, and watch magic happen!
Fall Inspired Maker Education Activities
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on education trends of 2018. As the year was coming to a close, I wanted to look back to see what instructors were doing with their students, why they were trying out these trends, and if the trends would stick around for the long haul. Maker education was one of those trends. It's not a new idea, but has recently gained a lot of traction and attention. It is apparent now more than ever that students need to develop and build the skills to learn, and to navigate the enormous amount of input thrown at them at any given moment; not just memorize content. Maker education does just that.
Maker education in short is learning through designing and creating. It might be making an art piece, a moving model, an animation, or a promotional video. "Making" isn't limited to physical creations like a bird house, for example. Makers can also design and create things digitally such as illustrations, blue prints, maps, and more. Maker projects could be done independently or in teams.
There are a lot of benefits to making. Every child can "make", for one. It doesn't matter the age, background, skill level, gender, or school philosophy. It is a learning experience that is naturally differentiated (which was another trend of 2018, and many years prior.) Making considers individual needs, skill levels, and interests. Students develop critical 21st century skills like problem-solving, inquiry, determination, resourcefulness, team-work, communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking (the 4 C's) in addition to content.
Maker activities can be aligned to the standards. Maker projects are often tied to specific concepts. "Making" is an interesting approach to learning that can cover the topics required as well as help students build on important life skills. For example, I am a biology teacher. My students made moving models that simulated synaptic transmission. Rather than reading about it in a textbook, jotting down some notes, taking a quiz, and forgetting the information 5 days later, my students construct new knowledge of an abstract concept through experience. I got this idea from brainu.com. Science teachers, if you don't already know about this website, you're missing out. Take a look.
My students make things all the time. They're project-based learners so they make final products to demonstrate new skills and knowledge everyday. I just wasn't aware that it had a name until the recent past when I saw "makerspaces" littered all over Pinterest. I popped into Jennings (where I used to teach) this morning to say hello to the students and staff, and was blown away by some of their projects. It was rejuvenating and inspiring. I'm grateful to have worked with so many outstanding maker educators, Tom and Andreas, to name a couple. They didn't just run a workshop, the maker projects that students did with these teachers required meticulous planning, brainstorming, testing, modifying, and reflecting.
A few months ago I started doing heavy research on maker education. I did a lot of reading, participated in several workshops, and attended live webinars. I learned that there is a lot more to maker education than just making. It's one thing to build something. But there is a process if it is to be a profound learning experience, which is the end goal after all.
The elements listed below are a combination of what I've learned from maker research and what I've learned from experience in a project-based learning environment. A lot of this information comes from a free webinar I took on edweb.net called "Designing and Creating Makerspaces" , with Beth Holland and Douglas Kiang.
Important Elements of Maker Education
All maker projects should provide ample space and time to immerse learners in the challenge, observe problems, ask question, and explore available materials.
The brainstorming phase is when students play around with design ideas that ultimately lead to a prototype.
The prototype is the initial design. It is typically temporary as few designs turn out exactly as planned.
This is the part where students make their designs. They will ultimately hit snags, try something out, fail, go back to the drawing board, and try a new approach. Failure is an important part of the learning process with maker activities.
5. Community Expert:
Including community experts is an important aspect of project-based learning. I think it's important to have experts within reach during all phases of a maker project. They are additional sources of information, guidance, and provide additional feedback.
6. Sharing and Reflecting:
After each maker project I have my class do a gallery walk of all of the final products. It's fun to see what others have come up with and how diverse final products can be. A gallery walk is also a great way to provide peer feedback. Reflecting on the experience is also important. Reflection is a huge part of any experiential learning activity, which "making" is. It's important to look back at not only the outcome, but the process itself. Gallery walks make great opportunities for students to not only share their final products, but to share their making experience.
7. Authentic Presentation:
Sharing work with an authentic audience is also an important element of project-based learning. I like to add this component to maker projects because I think it's an important step in any learning activity. An authentic presentation is sharing work with a relevant audience. A gallery walk is great. But let's say a maker project was to make a toy. The toys created wouldn't be of any use to a group of high schoolers after the project is complete. Donating those toys to a daycare center, on the other hand, would be authentic. It meets a relevant audience and makes an impact on the community.
PBL Maker Challenge:
PBL Maker Challenge: Goal Setting Through Artistic Expression
I started a new product line in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. The product line is called "PBL Maker Challenge", which is a combination of the elements of project-based learning and design thinking noted above.
All of these projects are budget friendly. You shouldn't have to dismiss maker education because creating a makerspace costs too much. Each project in this product line can be done using materials on hand, few materials, household items, or recyclables or trash. If there is a project that requires more sophisticated materials, I will provide tips on best ways to go about getting those materials.
The projects are also print and go. One of the beautiful parts about maker education is that the students guide the learning. You set the stage, they make the magic. I have only published one of these projects to my store so far. Keep your eyes out for others.
I'd love to hear about your maker experiences. For those of you that are seasoned maker educators, tell us what you do. What does your makerspace look like? What age group do you work with? Has maker education been beneficial to your students? What tips would you give to those new to maker education?
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for more experiential learning resources. You can also follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.