From puppets to robots, kids learn with project-based STEM activities
Remember the transformer toys that were popular when you were growing up? Kids loved snapping the parts together in different ways to build intergalactic warriors and robotic vehicles. While yesterday’s transformers required kids to use fine-motor skills (and their imaginations), they were normally banned from the classroom. Fast-forward to today’s K-12 classrooms and you’re likely to find students building robots, puppets, and other engineering inventions, with teachers encouraging their tinkering along the way. At a time when many people fear our digital natives are missing out on the art of building with their hands, the “maker movement” has emerged as an effective, hands-on way for students to learn the concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Not every student is a natural inventor or mechanic. But with the vast array of projects available, they’re bound to find some that tickle their fancy. Origami paper creations teach design and geometry; making a robot requires technology and engineering; building a wood birdhouse calls on design skills, and the list goes on.
Jackie Gerstein, EdD, a STEAM and maker-education curriculum developer, clearly enjoys leading students through maker projects. Part of the magic is helping kids understand the real-world application of what they can learn through maker education. She tells them, for example, how programmable robots “can help with everything from surgery to disaster response.”
“Kids’ participation is driven by intrinsic motivation,” Gerstein says, and because maker education involves experimentation and trial and error, “it teaches and reinforces resilience. Failure is simply [treated as] information,” thus encouraging students stick with a project and try different techniques. Gerstein goes on to explain that, “Hands-on maker projects are cross-curricular, often incorporating more than one STEM concept. They promote self-direction, independent learning, active participation, and honing of fine-motor skills. And when a student blogs or gives an oral presentation about his maker project, his communication skills come into play.” The total experience of STEM maker projects promotes 21st century skills like knowledge construction, skilled communication, self-regulation, real world problem-solving, the use of technology for learning and, when they work in teams, collaboration.
Maker Projects Beyond the Classroom
What about kids who can’t get enough of those cool, hands-on engineering design projects and want to tinker with them at home or in their community? There are virtual and “on the ground” maker resources, fairs and camps that provide a venue for those budding engineers. In this video, Dr. Sanjay Gupta meets some enthusiastic teenagers—and checks out their clever inventions—at a community maker faire.
Joey Sabol, a math teacher and professor who currently homeschools his two sons, runs a free virtual “maker” summer camp for teens and an online camp for counselors, experts, and special guests. He also hosts special online events during the year. Sabol describes maker projects as encompassing four basic elements: construction, context, concrete, and creativity. (And don’t forget “cool.”) It’s clear that the maker movement is giving today’s students a well-rounded understanding of how the STEM disciplines translate into real-world devices and solutions. We suspect Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs would approve. What is your child building at school?