Exploring Project Based Learning Through Makerspaces

Post 1:

Meaningful Making Through Project Based Learning

Hello, world! Welcome to the first in a series of posts designed to explore the impact of Project Based Learning through the lens of Makerspaces. This is possible thanks to a grant from CTN and through a partnership with Detroit Public Television, The Nerdy Teacher, the University Liggett School. Over the coming months, these posts will explore the different ways students, teachers, administrators and parents can support project based learning in the school environment and at home. First though, here is a little bit about me.

I have been in education for the past 16 years. I spent the first 15 of those years as a high school Language Arts teacher where I focused on project based learning as a main way to assess students. During that time as a classroom teacher, I was recognized by Michigan’s Association of Computer Users in Learning as the Technology Using Teacher of the Year and, in that same year, by the International Society of Technology in Education as their teacher of the year. I present around the world to schools and at conferences on how to best approach integrating technology and teaching practices into their classrooms. My work with project based learning has been covered on CNN and my use of technology has been featured in the Ed Week and other publications around the world.

Over the past 10 years, I have become a Google Certified Educator, Raspberry Pi Certified Education, TEDEd Innovative Educator, was recognized as an Emerging Leader by ASCD and earned my Masters in Educational Technology through Central Michigan University (Go Chips!) In 2016, I published the best selling book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces, that shared my experiences of starting a makerspace to support project based learning in my school. My new book, The Maker Mentality, was released in June and was a new best-seller in STEM books.

In 2017, I started my new position as the Middle School Technology Coordinator and Makerspace Director at University Liggett School where I was tasked to build a Makerspace and program to support making and project based learning for students in grades 6-12. It is an exciting new adventure that will will be the source of many of the posts coming over the course of the next year.

You can follow me on Social Media on Twitter @TheNerdyTeacher and Instangram @TheNerdyTeacher. I am also a father of an amazing 1st grader, husband to a very patient wife, and an obsessive nerd when it comes to Star Wars, comic books, video games, and working on the pond I build in my backyard.

Phew, that is more than I like to write about me, but I wanted to make sure that everyone knew my background as we explore the different ways that makerspaces and project based learning can come together to creating a very powerful learning environment that can benefit all the different types of learners we have in our classrooms.

Starting in May, there will be a monthly post that will explore the different elements of Project Based Learning and how it can be used in the classroom and supported at home. After exploring what Project Based Learning is, I will dive into Makerspaces and show how they can be used to support Project Based Learning. As we build our new Makerspace at University Liggett, there will be plenty of examples to pull from on how everything can be connected to support student learning at school and at home.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out in the comment section below or shoot me a message on Twitter. Thanks for taking the time to read this super long post. I promise they will be much shorter in the future. I can’t wait to share our adventures in Project Based Learning and Makerspaces with all of you.

Post 2: 

 Connecting Project Based Learning and Makerspaces 

 One of the exciting parts of project based learning is the connections that can be made with a Makerspace. By having a makerspace in your school or classroom, the possibilities open up wider for student creations. First, we need to explore exactly what a makerspace is before we connect it to project based learning.

One of the common ideas about a makerspace is that it is a space that is filled with high tech tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. While some makerspaces have those tools, it is important to note that a makerspace should not be defined by the tools in it. You can have a makerspace that is filled with duct tape, yarm, cardboard, and glue sticks. The idea behind a makerspace is that it is a location that allows people to create what they want with the tools and area available to them. In schools, classrooms might not have the amount of room needed for students to really dive in and create. Another location might be best to house all of the tools and have large tables for student to build. A makerspace does not have to be a room. It can be part of a room or even a cart that rolls from classroom to classroom to bring supplies to students and teachers as needed. Resources can be tight, so everyone has to be able to create the space that is best for their learning environment.

Makerspaces are also designed to support the work that is already happening in classrooms. If teachers already do many projects that involve students filming their ideas, a green screen might be perfect for the makerspace. Maybe students love to build and create entire cities for different projects in social studies class. Legos would be an excellent addition to the makerspace. If there is money to spend on outfitting a makerspace, it is imperative that teachers are consulted to see what they would use most in a space. There is nothing worse that tools gathering dust in a makerspace.

I feel students are limited in the type of projects they submit in class because they do not have access to all the tools they might need. That means plenty of shoeboxes and poster boards will be submitted to the teacher on the the due date. Makerspaces allow for some equity in the school because all students will have access to a wide variety of tools to help them explore their topic in ways that are more meaningful to them. That is what we are trying to accomplish with project based learning in the classroom and that is what is possible by giving students more access to makerspace.

Having a space with dedicated tools to support project based learning is also a great way for teachers to enhance their lessons. With access to a variety of technology and traditional maker supplies, a very diverse set of projects can be created and shared in class based on the interests of the students. This will help the teacher see what students really understand versus what they had access to at home to create their project. While “necessity is the mother of all invention”, having a set standard of tools available for all students allows for all students to have access to create projects that demonstrate understanding and speak to their talents.

Next month, I am going to feature an example of Makerspaces and English Language Arts Classrooms work. 

If you have any questions or ideas, please feel free to email me (OneNerdyTeacher@gmail.com) or reach me on Twitter (@TheNerdyTeacher).

Post 3:

I was asked to cover a 7th grade English class for the week and I was allowed to do any mini unit I wanted. I decided I would dive into symbolism using one of my favorite short stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper". It is a wonderful gothic story that symbolizes the oppression of women in society in the early 1900s. It is a short enough story that it can be read or listened to in a single class period and the next couple of days can be used to dive into the details that make it a powerful story.

As a class, we read the story, discussed theme, and annotated looking for symbolism. All of the traditional aspects of an English Language Arts class was there, but instead of a multiple choice test at the end, students used time in the Makerspace and at home to create something to share with the class. These artifacts are tangible representations of their understanding of the material. As a teacher, that is what I'm looking for in any unit I present to students. Here are some of the student examples that have been submitted.

Here is a bed designed by a student, cut out of baltic birch on the laser cutter, and the student used their sewing skills to create the mattress, blanket, and the pillows. 

A perfectly measured house cut out of baltic birch and assembled using hot glue. The little "Life" character is the lady from the story. 

The bars were designed and then cut from baltic birch using the laser cutter to create prison bars. The yellow hands represent the narrator trying to break free from her room and society. 

A board game designed and etched on baltic birch using the laser cutter shows the complex path the narrator would have to achieve freedom. 

The scene of freedom within sight, but unattainable due to the bars of society. 

A depiction of the narrator in a dress that resembles the wallpaper she hates so much shows that she is becoming something she hates. 

These are just a few of the examples that students have submitted and there will be more in the coming days. The students all wrote a brief 8 sentence paragraph explaining their artifact and how it was connected to the story. The students really enjoyed the freedom to explore and create something different. The teacher I was covering for really liked the lesson and artifacts created by the students and we are going to collaborate on some fun lessons in the future.

Overall, this lesson shows what is possible for students in ELA classes if given the chance to explore project based learning with the support of a maakerspace. Some students chose to create with the laser cutter and others took colored pencil to paper. The projects were meaningful to the students and demonstrated their understanding of the story and what it meant in the big picture by deciphering symbols and connecting them to the theme. As an ELA teacher, what more could you want?

Post 4

One of things that is important to remember is that implementing new technologies into the classroom is the same as introducing new lessons. You do not scramble to throw everything in at once, you ease into it to all everyone to adjust to the change and see what is possible. 

I often compare it to types of races. Education is not a Sprint, it is Marathon. To some, that sounds exhausting, but it is apt because of all of the training that goes into a marathon and becoming a teacher. School years in general are marathons where teachers need to think about all different points of the school year and how they connect, not just what is going to happen the next day. There might be times were we feel like we are sprinting and we might actually be sprinting, but it is important that we keep a set pace, adjust to any obstacles, and make sure we aim for our goal. Even if we don't hit every goal we set out to make, we can be happy that we tried our best, evaluate the marathon and see what we can improve upon for next time, relax, and then start getting ready for the next race. 

When considering project based learning for the classroom, it is important to keep that marathon analogy in mind because it is crazy to think that you have to change every lesson right away. Ease into the school year, see what lessons you have that can be tweaked or improved by adding some projects, and then reflect on how it went and how students engaged in the process. The start of the year can be very stressful, so do not add to the stress by thinking about everything you have to do right away. Take it one step at a time and, over the course of the year, you will have many different lessons you have changed.