As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as DIY.org, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.
It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.
Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.
What is Beam?
The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.
Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.
Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning
Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:
- Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
- Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
- CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
- Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
- Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
- Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
- Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
- Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
- Exploratory: Ask open questions.
The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design
Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:
- Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
- Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
- Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
- Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
- Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.
Trying It on for Size
As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?
What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?
According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”
While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.