Since last I’ve blogged here my classroom has undergone some significant and amazing changes. This year I was fortunate to start up two new courses, Robotics Foundations and Computer Science & Design. With these courses added to my schedule I’m now out of the ELA world entirely, and while there’s much that I miss about teaching ELA, this shift has allowed me to focus whole-heartedly on building curriculum for my CTE courses. My initial experiences in Robotics and Computer Science in particular have helped me to codify my beliefs and goals as a CTE instructor – I am a Maker, and my students should become Makers too.
The Maker Mindset
I’ve been enamored with and involved in the Maker Movement for nearly a decade now. The Maker Mindset has its roots in the DIY and hobbyist communities, but incorporates elements of cutting edge technology. As computer technology progressed and shrank it became obtuse and mysterious to the uninitiated. If you can’t see how something works, how can you expect to fix, replicate, or augment it. Adopting the Maker Mindset empowers students to challenge the technology that surrounds them every day.
As I’ve progressed through developing my new classes, I’ve grown to think myself as a teacher of the Maker Mindset, rather than a teacher of technology. In this context the languages and technology that my students learn become ancillary, simply a way to express the power and importance of Making. The shift from student to Maker is a shift from follower to leader, from consumer to creator. This shift reflects the constructivst role I’ve always encouraged my students to take, but with a context that is both appealing and engaging to young minds.
I knew when I got my approval to start up my Computer Science & Design course that I wanted the Arduino to be a core component. If you’re not familiar, the Arduino is a small microprocessor board with several analog and digital inputs and outputs. It is programmed with a C++ based language that helpfully abstracts away much of the complexities of working with hardware. That is to say, it makes programming physically interactive objects dead simple. The Arduino takes hardware, ostensibly the most mysterious and intimidating element of Computer Science, and makes it accessible to even the greenest of beginners.
When it comes to learning to program, the potential to control something physical holds a certain mystique. Making a simple LED blink is much more exciting for my students than printing out hello world. Jumping the gap from digital to physical seems magical, and with the Arduino that magic is in the hands of the students. Furthermore, the Arduino is mainstay in the Maker’s toolkit, ensuring a rich supply of resources and inspiration to help students develop their ideas. There are plenty of languages and platforms I could use to teach programming skills (and I’ve tried my fair share), but introducing my students to the Arduino encourages them to think as Makers, instead of as students. With the SparkFun Inventors Kit in hand my students have hacked RC cars, built Jeopardy buzzers, crafted interactive digital art, and more.
3D printing was an unexpected yet welcome addition to my Computer Science curriculum. When I found myself with unfettered access to a Makerbot Replicator 2 in my classroom, I let my students loose with it. As with the Arduino, my use of the printer in my class isn’t about the specific technology, but about the ways it can empower a student to become a Maker. I think back to my introductory CAD class in college, and while I enjoyed the content, there was always a lingering disappointment that my designs never came off the screen. I can’t imaging what I would have created had my instruction in drafting been tied to Making something real, tangible, and potentially useful.
With minimal CAD instruction and only a week to work, every one of my Computer Science students was able to design something to be printed. Many were simple trinkets, some were toys, and a scant few were truly useful objects, but every student was able to design from scratch something that could transcend from the digital to the physical realm. As with programming the Arduino, the power of the tool is its ability to bridge the digital and the physical, to allow students with little experience to Make. My only complaint is that I’ve got 150 students and only one printer, but I’m looking to solve that one soon enough (or rather my students will, when they build their own 3D printers next year).
Now that I’ve realized that I’m making Makers, I’ve started reevaluating how and why I teach every unit in all of my classes. I’m excited to attend the upcoming Seattle Mini Maker Faire with my students in mind. If you’re teaching with the Maker in mind, I’d love to hear from you and swap ideas!