3 things I learned about Making with a Natural Disaster Project
I did an experimental maker activity at one of the schools I work with. I actually was able to collaborate with a maker vista that I work with through MakerEdOrg and a classroom teacher. The collaboration started between the maker vista and I. We brainstormed different maker activities and how to implement activities into a real lesson. We reached out to a teacher as she was planning a natural disaster unit. The students would do research on a natural disaster and write a paper. We figured this would be a great opportunity to introduce a maker session. It was decided that students would create a structure that would withstand their natural disaster. I was very apprehensive about how open ended I wanted to leave this assignment. The teacher in me wanted to set up lots of scaffolds for the learning process. I wanted to trust the students in creating something from their own imagination so I left the question very open ended. I fell in love with maker spaces because you can use the most basic of materials to complete a project. In our case we used cardboard boxes, duct tape, and fruit packing materials. It’s not about the materials more than it is about the prototype the students create.
The first thing that struck me was how much fun the students had. There were no constraints besides what they could come up with and they really enjoyed that aspect. One student commented “science always seemed boring but once you do the work and you get to have fun and use your imagination”. There is often a misunderstanding from students that science is boring. However, when students are allowed to be creative, they see the true joy of acting like a scientist. Another student mentioned “seeing a structure you are building in front of your eyes really makes you think how fun science is” which also connects the process of building with enjoying science. Innately we all like making things which is another reason making and science are a great fit.
This brings me to the second point of learning from this activity. The students seem to enjoy the building of their structure. I wrote my dissertation on STEM integration and building and designing was a theme that emerged from the research. A similar idea was discovered here with a student indicated “building the structure is fun because we could build our own structure”. The autonomy that students had with building the structure seemed to allow the students to enjoy and engage in the activity. One student stated “seeing a structure you are building in front of your eyes really makes you think”. Isn’t the point of a learning environment for students to think? This thinking and building made students connect with their natural disaster with the comments such as “I learned that hurricanes bring strong rain and winds”, ”It makes me learn and understand that a volcano is a hard disaster to contain” , and “It helps you make sure a strong and bigger structure will support the 9 magnitude earthquake”.
Lastly, I’d like to discuss my own personal reflections from this activity. My biggest take away was that maker activity may work best when they are open ended. Often times, educators try to construct the best lesson that allows students to learn content. By doing so, however, we may take away a student’s opportunity to make their own learning experience. I stated earlier that I was very nervous about leaving this assignment open ended and the students responded with remarkable structures. More importantly they had fun and were able to apply what they learned about natural disasters by creating a structure. I think about labs and other projects we have our students perform and I think about how we set those activities so there is one definite right answer. The real world does not work in that manner and students need to find complex answers to complex problems. In coming up with maker projects, I believe we should take a step back and merely give students a problem to solve and allow them to determine the best way to solve it using science and engineering. We don’t need to provide them with detailed procedures because they can make their own. We don’t need to give them clues to answers because they may find the clues as they grapple with possible solutions. As I think about scientific discoveries, isn’t that how it really happens? A problem is presented and science is used to solve it with no right or wrong answer. The only test is whether the prototype works.