How Maker Culture Anticipates a Future of Empowered Tech Users

The Maker Movement has been subject of much debate in education for a few years now. Schools have had wood shops for decades and there are many vocational programs out there. So why is making so different, and what is the fuss about?

Making has its origins in the do-it-yourself culture where people make things to solve daily problems, or just for enjoyment. Personal relevance is extremely important for learning. Educators like Dewey and Freire have long stated that learning best takes place using contexts and problems that are personally relevant to students. The challenge has always been accomplishing this with a classroom full of students with diverse interests. Fortunately, because the variety of possible maker projects is so broad, there is usually something that will interest every student.

Photo by Sharon Vanderkaay / https://www.flickr.com/photos/77662096@N06/

Making is usually distinguished from do-it-yourself projects and more traditional craftwork and art by the inclusion of digital technology either in the process of making or as part of the final product. The emphasis on digital technology in making is of particular interest to educators as there is currently a push to focus on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. Furthermore, unlike craftwork and the arts, making engages multiple skillsets typically involving a combination of craftwork, mechanics, circuitry and programming. As the demands for widely skilled workers increase in the job market, educators are becoming more concerned about fostering interdisciplinary skills in students. Making has been identified as an ideal approach to this challenge.

In schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer.

Less evident are the benefits making has on soft skill development, motivation, identity development and democratization of industry and society. Twenty-first century skills go beyond the hard skills of design, building and circuitry. More and more, employers are seeking workers who possess soft skills like creativity, innovation, initiative, problem solving, adaptability, independent learning and collaboration, all of which are honed when making. Makers choose their own project, take the initiative to seek the necessary information to complete the project via the internet or through collaboration with other makers, learn to find creative ways to accomplish their goals, and adapt their ideas based on physical or financial constraints. Opportunities to develop these skills are often limited in schools because they are difficult to manage and assess. It is becoming increasingly recognized, however, that if schools hope to prepare their students for the labour market of the 21st century it is essential that they begin to promote these skills.

Experts in industry predict that the increase in demand for highly skilled workers in the STEM fields will continue to rise. However, a decreasing number of youth are entering scientific and technology related fields, particularly among disadvantaged populations. This is partly attributed to student motivation and personal identity. Students often report a lack of motivation to pursue higher education due to a perceived lack of relevance of school to their experience of life. This perception is particularly prevalent in youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Making is ideal for addressing this issue as it bridges the gap between theory and practice. When taking measurements for a 3D design, or writing code to program an arcade emulation station, the relevance of mathematics and computer programming to students’ interests and daily lives becomes evident. In addition to motivating students to pursue their studies for current interests, making also has the potential to influence their future career choices. An important factor for career choice is one’s identity. An individual is unlikely to imagine themselves in a future role for which they have no experience. Through making, however, students have the opportunity to ‘try on’ the scientist or engineer identity as they design and build concrete artefacts in an authentic context.

Maker culture has important implications for the democratization of industry and society. Thanks to cheap open-source technology and expansive shared knowledge on the internet, almost anyone anywhere can make. It is no longer the case that citizens are entirely dependent on companies for products. Making has the potential to disrupt industries worldwide and to put the power back into the hands of the people. And in schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer. This sense of empowerment is particularly important for youth in disadvantaged areas who might feel disempowered by dysfunctional social systems. Empowered people will more likely seek to improve their lives, which ultimately improves society as a whole.

There are many more potential benefits of making in education that are not listed here, but these alone offer a convincing argument for the inclusion of making in schools. This must be done with caution, however. Making is about more than just building. Having students build something following a pre-prescribed set of instructions or assembling a kit is not making. Yes, some knowledge and skills will be acquired through this type of activity, but the primary learning benefits of making will be absent. The personally relevant, self-directed experiential learning that making affords is vital in motivating students to take interest in STEM subjects and develop the necessary skills to become valuable contributors to 21st century advancements. If making is to benefit students to its fullest, the spirit of the Maker Movement needs to be authentic in schools.

Nathalie is currently working on her doctorate in Educational Technology in the Department of Education. She is a teacher interested in the benefits of incorporating DIY and maker activities into the classroom to develop STEAM and 21st century skills in students. Her research focuses on professional development programs to help teachers and community workers safely and effectively incorporate making into classrooms and community centres so that youth can benefit from the many affordances making has to offer.