How to Marry Computer Science and Maker Ed—MacGyver Style; Plus 10 Resources for CS Maker Integration
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How to Marry Computer Science and Maker Ed—MacGyver Style; Plus 10 Resources for CS Maker Integration

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Even if you didn’t grow up watching the resourceful adventures of Secret Agent MacGyver—who usually sported a Swiss Army knife and a roll of duct tape, the Maker movement is an exciting space in which to problem solve. In his book, the Maker Movement Manifesto, Mark Hatch describes making physical things that “embody portions of our souls." I believe there’s no reason we can’t add a digital layer to our students’ makerspaces.

Just like maker education, coding and other computer science topics are taught using MacGyver’s Constructionist approach—i.e. learning by doing. Making and computer science even share the same core design process. Engineering is Elementary, a STEM curriculum developed by the National Center for Technological Literacy, defined this process as moving through the following steps: “ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve”—the basic system development life cycle.

I think the best way to integrate CS and maker ed is through physical programming, which FabLearnFellows defines as “taking programming off the computer screen into the real world.” Specifically, both human-computer interaction and robotics are found at this intersection of the digital and physical world. Human-computer interaction focuses on how we interface with computers. This is an extremely rewarding topic for students to dabble in; the younger they are the less influenced by years of prescribed instruction and the more creative they are in coming up with new ways to interact with computers.

A great tool to use with your students is Makey Makey. This relatively inexpensive device allows students to use physical objects to send signals to the computer. Think of it like a keyboard but instead of using keys, you can send a “spacebar” signal to the computer by touching a piece of clay, water, or even a lime. Couple this with a program the student created in Scratch or any other coding environment and you have a very unique maker/coding solution.

My own experience provides a perfect example; I teach science as well as coding, and sometimes I have students in both classes. In one instance, when it came time for them to create their projects detailing the structures of volcanoes, a student came to me with an idea. Like many of his peers, he wanted to make a physical volcano. But he also wanted to make a program in Khan Academy’s JavaScript programming environment. It got really interesting when he integrated Makey Makey; when a user touched the volcano’s structures, it would trigger the program to display information and short animations describing the area touched.

The more obvious marriage between maker ed and computer science is robotics. This field includes controlling mechanical devices through code and real-world interactions. Creating and controlling robots is highly engaging for students; who wouldn’t want to make a mechanical friend that cleans a bedroom? And there are many resources out there for programming different types of robots. In fact, this idea has been around for decades. But the programmable robots we have now are full of upgrades, sensors, and features that make building your own butler a bit closer to reality.

Many robot options are actually quite reasonably priced. For example, Sphero is a virtually indestructible ball that students can program using various apps. To bring in the maker side of things, you can challenge students to Sphero chariot races or build a Sphero obstacle course. Resources like LEGO’s WeDo for elementary students, LEGO’s EV3 for middle schoolers and Arduino for high school students have a much stronger focus on building the entire robot. These kits feature programmable micro-controllers that can be used as the brain to make virtually any build imaginable.

There are also world-wide competitions for robot building and programming. This year, two teams from the Avondale Elementary School District were able to compete in the VEX IQ World Championships. However, these teams had an advantage. They attend a STEM school where their after school robotics club is augmented by their in-school coding and engineering classes. It’s not quite a makerspace, but students learn many of the same principles.

As technologies advance and makerspaces become more prevalent, we should be thinking about new ways in which the two can be combined. Human-computer interaction and robotics aren’t the only ways to integrate computer science and coding into maker ed. Continue the conversation by sharing maker/CS projects your students have built; tweet @wgrantsmith or leave a Comment below.

Ten Resources for Maker Ed and Computer Science Integration

Grant Smith is a consultant helping districts implement CS for All initiatives with a focus on training teachers and curriculum development. He is the recipient of the 2015 Digital Innovation in Learning Administrator Trailblazer Award.

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