How to Transform Student Projects—and Lesson Planning—into Acts of Making

Project-Based Learning

How to Transform Student Projects—and Lesson Planning—into Acts of Making

from Autodesk

By Wendy McMahon     May 9, 2017

How to Transform Student Projects—and Lesson Planning—into Acts of Making

Life-threatening open-heart surgery forever changed how Ramsey Musallam approaches making, teaching and learning. Amazed at his doctor’s skill and confidence while holding someone’s life in his hands, the Sonoma Academy STEM teacher wondered how a person came to be so good at what he did.

In his own job as a maker educator, Ramsey had long been searching for a way to elevate student learning. But despite flipping his classroom with daily project-based labs and video instruction, his students weren’t performing any better. He wondered if the answer lay in understanding his doctor’s exceptional proficiency. So Ramsey turned to his surgeon for advice. His classroom has never been the same.

Ramsey’s teaching now incorporates his physician’s rules for maximizing learning—be curious, embrace chaos, and practice reflection. In his STEM classroom, both lesson planning and student projects have become acts of making.

Ramsey talked to EdSurge about how he applies life lessons as a maker educator, how withholding information boosts creativity, and why students don’t need college degrees to make cool stuff.

EdSurge: What advice did your doctor give you, and how does it play out in your students’ making?

Ramsey Musallam: Rule number one: curiosity comes first, so I have to be really curious about how I want to teach best. I also want to put my students in a position where they’re curious about the information. So I don’t ever give my students instructions to do anything.

Rule number two: I have to embrace the subsequent mess that’s going to happen when students are trying to figure out stuff they don’t have answers to—and it’s not going to look pretty. And students are going to have to embrace the fact that it seems disordered in their minds as well.

And then rule number three: practice reflection. They are now going to have to think critically about their own learning and be metacognitive. And I’m going to have to reflect on what worked and didn’t work in the process. This part comes naturally for students when they’re making. They reflect when they test their projects because there’s no other way for them to finish.

When you do it right, it's a more motivating environment. They forget they're in school. They understand the power of questioning and being curious and that they can actually enjoy learning when they're curious about something . . . They want to know, “What's going to happen next?" And for me, it's a much more engaging way to teach.

How can teachers embrace this approach in their classroom?

I think the main thing is to see lesson planning as a form of making. Teachers have to think critically about teaching, have the guts to put students in positions to do things that might not work and take the time to reflect on they we do. If they don’t, we’re going to get stuck in this process of reusing lessons and projects over and over again.

If we think about our lesson plans as making projects—where the students are the testing phase—we can arrive at a place where teaching is starting to push an envelope, where we’re starting to be really curious about our jobs. Students see that, so they’re more curious.

What’s the most important skill your students learn through making?

Curiosity. One of the things I've realized—and it's my 17th year now in the classroom—is just because kids are doing something with their hands doesn't mean they want to do it. So I try to use curiosity as the tool to convince students to engage in something.

When you're curious, your brain is more active and you have more cognitive power. You can actually solve more complex problems about anything, even if it's not related to what you're learning. Curiosity is a powerful skill in life; it might be the most important skill we have.

Doing projects with my students has forced me to think about the idea of withholding information. The less information you give students, the better. Trying to pitch situations where there's a lack of resolution can create environments where students wonder what's going to happen next. Whether they like it or not, the brain doesn't like that tension and wants to find the answer.

For example, maybe students don’t know how a tool has been used before and don't know what it does. If you give them a little bit of information, but strategically withhold a lot of it, you can get some authentic things. I'll do a simple demo and then I'll say, "Okay, now that you know this, go invent something that's collaborative."

Then you need to literally sit and watch the frustration evolve, and you need to choose when and when not to jump in. I'm not going to let students fail, but I'm going to let that space exist. When I do it that way, the products I get from them are way more interesting than if I showed a website with tutorials and ideas. I’ll get mocked-up security systems, photo booths, all kinds of really cool flight simulator controllers.

How has making inspired you as a teacher?

I did a two-week intersession course last semester where we built out a piece of technology for a neighboring middle school for kids with severe physical disabilities. The stakes were high for this project because the making was truly human-centered. It had to work because we were building solutions for students who needed them in order to fully interact and interface with their own computers.

We had ten different groups of students who all were assigned an individual student with a different disability. For example, there was a girl with Down syndrome who also had limitations in mobility. She had a hard time with letter recognition. So my students programmed a game for her.

My students became familiar with the engineering design cycle—the process that engineers do when designing products, and they were able to engage in service learning. A few devices still don’t work and our students are iterating constantly, trying to negotiate the problem. They’ve seen the faces of the individuals they are trying to serve, and that is enough of a motivator in and of itself.

That was the first time it actually hit me that these kids don’t need college degrees to make amazing stuff. They just need a teacher that can make that connection for them, and then push them in the right direction. A lot of times I think we as teachers use language like, “I’m preparing you for the real world.” But the students are already sitting in the real world.

Autodesk's new Maker Starter Kit provides ten steps to help you launch a maker program in your school, organization or community. Access the complete Maker Program Starter Kit here.

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