Sebastopol sophomore Jessie Davidson wouldn't call herself a nerd. A year ago, she wasn't really comfortable using a screwdriver. But since September, as part of her regular high school curriculum, she's learned how to wield a soldering iron, wire up a circuit and write some code. Now she's figured out how to build a solar-powered charging device inside an Altoid tin - and become the school expert on the design.
What makes her most proud? Figuring out how to solve a complex, real-world problem - and sharing that knowledge with her friends. "It's cool when kids say, 'Hey, thanks for helping me build my charger.' "
For all the hand-wringing that Americans have done over education, much of the concern especially for middle and high school students comes down to this: How do you help kids build the skills they will need to solve real problems?
Give them the tools to make something. And these days, those tools are technological ones.
Over the past couple of years, a growing number of students such as Davidson have discovered that the "maker movement" offers a compelling - and often delightful - alternative learning path. As students figure out how to build, say, a mini-catapult, a blinking "bug," or even an online portfolio for collecting digital examples of their work, these kids are soaking up skills and knowledge in math, language arts or even history that promise to stick with them longer than any midnight cram session.
At this year's Maker Faire (May 19 and 20 at the San Mateo fairgrounds), my startup company, edSurge, is coordinating an exhibit of how school itself begins to change when technology is used to unleash imagination through making things. It's not just about the kids, either: Teachers are finding that they, too, are fired up by the experience of jointly constructing knowledge with their students.
Consider a few examples:
-- At Leadership Public Schools in Oakland, teachers and students collaborated to develop a "response system" they call "ExitTicket." The software, which runs on any smart phone or tablet, enables teachers to quiz students before they leave class on the day's lesson and see what they absorbed. Students provide feedback, too.
That mutual pulse check is changing how teachers present lessons, says Louise Waters, superintendent and CEO of Leadership Public Schools. Equally important: Because the teachers and students served as their own software development and testing lab, they learned more about problem solving than if they had simply licensed a tool.
-- Independent Castilleja School in Palo Alto, in conjunction with Stanford University, has created a "Fab- Lab" on the school campus, taking a cue from an idea pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Seventh-grade girls studying the Renaissance picked projects devised by Leonardo da Vinci - catapults, armored cars, aerial screws and so on - and built operational models in cardboard and wood using a laser cutter.
"On the first day of this project, a student asked, 'Can't I just make something that just looks like the invention but doesn't really work?' " recalls head of the middle school, Anne Cameron. Instead, the students delved deeply into the history, math and mechanics of the designs, and learned to persevere until they emerged with working models.
-- At Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, science teacher Aaron Vanderwerff had a surprise last September for the 22 juniors and seniors assigned to take his science class: They were going to learn to be makers.
"They didn't choose the class thinking, 'I'm going to do these projects,' " concedes Vanderwerff. "What's surprising to a lot of people is that the breadth of projects is wide enough that any kid can get hooked and really get into what they're doing," he adds.
Among the projects that Vanderwerff's students plan to demo at the upcoming Maker Faire: a pillow that emits different light and sound when squeezed, a dollhouse tricked up with optical illusions, and a remotely controlled stroller.
In these and other programs, "technology" is as fundamental - and as invisible - as paper and pens have been to earlier generations.
The projects aren't about the technology any more than writing is about a fountain pen or ball point: instead, the technology is the means by which the students are figuring out how to articulate and then solve problems. Does this kind of tech-based exploratory learning belong in the classroom?
"There's real value in doing these 'making' projects in a social setting like a school. It connects you to other people. You build up a social reputation as a maker. You're building and learning from one another, learning how people approach solving a problem," he notes.
"That's part of what makes this such a powerful learning experience," Vanderwerff says: "It's an incredibly individualized learning" for both teachers and students.
First, think small. And don't forget the duct tape.
Much like Alice Waters' edible garden movement, the maker movement begins with imagining possibilities in forgotten spaces - and finding mentors with an appetite for experimentation.
A vibrant maker space offers people enough room to work together, share tools, swap advice and perhaps display what they make. A garage or tool shed can be terrific; electrical power and ventilation are essential. Flat, open work areas are a plus, with enough elbow room to separate makers creating sawdust from those wielding hot soldering irons.
Experienced makers advocate having enough room to collect bins of parts, or "idea rummage boxes," where members can toss old parts that might inspire others. A few shelves for storing and displaying items created by members are helpful, too.
The maker spaces can be created and stocked with tools and supplies for between $5,000 and $10,000. The starting list of tools, says Dale Dougherty, co-founder of Sebastopol's O'Reilly Media and the father of the maker movement, can be as simple as this:
The nonprofit YoungMakers.org offers detailed advice on how to start a maker program. In September 2012, Dougherty's Young Maker project will support 10 pilot programs in public schools, mostly in Northern California.