Although I choose not to bring it up often, I have a confession to make. You see, when I started considering teaching as a career years ago, my passion was to be a physical education teacher. So, being the goal-orientated person I am, I got my undergrad and graduate degree in physical education. I got my state teaching endorsement in health and fitness. I attended conferences and workshops galore on physical activity and wellness. For my first employment opportunity, I found myself in an interview with administration and teachers, where it was stated that, “We only have a position for a part-time P.E. teacher, but we also have an opening for a technology teacher. Can you teach a kindergartener how to use a mouse?” Of course, I can teach a kindergartener how to use a mouse. I thought, if it means I can teach P.E., I’m in. My confession: For all intents and purposes, I was supposed to be a P.E. teacher.
Fast-forward a few years. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’m teaching students the proper footing for overhand throwing, setting up a gym for a game of kickball, and stressing the importance of healthy eating. On Tuesday and Thursday, I’m sitting in a traditional computer lab, looking down the rows of computers, seeing the occasional eyes pop-up over the monitor, as I remind students how to hyperlink slides and keep their fingers on home row. The students are excited to have screen time but are ultimately running through the motions. As hard as I try to keep students engaged and be cutting edge, I’m not doing well. I’m bored with the routine and I think, if I’m bored, my students have to be feeling similarly. I know of a school in the area, that is incorporating engineering and design into their curriculum, a rare find at the time. That spring, I pitch an idea to my administrator, “I’d like to incorporate some engineering and design into technology. Would you support the idea?” He loved it, but neither of us had any idea of what was to come.
I was so excited, I started the next week. I knew third grade was learning about simple machines in science so I went and bought a handful of windup toys. Third-grade students spent the next week taking them apart, documenting photos and labels with the tablet, attempt to identify any simple machines they found, then figuring out how to put it back together. The kids couldn’t believe they were getting to take apart and explore toys in technology class. They were engaged. They were excited. They smiled, laughed, and shouted to their classmates when they made a discovery. They were hooked, and better yet, so was I.
The next school year, I set a goal. I was going to do one hands-on design project with every grade level. I just had to convince the classroom teachers that what I was doing was worthwhile. I needed to gain their trust so that when they sent their students to “technology class” once a week, and they weren’t setting eyes on a screen, that they could still recognize the importance of it all. I started emailing and meeting with every teacher, listing their units of study. I turned to Pinterest and Instructables. I talked out ideas with friends and family and I turned to my own imagination. That school year, while we still did a lot of screen-based technology, there was more happening. I kicked off the school year showing students, Cane’s Arcade, a viral video about a child who created a working arcade out of cardboard and other recycled materials. Then, we made our own school cardboard arcade. The computer lab was so full of cardboard boxes, during the weeks students were designing and making, that I was told I was putting the school at risk of being in violation of fire code. We put on a giant arcade in the gym where over a hundred students proudly shared their creations.
Throughout that school year, I slipped in hands-on design projects. Third-grade screen printed geometric designs on t-shirts using homemade screens and geometry blocks to tie into their math unit. Second grade built a 3D city out of paper to learn about community helpers and city planning. Kindergarten built and tested bridges made from toothpicks and marshmallows and learned about architectural engineering and design. Fifth-grade students learned about biomimicry and invented and constructed their own devices that were inspired by nature. Teachers were appreciating the collaboration. Parents were happy their students were coming home excited to talk about what they did in class. Students were engaged, they were having fun, and they were learning.
The process continues to grow for me and for our school. The following year, I asked to change the name of my class from technology to S.T.E.A.M. I wanted everyone to understand that more than computer and tablet usage was happening. The computer monitors that once sat as the primary feature on table tops were now more often pushed aside to allow for cutting, gluing, drawing, designing, and constructing and I wanted a name to reflect the change.
The year after that, I pitched the idea that I would quit teaching P.E. and move to teaching in the lab full-time, where students would come to class twice weekly instead of once. The idea was approved. That same year, the school moved into a new building, where I was able to help design and plan our lab. We have moveable tables with tons of floor space for students to build. We have laptops and tablets that can be used when needed but set aside to allow for more space when making. We have a sewing machine and a workshop table with hand tools. We have a prototyping materials cupboard filled floor to ceiling with everyday materials and recyclables. There is a cupboard with toys to spark imagination and reinforce ideas such as marble runs, robots, building blocks, and art sets. While it isn’t a multi-million dollar facility with laser cutters, multiple 3D printers, and CNC mills, we are making. Students are practicing the design process daily. There is room for play and discovery. Students are encouraged to prototype, test, and redesign. Their imaginative ideas are met with encouragement. They know the lab is a safe place to take risks and test new ideas.
So, if you find yourself stumbling upon the Maker Movement, know that you don’t have to have an engineering or design background. You don’t have to find a school with a program already in place. You don’t need the latest gadgets and costly equipment. But, you do have to be willing to start. You have to be willing to collaborate with colleagues to gain their trust. You have to show that what you are doing is benefiting the students. You have to be willing to spend the time, doing the research to find project ideas and inspiration that fit into your program. And, just as you will ask of your students, you have to be willing to take risks. Trust me, the rewards are worth it.