About the Course

Making in Education

“Making” can mean different things to different people. For many tens of thousands of years, people have used their hands and minds to craft beautiful and useful objects. The fact that paleolithic peoples took the time to adorn and enrich their stone, bone, horn, wood, and shell creations with art and design is revealing about the joy and wonder we have always taken in the process and product of making. As technologies and modes of creation have multiplied and advanced, people have continued to love merging compelling form with useful function in their creations. We bake, paint, cut, code, photograph, sew, solder, write, fold, join, print, and design. When we make, we often can find the same kind of joy of expression and power of creation that our ancient forebears seem to have found. That is why it is so important to help people from all backgrounds, all ages, and all walks of life grow their skills and confidence as makers. Being consumers brings an easy but fleeting happiness; being makers and creators gives lasting joy, confidence, and empowerment.

Because readers may be coming to this book with many different goals in mind, and different experience levels, the approach has been to provide entry-level help on coding and making, and then to point the way for increasing sophistication and challenge for those who are ready. Sections on using and coding the Circuit Playground Express give beginners the understanding of many of the basics so they can start gaining skills and having fun. The text then points the way for more advanced students to go deeper with MakeCode or even jump to the JavaScript environment in MakeCode. Likewise, there are “birdhouse” maker projects with detailed instructions for making your own version, but then the birdhouse directions are followed by ideas for adapting and expanding the basic project in various ways, including ideas for academic tie-ins for the school setting. The hope is that everyone from the history teacher who’s an inexperienced coder but wants his students to do a making and coding project as part of a unit, to the professional coder who wants to share her love of code by creating a weekend makers’ workshop, to the kid who just likes to make stuff, will find value here.

How the instructor frames the projects will depend upon the students’ age and experience levels, and upon the instructor’s goals.

For example, one project is making a gondola. The instructor might say, “Here’s some pictures and videos of gondolas traveling on wires. Here’s the available materials. We learned how to control a continuous rotation servo motor with the Circuit Playground Express during our last class; your task is to create a gondola during the next two classes. We’re going to start with sketching concepts. Ready?”

On the other hand, another instructor might say, “We’ve learned how to control a continuous rotation servo motor with the Circuit Playground Express, and we just watched a video of a gondola. We’ll work together in steps to make our own gondolas. Your task is to create a gondola whose motion, light, and sounds reflect Hester Prynne’s character development in The Scarlet Letter. You’ll create your gondola, code the motion, sound, and light, then film a short video in which you narrate and explain how it represents Hester’s journey. We’ll begin by reviewing your notes on our discussion of how Hester evolves over time, then we’ll begin the gondolas together. Ready?”

The first scenario is an open-ended engineering challenge. The second scenario guides students step-by-step, but then asks for a strong connection to concepts from another subject. Within both of these scenarios are opportunities to further challenge students who are ready. An individual or team who finishes early might be enlisted as coaches to peers, they might be asked to switch from the MakeCode blocks to the JavaScript environment to analyze and then explain something about how JavaScript works, or they might be encouraged to add art or engineering enhancements to their creation.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking describes a design cycle that many companies utilize and that universities and other schools teach. The goal is to create powerful goods and services through deep understanding of the user. Students can apply this process to their home, their classroom, their school, their local community, or in larger-scale communities. In doing so, they learn through empathy and research, and they engineer a rough prototype of a device that can bring positive change to the world.

Design Thinking Challenge – Build a better trash can

The essential ingredients of a Design Thinking project are:

  • A discovery phase in which the designers work to understand the topic, empathize with the user, and see unmet needs.
  • A framing and defining phase in which core problems and patterns are identified. What is our core purpose? What various angles might we address it from?
  • An ideation phase in which wild ideas are written, drawn, and described. Here, possibilities rule while hurdles and limitations are pushed aside. This is a “Yes, and…!” phase.
  • A prototyping phase, where a model, crude or not, is created to address some of the needs identified earlier.
  • A testing, feedback, and learning phase. How does this work for our intended users?
  • Then, iteration – based on the testing phase, circle back to earlier phases to revamp, revise, and rediscover. How can we better serve our core purpose?

Teachers can frame a design thinking project around a topic so that the discovery phase involves research that ties in to the curriculum, but then further steps in the process take the students in their own direction.

Here’s an example project with 3rd graders. They did the discovery and some defining work with their core teachers, then continued defining and moved on in the process in the Maker Lab.

  1. Discovery: as part of a unit on the ocean habitat, students learned about plastics in the ocean and the harm they cause in various ways. They visited a local recycling center to learn about the life cycle of plastics. They did a second field trip to a nearby urban stream where they observed different kinds of trash. On this trip, they passed a public trash can that had trash nearby on the ground. From this observation, they described an unmet need, which was a more effective trash can.
  2. Defining: The core purpose was to reduce plastics getting into the waterways, and the path the students chose was to create trash cans that were more convenient, effective, and incentivizing.
  3. Ideation: Students brainstormed in conversation during class sessions, and then they had a drawing session in which they engaged in “blue sky” designing, sketching ideas without concern for practicalities like how something would be made or cost.
  4. Prototyping: Small teams of students were given pre-sliced cardboard from which they formed the main barrels of their cans. From there, they chose upcycled materials from a materials cart to make rough prototypes. With supervision on hot gluing and with advice on coding, the teams created their builds.
  5. Testing: The testing phase was a session in which teams demonstrated their inventions and got feedback in terms of the previously defined goals of being more convenient, more effective, and incentivizing for the user.
  6. Iteration: Students make drawings of their prototypes with improvements. They accompany their drawings with text explaining the additional or improved features. Another concluding activity could be contacting a local official with a summary of the inventions and ideas. The students in this project were excited to educate the the rest of the community on how their creations could make life better for people and animals.

Course scope and sequence

The course is split into a general reference section which includes information that may be useful across multiple projects – like how to download code onto the Circuit Playground Express, or useful tips on working with cardboard – and a project section which is a set of 12 different projects which you can use and adapt for your needs. The projects are independent from each other, so no need to go in sequence.

However you use this book, the hope is that you’ll experience the joys of challenge, growth, and creation that have been part of the human experience for all these millennia.