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by Patrick Benfield, Innovation Director at The Magellan International School

Instantiation

The i.lab was alive with activity and a palpable sense of purpose as I maneuvered around the scattered knots of volunteers made up of students, parents, and faculty. Heated discussions, the random clatter of dropped parts combined with the mechanical whirring of power tools created a surprisingly harmonious sound as we put the finishing touches on our project — the industrial strength student work tables.

This was just one of the many tasks left to complete for the school’s new i.lab makerspace — a fabrication lab (or “fablab” for short) where students can combine art and creativity with topics like design thinking, tinkering, engineering, and computer science.

As I took in this scene, it was clear that this sense of community and accomplishment which grew as we worked together, problem-solved, and persisted while creating something meaningful was a perfect reflection of constructionism, a decades-old philosophy that led not only to the notion of incorporating spaces like the i.lab schools, but also helped pave the way for of the phenomenon often referred to as the Maker Movement.

Creating a Nation of Makers

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences released a report calling for sweeping improvements in K–12 STEM education. But even earlier, an eclectic assortment of tinkerers and hobbyists were already quietly changing the world. This motley group drew upon a variety of influences, including the DIY counterculture aesthetics of the Whole Earth Catalog and the whimsical mix of artistry and computing exhibited by MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. They also capitalized on the open exchange of ideas during the meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in the late 1970s, whose members included the eventual founders of Apple and Microsoft.

Then, 12 years ago, Maker Media, Inc., increased both the credibility and visibility of this growing subculture by hosting Maker Faires around the world. At this point, the movement captured the attention of mainstream educational institutions.

Developing Dispositions

The efficacy of the Maker phenomenon rests in the fact that it is not really a new idea at all. Rather, it’s the expression of an educational philosophy that goes back many decades, most recently through pioneering work of Seymour Papert, the “father” of the maker movement. Not only did he predict the benefits of one-to-one student computing in the early 1970s, but he also developed the notion of constructionism. In his writing, including the seminal Mindstorms, Papert suggests that deep learning occurs through the process of creating a meaningful artifacts, be it a computer program, a sonnet, or a sophisticated robot.

When offered the opportunity to create something personally relevant and meaningful, students willingly and enthusiastically embark on the iterative design process, overcome challenges, and collaborate with others as they seek to learn more skills to help with future endeavors. The proof for this is visible not only at Maker Faires but increasingly in school makerspaces around the world.

Making a Difference

One of the benefits including a creative learning space based a constructionist approach is that they both share very similar pedagogical and philosophical roots, making them naturally complementary. In other words, what we’ll be doing in the makerspace and in classrooms across the campus is not replacing the amazing work already happening. Rather, it’s a powerful vehicle for our students to not only take their ideas even further, but to make their ideas a reality.

Additionally, what sets Magellan’s Francis Lo i.lab for Design + Making apart from other similar spaces is that while students will work with a variety of materials, explore big ideas, and learn new tools, it will not just be a way to increase engagement with subject area topics or to create interesting artifacts. Instead, they’ll also be learning ways to leverage these new skills in the service of the community — both locally and globally — by leading with empathy which is the hallmark of human-centered design, a creative approach to problem solving that makes their ideas actionable.


Also published on Medium.