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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


May 23, 2016
Does the Maker Faire Represent PBL? Yes and no.

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

Yesterday I attended my first-ever Bay Area Maker Faire and, well, wow. It was like Burning Man (without the heat and dust) mixed with the best-ever hands-on science museum, a techno-geek paradise, a DiY carnival for all ages, and a celebration of human creativity and ingenuity. Wow.

The event, held at the San Mateo, California fairgrounds May 20-22, 2016, was attended by several thousand people each day. I was there to check out what’s become a hot trend in K-12 education and also because we’re going to showcase some of the Maker Education Initiative’s student projects at BIE’s annual PBL World gathering in Napa this June.

I spent quite a lot of time in the pavilions with “Young Makers,” after tearing myself away from the adult makers’ flaming dragons and mechanical squids, Mad-Max vehicles, drone races, steam-punk clothing booths, and the illuminated forest of giant day-glo plastic tree-things in the “dark” pavilion. The young makers created some fascinating, complicated devices that showed lots of imagination, dedication, and technical know-how. They clearly had learned and used physics, technology, engineering, and math – and many showed an artistic sense (which I guess makes them STEAM-punks, haha). The kids were very enthusiastic and liked to talk about their work.


Maker Projects and Gold Standard PBL
These projects were all very engaging, hands-on and minds-on. If you run them past BIE’s criteria for Gold Standard PBL, they largely measure up. For example, I saw lots of robots and 3D printers, “Rube Goldberg devices" and miniature roller-coasters that required students to learn physics concepts and solve real-world math problems. Students built success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity/innovation, and collaboration. The projects had a challenging problem or question, inquiry (to an extent), student voice and choice, critique and revision, reflection (I assume), and a public product.

The projects were authentic in that they used real-world tools and processes, often involved working with adult experts and outside-of-school organizations, and sprang from students’ interests and what they cared about. Students developed skills that could come in very handy when they enter the world beyond school. However, most of the projects were more about making cool things, rather than meeting an authentic need or solving a problem in the community. This is not to say the students didn’t know some of the real-world connections/applications for their creations, but I’m not sure how many focused on larger issues or actual problems in society.

One project, one of the most low-tech ones I saw, caught my attention because it did try to solve a real-world, local problem. Two middle school girls, part of the SF 49ers’ STEM Leadership after-school program, eagerly explained it to me. They wanted to help a 104-year-old man retain some of his early memories, so they created a puzzle, “Miquiz,” with questions on the back of the pieces about life in the 1930s. On the front were pieces of a family photo. All of it, from deciding on the problem to solve and how to do it, was their idea.

It was encouraging to see how many new, innovative programs and small schools have sprung up that focus on PBL and making. I was impressed by the work being done at Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy at a public high school near Santa Barbara, California, whose founder and director Amir Abo-Shaeer was the first high school teacher to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (aka "genius grant") in 2010. They were showcasing a big tent full of student-made machines that were their seniors' "capstone" projects, including a massive "Carousel of Physics" filled with colorful contraptions. Shout-outs too for Lighthouse Schools, Design Tech High School, Nea Community Learning Center, and Alameda Community Learning Center. 

Lingering Questions
Despite how impressive the Young Makers were, I came away wondering what all this delightful energy and accomplishment meant for K-12 education. Here are a few other things I had noticed:

  • Many of the young people were there because they took part in an after-school/weekend program, or a special program within their school.
  • Other young makers were from special schools – some charters, some private – that had a focus on design thinking, maker-spaces, and PBL. 
  • Only a very few “regular” public schools were represented, mostly by students taking an elective course in high school.

That made me think about an issue I raised in my post in March, “The Perils of PBL’s Popularity.” At BIE, we believe PBL should one of the main ways that “regular” classes are taught – English, math, science, history, etc. – not relegated to a special program or time in the day/week. But if teachers and schools (and parents and students) feel that they can “get their PBL” and its purported benefits in maker programs or “genius hours,” will they be less likely to change their basic approach to instruction everywhere else? Will students in traditional classes still be often-bored and focused mainly on memorization of information? Will only certain students (with certain parents willing to support them) participate in the special maker programs? Are maker projects often dessert or a side dish – and what would it take for them to become main course PBL?

The Maker Movement is a great thing, a powerful positive force in today’s world, so may it live long and prosper. For some more questions worth asking, check out the article listed in my PBL News Roundup post of May 13, “Diversity Does Not Happen By Accident’ and Other Lessons About Equity in the Maker Movement.” In that article Rafranz Davis, executive director of professional and digital learning in Lufkin School District, Texas, had a great line: “You shouldn’t have a Maker Day. Maker should be a normal part of the way we learn.”


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