What Does It Take to Make a Maker? An Interview with Sandra Schön

Widespread enthusiasm behind makerspaces in steadily growing” (Horizon Report, 2014).

Makerspaces are community-oriented workshops that engage learners in problem-solving through hands-on design and construction, oftentimes combining analog material with digital tools. ‘Making’ comprises artistic creation, engineering and computing. Equipment and components vary and can reach from 3D printing to Lego blocks, from woodworking tools to recycled cardboard, scissors and glue. Students literally grasp new concepts and skills in hands-on activities. As highlighted in the Horizon Report, makerspaces have become a prominent fixture in formal learning settings of higher education and k-12 as well as in informal learning spaces of museums and libraries.

Participants engaged in creative design projects during the 'Maker Days for Kids Workshop'

Participants engaged in creative design projects during the ‘Maker Days for Kids Workshop’

What makes a makerspace? Merely offering equipment does not constitute an engaging, collaborative learning environment. Sandra Schoen is an expert on the Maker movement, both as a researcher and an educational activist. In the interview she shares insights from makerspace workshops with children and a making MOOC for educators.

Sandra, you are a seasoned DIY, upcycle and making specialist. When did you get involved in the maker movement? Do you remember what first drew your attention?

To be honest: I cannot remember when I realized that “making” is a synonym for digital DIY. I love DIY: I am a researcher in technology enhanced learning and innovation of business models. I am a mother. It was a natural thing to stumble across making, I guess.

Readers of your blog know that making transcends your personal and professional life. What making projects are you currently engaged in?

We just published a handbook about making with children. Now I hope to find some time for fancy t-shirts with the help of our vinyl cutter. Also, my big girls want to build a doll house for our youngest daughter. And maker education still needs good materials. Also, there are so many interesting aspects to explore from the research angle …

In spring 2015 you organized ‘Maker Days’, a four-day maker camp for children age 10-14. Can you tell us about the planning effort, the event structure and the making activities you selected?

As we have no fablab or open workshop space in our home town, we had to organize and plan quite a bit. As a researcher, I wanted to document as much as possible – this is not easy in an open environment. And of course, our 10 peer tutors and 12 adult trainers had a lot to learn in advance – none of us were able to make 3D print, to code, to make videos, to braze and solder from the get-go. And the structure was also unfamiliar: How do we organize the schedule, the tools, the room? It took two days for all of us organizers just to get introduced into the tools and setting. As there was no sign-up fee and no option or need to register in advance, we were nervous how many children would show up. On the participants’ end it took some time until the children understood that they were invited to freely use whatever tools they wanted to explore, even after they got a tour of the makerspace. Peer tutors and adult trainers gave short introductions of specific tools or methods. In addition, the participants were invited to share their knowledge and to invite others at the central board. We also had daily making challenges that children could participate in. In terms of equipment, we offered 3D printing, vinyl cutters, computers, drilling machines, sewing machines, a comfortable lounge with several maker books, free Wi-Fi, pencils, colors, cutters, paper, card board. Of course, we had the lenses to build VR card board glasses, a flying fish, a drone – and many other gadgets.

Were parents involved in the MakerDays?

Some parents came to watch what we were doing, because their children told weird stories. However, curious adults were not allowed to freely stroll around the makerspace and watch the kids create. In contrary, parents were strictly forbidden – and only allowed for a tour through the rooms with the guides – peer tutors or young visitors. But of course they were invited to our public final presentation.

Let’s talk about the outcomes: How many children did you reach with the program?

We had a total of 170 participants during the four days, as many girls as boys, from various school types and backgrounds. We got a good insight of the things they did, as we gave them personal IDs that we used to reserve tools, document demonstrations and archive photos of their projects. With their IDs they have something like an e-portfolio of their projects from the makerdays on our weblog.

 What were some of the unexpected things kids created?

They did a lot of cool stuff, but nothing that was completely new or unexpected. But of course, they did nothing ordinary! They built LEDs in acrylic paintings and made nice LEDs installations, produced stop motion videos, upcycled a lamp with a shade into a real cool design work. They printed their dream houses and cookie cutters in 3D, they build a real piano with four big letters (MAKE) and the MaKey MaKey kit. They developed games with Scratch. But even if is not unexpected for you: To use a sewing machine or a cutter on their own was exciting for some kids.

Did you run into any problems or challenges?

Well, we had several burns from soldering, which is quite normal. Some 3D prints and LED installations were gone after our final public presentation. This was really hard for the kids!  And our drone landed at the roof of a house near by. But we got it back.

You targeted children aged 10 to 14. From your experience, is this the ideal age range for making or could you just as well organize a toddler maker camp?

Not with our open approach, I guess. At least not with children from ordinary schools, who are not used to such an open setting.

In summer 2015 you decided to scale up the concept of the ‘Maker Days’ in a train-the-trainer approach by organizing a MOOC. Can you take us behind the scenes, and share some of the MOOC curriculum?

Together with Martin Ebner and a lot of makers I have done an open online course about making with kids. The MOOC has had more than 600 participants by now. It is in German language and still available and openly licensed at iMooX.at, it is an open educational resource (OER). It is a course for beginners – it was about coding, 3D printing, photos and videos with smartphones and so on. Each unit consists of a video, a short test and two to three descriptions of making activities with children in educational settings, for example in schools or youth centers. And of course, the participants have a lot to make, for example to code something with Scratch. Participants who send us a stamped envelope will get a pair of lenses for cardboard glasses.

If a reader who is inspired by this interview wants to get started with making, what are some good tools and resources for beginners?

If you have a fablab in town or a Maker Faire go for a visit. And search for “DIY” and your interest. As a teacher, it is not as easy. Typically, you are not only interested in a tutorial, but a smart concept how to work with children. But the MAKE-Ed scene grows – http://makered.org/ is a good start.

What is the future of making? Do you foresee making become a part of the K-12 curriculum?

Making as a self organized, creative activity in an open environment does not fit very well into school curricula and school settings. But there are several reasons why making could play a bigger part at schools soon: It is a trend with media attention, but not expensive – compared with a new computer room.  Create, build and make something can boost learning. Making is easy to adapt in STEM, but also in Arts and other school subjects. It is about technologies and innovation. I guess it not hard to convince policy makers or enterprises, the crucial issue might be the teachers.

How do you feel about the current activities on many campuses of creating maker spaces? Will maker spaces become the new computer lab?

Makerspaces are already a hot topic in education and will get more and more attention. However, merely setting up a 3D printer in the campus library is no maker space. For me, it’s not just a modern version of a computer lab or copy shop. A makerspace combines the possibilities that stem from using technologies you do not have at home with the opportunity to share ideas, meet friends, etc. Makerspaces are more like community centers and not only about technologies.

What are ingredients of a good maker space? If you were to create and equip a new maker space for a school or library, how would your ideal solution look like?

I would start by asking the children what they wanted to do in a maker space and how to get started. Ideally, we would travel to fablabs and a maker faire and visit other schools with maker spaces. As a teacher, I would collect and sort all kinds of stuff – waste, tools and random free. Add in free Wi-Fi and some computers, wood and a power screwdriver, and you are off to a good start. And of course I would share ideas with people from the MakerEd scene. I would build a lot myself and also let the children build parts of the environment. In the end, that’s what making is all about!

About Dr. Schön

sandra_schoen_quadratSandra Schön holds a PhD in Educational science and works as a researcher at Salzburg Research (Austria). She is a volunteer project leader for children projects at the non-profit association BIMS (Germany). More about her (sometimes in English, but mostly in German): http://sandra-schoen.de

Further Information

Would you like to delve deeper into the maker movement? Explore these resources from LearnTechLib and beyond:

Schön, Sandra; Ebner, Martin & Kumar, Swapna (2014). The Maker Movement. Implications of new digital gadgets, fabrication tools and spaces for creative learning and teaching. In: eLearning Papers, 39, July 2014, pp.14-25.

Smith, S., Tillman, D., Mishra, P., Slykhuis, D., Alexander, C., Henriksen, D., Church, R. & Goodman, A. (2014). Building Multidisciplinary Connections: Intersections of Content, Creativity, and Digital Fabrication Technologies. In M. Searson & M. Ochoa (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2014 (pp. 2506-2510). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Kayler, M., Owens, T. & Meadows, G. (2013). Inspiring Maker Culture through Collaboration, Persistence, and Failure. In R. McBride & M. Searson (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2013 (pp. 1179-1184). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

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