Unbored: The Power of 'Making' in the Classroom

The sixth graders at Marymount School -- an independent Catholic school for girls in Manhattan -- have a problem they need to solve. The American Dental Association recommends that kids brush their teeth for two minutes, twice a day. But the students know that most kids fall well short of that goal. How -- their teachers ask -- can they find a solution to this challenge?

The girls open their sketchbooks and doodle possible solutions. One toothbrush plays music. Another comes with a timer. Still another has a tiny TV embedded into the handle. One model grows larger as you brush and then gets smaller when the two minutes are up.

The project takes several weeks and involves more than a few trips to the school's Fab Lab, a state-of-the art digital prototyping and manufacturing facility that Marymount started in 2011 to more thoroughly engage its students in math and science. It's here that they transfer their sketches to computer-automated drawings, which are then sent to the classroom's MakerBot, a 3-D printer that seems like it was plucked straight out of The Jetsons.

While there's a lot of laughing in the Fab Lab, the class also comes with its share of frustration as students try their hands at solutions that don't work. That's all part of the process, says Jaymes Dec, the lab's administrator, who started Marymount's program after a grant to facilitate these same kind of lessons with South Bronx high schoolers ran out. "My goal is more about inspiration than education," he says. "I don't believe you can just pour knowledge into students. They have to learn things by trying them out."

Dec isn't alone in his conviction that experiential hands-on learning makes for a richer academic experience than memorizing the date of the Louisiana Purchase. In fact, the idea of "learning by doing" stretches back to education legends Maria Montessori and John Dewey, both of whom felt teachers should act more as guides to students' independent discoveries than as founts of information. Decades of research confirm that making and doing things cement knowledge in ways that lectures can't. "Think about the driver and the passenger in a car," says Adele Diamond, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and one of the founders of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. "The driver is hands-on and the passenger does what students normally do in class, which is sit passively. The driver will learn the route better because she has to actively use the information."

Making mistakes and trying again and again (and often again) until you succeed also encourages what's now being called a "prototyper's mind," an asset that many experts believe will be key to the 21st century job market, where the majority of careers today's kids will pursue have yet to be invented. "Facts can be looked up," says Diamond. "What students need to be learning is how to reason and problem-solve and be creative. Kids should get rewarded for taking a chance and trying something new and not always have to be so worried about making a mistake."

Unfortunately, engaged and enlightened tinkering is disappearing from contemporary American childhood. State budget cuts and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 have narrowed many schools' curriculums to prioritize math and English, sometimes at the expense of science, music and art -- all of which provide students with the opportunity to experiment and make things from scratch. Even shop classes have almost completely disappeared from American middle and high schools: "It's getting harder and harder for teachers who want to do experiential learning -- there are so many limits being placed on what they can teach because of high stakes testing," says Eleanor Duckworth, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who herself came to hands-on learning in the 1960s when -- after years of training and working with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget -- she began studying elementary school science and learned all the concepts by doing them herself. It was an experience she likens to "feeling like Helen Keller -- it was that big."

After school, children are being pushed to specialize in anything from year-round hockey to flute at younger and younger ages, depriving them of what child development experts view as a crucial task of childhood -- trying a range of things to discover what appeals to you.

The good news is that a growing number of educators, experimenters and DIYers are joining forces in the hopes that they can instill a passion for making and doing in today's kids. The Maker Education Initiative, created by the founders of Make magazine and the exploding network of Maker Faires, is launching Maker Corps, where hundreds of young adults will be working with schools and community programs to embed hands-on learning projects into their lessons and activities. The organization also hosts a blog that teachers and parents can use to get ideas for how to incorporate 'making' into their classrooms and homes. "Making creates evidence of learning," says Dale Dougherty, the founder and publisher of Make. "Students are taking an idea and substantiating it in a way that could be a sketch or a model or something else. That process gives them a lot of feedback."

SparkTruck -- an actual truck that travels the country to introduce students to anything from robotics to stamp making -- is another education initiative that seeks to bring hands-on education back into the classroom. The project was started by Stanford University design students who spent six months observing Bay Area classrooms only to discover that students were not only bored, but also extremely fearful of getting answers wrong. They ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a truck and equipment, including a laser cutter and several 3-D printers and then hit the road. And in Cambridge, Mass., a "magnet innovation center" for 14- to 18-year-olds called NuVu has recently provided kids with the opportunity to collaborate with expert "coaches" (many of whom are MIT and Harvard alums) on complex, multidisciplinary projects via exercises based on the architectural design studio model. During a 2011 trimester on the theme of food, students tackled topics and issues ranging from nutrition to molecular gastronomy to fair trade.

Those are the kinds of issues the girls at Marymount are exploring in the Fab Lab. This year, when the seventh graders were brainstorming how they could support children in a Zimbabwean orphanage, they decided to take their efforts a step further than a traditional fundraiser. After learning that the orphanage library has no electricity, they decided to build and send sun jars, which are solar-powered lanterns. But then the students realized they wanted the orphanage kids to experience the joy of making the sun jars, too. So instead of sending finished products, they are sending the materials with instructions that they have written.

This kind of inventiveness can also be nurtured at home, says the University of British Columbia's Adele Diamond. She recommends parents let their children experiment with cooking and mixing ingredients as a way to experience chemistry firsthand. Repairing a bike is a great way to learn physics and gardening or growing plants indoors can spark an interest in biology. Even babies can be makers. "Give them simple problems to solve," she suggests. "Like how to retrieve a toy that's out of reach."

The key, as with all of hands-on learning, is for the grownups not to do what really should be the child's work. "We want to teach kids that they have a lot of answers inside of them," says Jason Chua, one of SparkTruck's founders. "If you don't get things right the first time it's OK to continue prototyping and iterating until you find a solution that makes sense."

by the authors of "Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun" a kid's guide to activities including citizen science experiments, game and toy hacking, geocaching, and yarn bombing, published this fall by Bloomsbury.