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Aligning the Maker Movement with Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In May of 2012 a "fabrication workshop and design incubator" called TechShop was opened in Detroit in partnership with Ford Global Technologies. The facility charges a membership fee to allow average people access to high end industrial machines where they can invent their own products. Ford itself encourages the use of the machines by their employees to design innovations for Ford vehicles. This workshop and several others are part of a DIY-inspired "Maker Movement" that has people engaged in fixing, tinkering, and producing things outside of the mainstream, established production channels. While the Maker Movement has not yet reached education in more than a handful of places, it is a natural match for high schools and colleges in an age where the main economic model for individual success is developing new products, goods, and services. Here is a look at the Maker Movement and why it is such a good fit for education.

What is the Maker Movement
The Maker Movement currently has nothing to do with formal education. It is a DIY phenomenon that is gaining popularity in urban areas where people can collaborate informally to create things. It is an offshoot of the general DIY movement which has people taking advantage of the Internet and the social networks to teach themselves and others to do things like repair cars, unclog drains, edit video, or build boats. Much of this is facilitated by online video and takes place in the privacy of people’s homes. The Maker Movement is the next step in the evolution of this concept. There is only so much that you can do in your garage with a set of Craftsman tools. To overcome this limitation, the Maker Movement helps align people with hi-tech resources to create products and prototypes that could potentially be brought to market. But what does that have to do with education?

Why the Maker Movement is a Natural Fit for Education
For starters the DIY movement is about learning. It is self-paced, self-directed, self-motivated learning, but it is nonetheless, learning. With ongoing efforts to acknowledge alternative paths to knowledge through digital badges, flexible degree programs, and peer to peer learning these less formal options may soon become recognized as important sources of education.  With media and politicians’ near constant concern that students in high school and college are not gaining skills and knowledge that will help them when they graduate, or that the subjects they study in school will be outdated before they can be put to use, some practical hands-on experience via the Maker Movement could help to alleviate much of that concern.

In addition to the practical physical skills that students could gain through participating in Maker Movement activities, they would also be exposed to new ways of thinking and doing things that could prompt them to creatively solve problems that they are encountering in the classroom. On the flip side, their learning in a variety of disciplines in school could inform new ways of creating, fabricating, or designing that could be realized through making something. Aligning the Maker Movement with education could provide a real world context in which students could learn and apply what they have learned in the classroom and enhance classroom learning with authentic application.

Participating in a local Maker Movement center could also help students make connections for employment after graduation, understand the realities of production, and even inspire new inventions. Cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in our young people is one of the greatest skills that we can provide them in a challenging economy where more and more graduates who are struggling to find work eventually end up starting their own companies. Participation in the Maker Movement could give many of those students a leg up and open up new possibilities for employment that they would not have without production experience.  Maker Movement work done by students could give them tangible products to show to prospective employers or investors that would document their abilities and potential.

Limitations and Concerns
Right now the Maker Movement, particularly as it pertains to heavy industry, is happening in industrial centers like Detroit, where large numbers of people live in close proximity to manufacturing facilities. This dynamic would make participating in the Maker Movement in rural areas challenging. One potential solution is for schools themselves (with corporate, government, or non-profit support) to purchase the equipment and open their facilities to students and community members interested in using it. This idea leads to the other, more immediate concern – safety.

Any tool or machinery is potentially dangerous, even deadly in untrained hands, so there would need to be many safety precautions in place prior to beginning any such school-based program. Even in areas with a local Maker center, encouraging students to participate is a risky proposition. Perhaps the school-based model could rely on trained professional such as industrial arts teachers within the school to supervise the activities. Well-researched liability waivers for those choosing to participate in these activities might be another option. This could also be the impetus for schools to begin acknowledging the learning that happens in work done outside of the classroom, so no direct involvement of the school would be required.

The DIY movement and the Maker Movement are here to stay. They are part of our culture and will become more widespread, particularly if such efforts become accepted in academic institutions to satisfy degree requirements. The problems with aligning the Maker Movement with our current education system are not insurmountable, and the benefits for students and society might far outweigh the risks.

 Interested in the Maker Movement, or want to share your opinion? Join the discussion on Google+ or Twitter.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net