Maker Spaces, 3D Printing, and the Role of the Teacher

I must apologize. It has been over three months since my last posting on this blog. I have been involved in other online spaces during this time, with three postings on my TanachRav blog, three new flipped classroom YouTube videos, and a number of Facebook and Twitter postings. However, this blog has always been my primary personal space for reflecting on my teaching and learning and I have not really been a part of it lately for a variety of reasons, the beginning of a new school year, various online MOOCs that I have been taking, other responsibilities blah, blah, blah... So here it goes. Hopefully, this will be the first of a number of postings in the coming weeks where I can do a brain dump into this blog mostly for my benefit and if some of you find it to be worthwhile as well, that's great too.

I have been thinking a lot about the Maker movement. It has been the talk of the educational technology world with many schools beginning to create Maker Spaces. For those of you not in the know, the Maker Movement is defined as:
A trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.
At ISTE, I had the privilege to attend a session by one of the leading champions of the Maker Movement in schools, Dr. Gary Stager. Gary spoke of the confluence of three technologies that has made the idea of students learning by doing, something that has been championed by educational reformers for decades if not longer, so much more exciting today. These three technologies are personal fabrication, the ability to create things oneself using 3D printing, physical computing, the ability to connect microprocessors like Arduino boards or the Raspberry Pi to anything, and programming, the ability to easily program these computers to do many tasks.

So I was very excited to sign up for the Maker Faire in Queens, NY, in September. I took my two teenage daughters with me as well since they are both very creative and I thought they would love the experience.

Was I wrong. My daughters HATED it.

Mind you, as I said above, both my daughters love making things. My older daughter, who just turned sixteen, loves art, music, and drama. She will be starring in the school play this year for the third year in the row, where she is privileged to be guided by the incredible professional, Rabbi Dr. John Krug. She has a strong sense of fashion and style. She created an Instagram account (StyleByChevi) to express her creative ideas online and she recently learned how to sew under the guidance of the incredibly talented and creative Frisch art teacher, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell. My younger daughter who is thirteen also loves art, drama, and is very musical. She has a beautiful voice and her friends get a kick out of the fact that she can sing all of the lyrics to any song she hears on the radio even just once. She loves science as well. These kids should be the primary audience for the Maker Faire. They should LOVE it. But they didn't.

This despite the fact that the Maker Faire featured so much creative music, art, and crafts. Below are just a few examples.

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

There were numerous musical instruments made out of discarded household items. Laser engraved leather bracelets. (My daughters actually liked them.) A bizarre musical car. A session on how to pick a lock. A competition between helicopter drones. SO many examples of items created using 3D printing. Kids who created switches to turn on electrical appliances all over the house. But my daughters were not impressed.

The Maker Faire had all the trappings of a religious movement. People were making for makings' sake. People were playing and having a great deal of fun. But, I think what turned off my daughters was that there seemed to be a lot of playing but very little purpose. It is nice to play around with Arduino boards and figure out how to make a series of switches to turn on every appliance in the house but how is that better than just walking up to the appliance and turning it on oneself? My daughters like to play. But they are very practical as well. (I thank my wife for that.) They want to play with a purpose.

My younger daughter said it best. She said the Maker Faire was like a science fair but without the science.

Science involves making stuff and exploring new ways of thinking. But it also involves generating a hypothesis and conducting experiments in order to collect a data set to prove or disprove one's thinking. It involves directed play.

This week, I was privileged to visit a different type of MakerSpace. The engineering lab in my school which thanks to Mrs. Rifkie Silverman's passionate guidance has become one of the most exciting and passionate places for directed play at Frisch. I watched a presentation by Mr. Ben Gross, Educational Technology Director at HAFTR, who was introducing a collaboration between HAFTR and Frisch using our new 3D printer.

Ben introduced the printer by pointing out the following problem. One designs a prototype robot using Lego Mindstorms, Arduino boards, and various other components and one finds the pieces just don't fit together. What does one do? In past years, the only option was duct tape. Make it fit. It's only a prototype anyways so what is the big deal if some of the pieces are taped together. Now with the 3D printer one can create the missing pieces using a 3D design program and print them oneself. Mind you, this is not nearly as exciting as some of the 3D examples introduced in the MakerFaire and I am sure there will be MANY more uses for our 3D printer in our engineering MakerSpace. But by starting with a much more practical example, Ben was promoting making with a purpose.

I think it is important that we give our students time to play. But as our students move to elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond, we need to remember our role as teachers; to help our students to play with a purpose. We need to be their guide so that things they create are so much richer, deeper, and well thought out because we provided them with a sense of direction, purpose, and constructive feedback. I think back to that classic scene from one of my favorite teacher movies of all time, Mr. Holland's Opus, where the principal, Ms. Jacobs, reminds Mr. Holland, a newly minted music teacher that:
Our job is more than just filling young minds with knowledge. It is giving those minds a compass.
Kids will always love making. But be careful before installing a MakerSpace in your school. Kids have plenty of time to play at home. What they need in school is to play with a purpose. Make sure that your MakerSpace involves making as an integral part of a curriculum which can guide our students in engineering, the arts, or some other subject area. This is what our students really crave. They want the ability to create but they also desire the compass, the expert guidance that only a teacher can provide.