The changing social and technological landscape is up-ending what is effective teaching. The “banking model” of education in which teachers deposit knowledge into students who are not meant to critically examine it, or create meaning for themselves is no longer relevant. There are additional barriers in science education for African American and Latino students because science is presented in a way that does not represent their interests, their realities and their identities. Most of science is taught either with examples and contexts that are not relevant to students in urban schools or presented in a de-contextualized manner. Furthermore, most of the media related to science does not show black and Latino scientists and engineers. These issues make it that much more difficult for black and Latino youth to imagine themselves as scientists and engineers of the future.
I found a school that set up a new model that allows students to follow their interests and passions in afternoon two hour studio electives. In an attempt to work to counteract some of the inequity I see in science education I volunteered to offer a studio elective called Engineering and Science Design. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, students can either choose their own projects to work on, or work on some of the ideas I suggest. On Wednesdays we do either a hands-on inquiry-based science experiment or an engineering challenge and then the students spend an hour reflecting and writing in their Design logs about their experiences. I have specifically designed writing prompts to help them in applying their knowledge and skills from their making experiences as evidence of school wide competencies they must earn in scientific inquiry and habits of success” in order to graduate. I encourage the students to take photos of their projects and write a few sentences about them in our class blog.
Many of the students have selected this studio because they did not earn the competencies they needed for graduation in their science class and are trying to catch up. Some of them are in the studio because they enjoy making things with their hands. Some of the students are there because they were deemed behavioral problems in other classes. My hope was that they will see the power that comes from DIY projects and also make progress in creating their own identities.
The first Wednesday challenge I gave them was The Community Engineering Challenge, in which student teams design a method that would move pool water out of the community recreation center pool, working within a set of limited resources. I have one team of 3 students, one team of 2 students and a student working individually to design and build pinball machines from scratch. I have one student creating a head scarf with an Arduino controlled circuit of LEDS. I have two students doing small crafts projects with plastics and one student experimenting and making skin care products. On Wednesday the experiment we did was to design a way for some cheese business owners to improve the cost efficiency of their cheese making process in the Cheese Making Challenge. The next design challenge they will be given is the Tissue Re-messaging Challenge.
When I was thinking about how this maker space illustrates the principles of connected learning I believe it demonstrates several of them, however still has some work to go before it fully applies them. For me, this is an experiment that will go on after this class. With my effort to reflect and evaluate on the mistakes I’m making along the way, I’m sure it will go through several iterations as I learn.
Although I give the students engineering challenges, inquiry experiments and writing experiences once a week, students spend most of the time working on their creations which are student-interest driven. I have ongoing individual conversations with students to see what they are interested in and then I help them try to find a way to pursue those interests. In this production centered class, students have been given the opportunity to tinker, experiment, explore, trouble shoot and problem solve. They have been repositioned as producers and makers who are creating knowledge from their own experiences.
The equity comes from several facts. The learning is based on student interest which helps them connect to their own lived realities and experiences. Secondly, they are using the production processes scientists and engineers use to learn. This helps them see themselves as scientists and engineers. This also makes them try to figure out what they need in order to be able to make or learn something. It changes their perspective of themselves in which they are the agent of their own learning. They begin to see that their failures are stepping stones to deeper learning.
Another principle of connected learning demonstrated by this maker space is that students are publishing what they are doing through the class blog to a wider audience. Sharing what they are doing and thinking about it with others in networked communities brings equity into education for the students. We have gone further than a blog yet but that is a goal. Most of these students are reading far below grade level and struggle with writing and mathematics. However, the projects they are doing have embedded in them academic literacy practice. By reaching out to authentic audiences, students will see their own power in being able to learn for themselves.
This maker space does not fulfill all of the connected learning principles to the extent that I had hoped. The students have been helping each other on their projects, however it has been very difficult to get students to work in teams towards a shared purpose.
As I mentioned previously, an area to improve is also in social networking. I would like the results of the class blog to eventually connect with others with similar interests where students could interact and participate in a learning community.
Another area of needed improvement is the academic orientation of the class. I am having them write and read and speak, however there needs to be more editing and revisions and more rigorous academic and critical literacy work built in.
Overall, after evaluating the strengths and weakness of this model, I believe it just doesn’t do enough to break through the structural issues getting in the way of equity. It needs a more powerful shared purpose that involves action to change a problem that the students care about. This could motivate students to engage in the critical literacy work they need to help them catch up in their academic literacy skills. Additionally, it could help student bring about changes that solve real problems they have.
Having students doing work to solve real problems, such as through YPAR-youth participatory action projects that they have identified could help students to work toward academic excellence. However, right now I have not built this kind of opportunity into the class. The closest I have come is to create a STEM program at an after school program at a City Recreation center near the school and have planned for my students to lead a workshop for the younger children. Unfortunately I feel that this idea needed to have come from them. From my experience putting young people in a leadership role helps them build their self-confidence, however it may still not result in academic excellence. In addition to making things, I believe the students need to be doing research that involves reading, collecting and analyzing data that involves computing skills, and presenting their work which requires presentation and communication skills. Including a more critical approach to the maker space would give students more power and to be heard in ways that would engage them as agents of change in their communities.
I know I am pretty hard on myself given that I was pretty much doing this all by myself. More support from the school or a partnership with more experienced maker coaches would be one avenue to try. Just today at a workshop I attended at the iTAGS conference I met the coaches of one of the maker spaces of a school which happens to be in the same building as the school where I am. I thought how wonderful it would be to work in a school where these goals are part of the school institutional structure. It was helpful seeing how they approached their maker spaces for social justice. Through my connected learning networks, I will be on the lookout for ideas for more ways I can try to accomplish these objectives.
I enjoyed the ED677, especially with giving us a chance to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. I liked the way we could take our own paths based on our own interests and experience. I enjoyed our shared purpose and support of each other. We got to experience connected learning as we learned about connected learning-a good way to learn. Thanks to you all who have made it possible.