If there is one thread that runs throughout the experiences of the maker educators we interviewed, it is supportive administrators. Whether these administrators moved mountains to get funding for a makerspace proposal or they proposed the makerspace themselves, administrators were true champions for making. They fought for funding, they evangelized the program to other teachers, and they made maker education a priority.
While a makerspace can exist without a supportive principal or administrator, the lack of support from the top can make things difficult — resulting in a tug of war between competing requirements as opposed to a symbiotic relationship.
Let's take a look at a few ways you can get your administrators on board from the get-go.
Maker education incorporates hands-on learning and project-based learning, the benefits of which are strongly supported by the research.
But that isn't all maker education is great for. The STEAM aspects of maker education tend to draw a more diverse audience. According to Sarah O'Shea, head of youth services at the Tompkins County Public Library, who helped the library put together their popular maker carts, "I'd say with some of our STEAM programs it definitely draws in more boys than traditional library programming, which is great. We're always looking for ways to get boys interested in library programming."
There's also evidence that maker education is more accessible and empowering for two different populations.
In traditional education environments, students spend a lot of time taking stock of each other. Maker education is a great equalizer. While maker education does require many traditional academic skills, "it's also thinking with your hands and your heart," said Patrick Benfield, STEAM and makerspace director at the St. Gabriel's School in Austin, Texas. In the makerspace, students are "more free to put themselves into the work and then it's reflected in what they create. They learn they're smart in a different context — it's a different kind of learning," he said.
Maker education is a great confidence builder, says Kristi Merchant, a library media specialist at George Washington Carver Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "They may not be able to verbalize it but when they're in a group situation, they're excited about it, they see the value of it," she said. "They are actually able to contribute to the group equally."
For Simon Mangiaracina, a dedicated STEM teacher at the Ann Richards School in Austin, Texas, it's the hands-on learning that really makes the difference. "If you have a learning disability like dyslexia or dysgraphia, the act of making is so physical. It opens new doors for them. It's more of an equal opportunity to participate," he said.
Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher at the Kensico School in Valhalla, New York, agrees. "Kids with learning disabilities largely have thrived in the environment," he said. "The program we use for robotics is icon based and they've naturally gravitated toward it — that kinesthetic, hands-on piece. The tactile response from bricks is really great for [students with learning disabilities], and they have great ideas."
Many students who speak English as a second language (ESL) have a better mastery of knowledge than their teachers may know. Maker education helps ESL students by giving them a vehicle to express themselves and a tool that can help them learn the lessons without necessarily having mastered the English language.
"With maker education, you speak a universal language," Singh said. "Everyone can be involved — it's a natural bridge.
Added Mangiaracina, "It's naturally kinesthetic if you're an English language learner and verbal communication is something you're developing."
"Non-native speakers can communicate their ideas not in speech but in what they make," Benfield said. "It's visible and we can all engage with that."
The research largely supports this anecdotal evidence. Studies have long shown that ESL students prefer hands-on learning . By reducing language demands , students can discover ways of doing things on their own, and are in that way developing language skills as needed. For instance, when students need to learn material names in order to complete a project, they are intrinsically engaged in developing their language skills as a means of necessity. This creates a much richer and deeper language learning experience.
Being a good maker requires a host of skills that are essential for students in navigating both academic and career settings. Working in groups requires social and emotional skills, which are increasingly becoming an emphasis in schools. The excitement and creativity around maker projects tends to make students extra willing to engage, smooth over conflict, and work together productively.
Given that many maker projects rely heavily on cutting-edge technology that will have students tinkering and coding, there's no doubt that maker education helps arm students with a battery of skills they can apply to the real world. That's true not just in the immediate sense, but also in a diversity of harder-to-measure skills that come through design- and problem-based thinking. More than anything, maker education requires that students tackle the tough problems, think critically, research solutions independently, experiment, fail, be resilient, and try again. Each of these are skills that are essential to succeeding academically as well as in our fast-paced, rapidly changing world.
While many maker educators would argue in support of maker education purely due to the much needed creativity it injects into the educational experience, it also can be "career planning 2.0," Singh said.
"We don't know what's coming," Benfield said, "but they'll have at least that mindset to take what they're given and make something out of it — [to have] flexible thinking, to think, ‘How does system work and how can it be modified?' "
No matter how many benefits maker education on its own can bring, demonstrating curricular integration is key to gaining approval from administrators. This shouldn't be intimidating, however. If STEM, STEAM and project-based learning are already priorities in your school, then demonstrating the applicability of maker education to your school will likely be intuitive.
More than just that, administrators should know that the best maker projects often come not from a boundless sea of creativity, but from the curriculum itself. In fact, the maker educators we interviewed whose entire jobs were dedicated to making most often mentioned collaborating with subject teachers as a way to devise creative projects.
While it is much easier to start a makerspace with top-down support, sometimes it takes seeing an example in action for administrators to truly understand. Once administrators see how well projects are going, how innovative they are, how well they sync with real world application as well as with curricular standards, they should have more confidence jumping on board.
"Once funding was secured for this, we challenged our teachers to find uses for tech," Mangiaracina said. "Those in arts and engineering were already headed in that direction anyway, empowering us to have access to that kind of space and resources. Slowly other teachers from other departments started coming along."