By David Wells.

I have been making things for as long as I can remember.

Has everything I made been a success? Certainly not! But as I look back on my experiential continuum, I notice a sense of self-efficacy. At the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) Maker Space, we call this the “I Can Mentality.”

I have gotten many miles out of this approach to problem solving. Though I may not be sure how to do something, I am sure that I can try.

Let me illustrate this with a story of a young maker in Experimental Sound Machine, our middle school program that focuses on the science of sound.

In true Maker Space fashion, we began our journey by deconstructing the challenge at hand. Our entry point to the science of sound was through musical instruments. We first asked two questions:

We answer these questions by dissecting the instruments:

– What is it?

– How does it work?

Through this deconstruction, we figure out that all musical instruments are systems of simpler parts, i.e the materials they are made of. And one of the inspiring discoveries is that they are typically made from the same materials!

This discovery often leads to the kids exploring the sonic quality of a wide variety of materials and expands the possibilities of what a musical instrument can be.

Enter Derek. Or that is what we will call him as we would like to protect his identity.

Derek was testing out the sonic possibilities of strings made from different materials. He made his selection and attempted to add it to his creation. I observed him as he tried to attach it to his instrument and noticed him struggling. I decided to ask him what was going on.

He shared that he couldn’t quite get the right amount of tension on the string because of its inherent elasticity. I suggested that he might consider trying another string and offered a few options. He quickly rebutted, “This one sounds better than those.”

Now let me take a step back and explain how we test the sound of a string in Maker Space: Wrap it around your finger a couple times, put that finger in your ear, pull the string taught, and pluck. If you have never tried it, I HIGHLY recommend as it will blow your mind!

I proceeded to test the options to hear for myself and found that Derek was absolutely correct.

My response was simple and direct: “OK, you are right. How can we make this work?”

We brainstormed possibilities and he went about his way. He eventually got to a point that I thought was a great improvement, but it did not meet his credentials. So he scrapped that idea and moved on.

Derek with his final Experimental Sound Machine.

Later, I was reflecting on how comfortable Derek was in telling me that his option sounded best. I was very impressed by this and thought about when I was his age, would I have been comfortable saying that to my teacher? Would I be comfortable saying that to a teacher now?

I might say no to both of those questions, but I feel it is contingent on the environment of the space you are in — is it set up for empowering people to think, to challenge, to explore, to discover? Does it encourage people to say, “I can do this!”? Learners of all ages need trust and permission to act.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced the CTE Makeover Challenge, encouraging high schools to “design maker spaces that strengthen next-generation career and technical skills.” This is a fabulous concept. Our government is inspiring and supporting schools, students and teachers to work collaboratively to improve their learning environment based on what the community needs.

First, I would like to express my full support of this initiative; it has the potential to make a tremendous impact. Making is infectious. When someone else is making, it inspires others to want to make. In that way it is similar to laughter; when one laughs, others follow.

That being said, I think there needs to be an additional push for, and understanding of, the benefits of making in the classroom at all levels. This is a tall order. In a system as large as our national education system, we may need a Cambrian Explosion of sorts — a veritable educational structure explosion. This may seem a bit dramatic, but sometimes we need drama.

I would like to respond to the blog post on the CTE Makeover Challenge site. In the second paragraph, it states:

… in support of President Barack Obama’s Nation of Makers initiative, an all-hands-on-deck call to give students access to a new class of technologies — such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools — that are enabling Americans to design, build, and manufacture just about anything.

This is a true statement. However, it focuses solely on students. Where are the teachers in all of this?

We need to set up the same learning environments for our teachers as we wish for our youth. It is vitally important to allow teachers to experiment and relive the feeling of being learners alongside their students, lessen the distance between what it means to be a teacher and a learner, and create multi-developmental learning groups within administration, faculty and student body.

In addition, though it’s favorable to make high-end tools like 3D printers accessible to all, it’s disadvantageous to see tools as an answer. Being a maker is a mindset, not a tool.

At Maker Space, we offer experiences that playfully explore concepts and materials/tools, where visitors creatively design and make things that have importance to them as well as their communities. Putting people at the center of their learning is a foundational concept in NYSCI’s Design-Make-Play philosophy.

A programmatic example of this is the National Science Foundation-funded Innovation Institute. This teen program focuses on designing and making products or processes that will benefit our local Corona community.

During the Innovation Institute, we seek out problems and collectively discuss potential ways to solve them. The teens explore ethnographic concepts through neighborhood walks, observations and reflections, and learn how to use tools to build prototypes. They also co-facilitate middle school programs with NYSCI staff, creating a connection between teaching and learning. They transfer their knowledge to a younger audience, providing a firsthand application to problem solving. The program culminates with the Innovation Institute interns showcasing their projects at World Maker Faire.

The Design-Make-Play philosophy is embedded in all of our programs and exhibits, including school group workshops, teacher professional developments, out-of-school time programs, exhibitions and public events. Through our philosophy and museum experiences, NYSCI actively supports the national initiatives the White House has been advocating.

So where does this leave us? All this is good. Yes. All this is going in the right direction. Yes. We should continue to be thoughtful in our approach and truly inclusive when considering major shifts in the educational landscape (formal and informal) and not fear the possibility of shaking things up a bit; maybe not quite an educational Cambrian explosion.

For now, let’s consider Derek. He was able to thrive, make decisions, make mistakes, and build a sense of autonomy, all because he was given permission to do so. This permission was partially achieved due to the environment we set up in NYSCI’s Maker Space, but getting permission from ourselves is elemental.

As NYSCI’s Director of Maker Programs, David Wells oversees maker-related programs and education initiatives, and manages the museum’s Maker Space. He serves on several advisory boards including Maker Ed and the Institute of Imagination in London. He also served as the project lead on NYSCI’s Makerzines, a series of three maker-related publications that can be downloaded for free.

To read about the programs and activities at NYSCI’s Maker Space, follow us on makerspace.nysci.org.