The Maker Movement: Does Making Make You Learn?

3 D printer extruding a plastic gear

The Maker Movement is well established phenomenon. The advent of open source software and open source hardware, coupled with how highly connected we all are, has led to a revolution in the sharing of ideas and resources for making things ourselves, and fabricating at home. Is this just good news for a small group of hobbyists? Or can we ride the wave of the Maker Movement to bring more energy and engagement into the computer concepts classroom?

Let me start by getting personal for a moment. I’m first generation college in my family – my grandfather was an illiterate truck driver who could not even read road signs. When I went off to university to study physics, my first semester was filled with calculus, philosophy and mechanics classes. When I returned home at semester end, the first question from everyone I knew was simple – What can you do?

I stumbled in answering. Integrals? Critiques? Not what they were asking, I knew. They were looking for some kind of evidence of what I could create with my new skills. Too often I think we see that the college classroom struggles to fill that need and to give students, along with critical thinking skills and communication skills, that basic thrill of having made something. Something they can show. Something they can be proud of. When we get it right, when students end up with a project that they are so proud of that they rush to show it to friends and family, then that engagement fuels amazing learning.

So the Maker Movement in general sees the use of many different types of technologies:

    • Open Source Electronics: Arduino microcontroller, Raspberry Pi computer
    • Computer Numerically Controlled systems: laser etching, laser plasma cutting, CNC routing
    • 3d printing and scanning

None of these may seem to be a great match to our curriculum but I’d like to offer up a few ideas and hopefully spark a continuing conversation. Let’s begin with three Maker Ideas you may want to consider working into your class.

Maker Idea #1

Operating Systems via Raspberry Pi

In the discussion of operating systems, it is nice to expose students to something other than Windows. Using the Raspberry Pi we can do this and create a memorable teaching moment. The $35 Pi computer is credit card sized but comes complete with HDMI output port, SD card support , 1GB RAM , an A7 CPU and 40 general purpose input output pins available.
Computer processing units

Simply download the free NOOBS (New Out Of the Box) software package onto an SD card, and plug in a Pi ! You can show the Raspian flavor of Unix and spark a discussion on the implications this device has on the “digital divide”, both globally and locally.

Raspberry graphic

Learn more at : raspberrypi.org

Maker Idea #2

Use Open Source Software

We are always looking for ways to discuss the ethical issues that are raised by technology. How about the question of whether our highly connected, Internet-based lifestyle is helping or hindering the amount of participation in government?

Consider taking students through a tour of If This Then That. IFFT is a web service that allows you to create and exchange simple recipes based on the important programming construct:

If this happens, Then do that!

The power of IFFT is the incredible range of Internet-based services and hardware devices that it can tie into. For a quick ethics topic, talk about the recipe:

If then graphic image

This rule checks the Sunlight Foundation web service to see what legislation the President has signed this week. The items are bundled together into an archive and mailed to you at the end of the week. [There are many variations of this that you can specify if you want to monitor other aspects of the political process.]

Learn more at: ifft.org

Maker Idea #3

Going Mobile

It is possible to have your students make a fully operational, mobile Android app – which they can install on any Android device and give away to friends – in 20 minutes. App Inventor is a free, browser-based environment that supports a drag and drop visual interface for both the user interface design and the coding of Android applications.

Maker movement idea 3

Want to emphasize the idea of digital convergence by writing an app that uses a smartphone’s accelerometers? Or perhaps write an application together in class that uses Google Speech to Text web service to create a very basic version of an automated assistant like Siri? There are numerous concepts in our curriculum that can be supported and extended using mobile programming.

We have found this so engaging and motivating for students we have actually designed a specific App Inventor maker activity tied to the content of each chapter in our text, Technology in Action. We want to make it easy for you to try this with students so we provide video supports, step by step written instructions, and solution files.

Learn More at: appinventor.mit.edu

 

Conclusion

There are great opportunities to tap into the creative energy of the Maker Movement in our own classrooms. We can create demonstrations and exercises that are not expensive nor difficult to master but will add excitement and interest to the topics we teach. We all know that technology is fun, thrilling, and creative. If we can use some of the new products and tools of the Maker Movement to bring that feeling to our students, then perhaps the learning will happen with much less effort!

 

About the Author
Kendall Martin, Ph.D.

Kendall Martin, Ph.D.

Kendall Martin has a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and has done research at Bell Laboratories, has built electronics at Texas Instruments and has designed signal processing algorithms for a range of startup firms, doing things from sequencing DNA strands to looking for oil with magnetic resonance imaging.

She has been teaching for 26 years and is a full professor at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell , PA . As an author of the title Technology in Action she works to make computer concepts education feel exciting and important to students, and manageable to faculty.