The Maker Movement Goes to School

The Maker Movement Goes to School

Tinkering, improvising, and experimentation gain prominence in the classroom curriculum.

If you’re like me, you were in high school before classes like auto, woodshop, and home ec were phased out. They were called vocational classes back then, and they operated parallel to—but never crossed over with—core academics like math and science. In fact, at my high school (Skyline in Oakland), shop classes were popular with the kids who struggled with academics.

The shift away from vocational education was a move toward rote academics and standardized testing. More than a decade later, things are changing again. In a growing number of classrooms, teachers and administrators are putting kids’ hands to work, applying the old principles of learn-by-doing. The practice has a banal name—making—but it got a big boost from President Obama last spring when the White House hosted a Google hangout on the maker movement. Higher education is taking notice, too. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced that it is accepting maker portfolios as part of undergraduate applications. The Harvard Graduate School of Education is studying the trend, including a deep look at the benefits of tinkering, improvising, and experimentation.

What’s all the buzz about? Besides fixing cars and making wooden pen holders, haven’t kids have been making things and learning from the experience since the days of sticks and rocks? What’s different about making now, in the age of laptops and 3D printers?

“Making is like throwing all of the old shop classes and academics into a bowl and mixing them up,” says Aaron Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab and Science Coordinator at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland. “When else in school do you have a real context for things like creativity and perseverance? With hands-on learning, you can often learn something better after failing at it at first.”


Lighthouse is in its fifth year offering a robust program for building, designing, and tinkering across disciplines. The school’s Creativity Lab offers high- and low-tech supplies—from popsicle sticks to 3D printers—but making is integrated into classrooms at all of the school’s K–12 grade levels. Fourth-grade history students built their own simulated transcontinental railroad using wood and an outdoor concrete stage. Wooden structures carried battery-operated trains over concrete “mountains.” Students were grouped into teams of laborers, foremen, and railroad bosses, making the experience a tangible exercise in social and economic power.

When Vanderwerff joined the Lighthouse faculty in 2009, the robotics elective was the only program at the school that could have been described as “maker”-related. Since then, the school has blossomed into one of country’s strongest examples of how to integrate hands-on learning. Grade-level staff work with Vanderwerff to come up with hands-on projects that are tied to curricula.

Second-graders will sew puppets that demonstrate the attributes of fictional characters they are studying. In 11th grade, students made a marble machine board (a ball run with chutes and funnels) to study physics and math. Students in the high school are working together to design an awning for the mobile shower bus operated by Lava Mae for homeless people in San Francisco.

“Our design constraints include not making the bus any wider, as well as creating a design that will be versatile and will provide shade wherever the bus is located,” says Jocelyn, a 12th grader. “We will be meeting twice a week and collaborating with each other to improve our design.”

Lighthouse is part of the Maker Education Initiative, which works from its headquarters in Oakland to support schools as they integrate making into science, technology, engineering, art, and math instruction. The order of that subject list may look familiar; STEAM is the mantra for educators across the country who are pushing for more hands-on learning in class. By engaging students’ hands into science, technology, engineering, art, and math lessons, a growing number of teachers hope to create what they call authentic, differentiated learning. The trend reflects a slow drift away from rote learning and toward the types of engagement kids got in vocational classes of the past.

Brain research over the past five years backs it up: When we use our hands to learn something, it sticks. Researchers have fine-tuned their understanding of how plastic the brain is—meaning that it changes in substantive ways as we learn—but anyone who’s cut a pizza into equal pieces can tell you that it’s easier to learn fractions (and lots of things) by getting your hands a little dirty (or covered in sauce).

“Maker spaces are very motivating,” says Michelle Hlubinka, education director for Make magazine. “It’s authentic learning. Teachers are constantly looking at the whole kid, what they’re struggling with and how to use their interests in those areas where they’re struggling.”


Technology has helped spur educational making, too. Lots of classrooms dedicated to making feature hammers, lathes, and sewing machines. But the roots of the approach are in the DIY movement, which also led to hacker and “fab” (fabrication) labs. Most maker spaces now have 3D printers and stress the idea of rapid prototyping—make a product, testing it, and remaking.

There are no statistics to show how the making trend is growing, because making is so broadly defined. In lots of schools there are a few teachers who integrate project-based learning. But a growing number of schools are embracing a vision that integrates hands-on practice with content-area instruction.

Educators from around the world visit Lighthouse to observe its making program. On a recent day when I visited, Vanderwerff was preparing to host a group of Egyptian educators.

“Twenty-first century skills are going to change so fast,” Vanderwerff says. “There is a push for data, but what we’re developing is deeper than that. On a physics test about electricity and magnetism, a student could spit back the information they have memorized, but we’re hoping that when they make a turbine, they will know how it works.”

There is also the unmistakable thrill of using tools. Kids learn to use a circular saw at Lighthouse so they can make their own chairs.

“They’re learning when their hands are shaking,” Vanderwerff says. “The shop classes of yesterday were tracked as non-college prep. This is a college-prep environment, so anybody can use the saw and feel the success of making.”


One of the most interesting examples of how making is being integrated into education is the East Bay School for Boys in Berkeley. The school opened in 2010, when the maker movement was really beginning to make a mark on teaching. Outside the school’s building on Durant Avenue, there are skateboard ramps. Inside is, as you would expect, noisy and overflowing with boy energy.

The school’s mission appears in an illustrated image of a boy in the front hallway: craftsman, builder, focused, observant, respects women. These are some of the traits that boys who come through the school will be encouraged to develop. Some of that learning happens with instruction, and some of it happens through hands-on learning. Each boy makes his own desk (craftsmanship and builder), spends a week illustrating a complex algebraic equation (focused and observant), and interviews their mothers or grandmothers about family traditions and recipes (respects women).

What Lighthouse and other schools would call making, teachers at EBSB call work. Every student has four hours of work each week. One of the student’s first projects is to build a toolbox. The steps for this are laid out for them, and the tools are laid out, but that is the first and last project that will be explained so thoroughly beforehand.

“We talk about the tools they will need while they are at EBSB,” Jason Baeten, the Head of School, says, “and they include empathy, resourcefulness, and perseverance. There are very few times in life when all the steps are laid out for us.”

The work at EBSB isn’t just for character-building. When the school moved into its Durant Avenue building, there was a long list of tasks that needed to be done. School started in a month, and there were no desks (hello, desk-building project). Students hung white boards in classrooms, fixed cubbies, and painted walls. Work is also used in social-emotional learning. When a hole appeared on a wall that boys liked to kick as they ran down the stairs, students learned how to patch with drywall. Now you can hardly tell the hole was ever there.

“We believe in apologies and forgiveness,” says Baeten. “The boys take better care of things if they’ve touched them.”
Kate Rix, a former co-editor of The Monthly, is a writer based in Oakland. When she isn’t writing about education, she is editing content at

From Kids to Adults to Kids Again

Maker Faires power the imgination.

The making that is taking place in schools is an outgrowth of Maker Faires. These tech-influenced DIY events bring tinkerers, inventors, and artists of all ages together to make and share the results.
The first Maker Faire was held nine years ago in San Mateo. Today there are Maker Faires in cities around the world, with dozens of Mini Maker Faires just for kids, including one in Oakland in October at Park Day School.
Part county fair, part science competition, these fairs feature exhibitors demonstrating all manners of invention celebrating the arts and engineering. The imagination is the only limit. From kinetic sculpture, solar-powered vehicles, flying robots, and the world’s best paper airplane to props and costumes, the exhibits at a Maker Faire combine tinkering, technology, problem solving and fun.

Faces of the East Bay