Diversifying STEAM and Maker Education

Since I started working as an after school club advisor teaching Logo at a charter school in Bridgeport, Connecticut I have become more aware of how much of the phenomenon of the maker movement and maker education excludes people by race, economics, class, and education.

Dr. Leah Buechley also takes issue with the maker movement and has influenced me through her presentation of the facts and her logical argument that we are responsible for changing the direction. Please take the time to watch this video and consider the issues she raises.

2015 Closing Plenary by Leah Buechley from The UTeach Institute on Vimeo.

The school where I work has a computer lab where we can run Turtle Blocks and learn to program Logo. After we cut our teeth learning to move the turtle and program procedures, we tried our hand at low-cost fabrication by printing our designs with an ink jet printer on iron-on paper so we could create t-shirts from our designs. Besides being unique fashion pieces, I hoped the shirts would serve as promotion for the club when other students saw them.

This low-cost fabrication is available to anyone with access to an ink jet printer and an iron. I befriended my local t-shirt shop guy and when I purchase a t-shirt he is always happy to transfer my designs.

This school benefits from a relationship with the Westport Rotary Club, who purchased a Replicator 2 3D printer. Cultivating relationships with organizations that see the promise in students who are not typically exposed to technology, engineering, or maker education is important for schools that struggle with funding for innovating programming. Unfortunately, some of the tools are still costly. While not necessary, a tool like a 3D printer can unlock hidden potential in students not otherwise used to having such a powerful tool at their disposal. These students learned to calibrate the printer, change filament, and are starting to learn to maintain and repair it as necessary. 3D printer maintenance and repair is a growth market as 3D printers move from the professional sector into the pro-sumer market and eventually the consumer market. By establishing themselves as experts, these students stand to make a name for themselves as well as money with this skill.

These students are learning 3D design as both art and by using CAD. They started their 3D printing exploration from an artistic perspective by programming designs in Turtle Blocks and using a workflow developed by Walter Bender and me to produce svg files. These graphics are imported into Tinkercad for sizing and extrusion then downloaded as stl files for 3D printing.

Technology projects where students are encouraged to collaborate, make personally pleasing aesthetic choices, and are allowed to freely express themselves are empowering for both students and teachers. Allowing students the opportunity to explore topics in ways that make sense to them and which interest them and please them aesthetically makes learning empowering. Students' ability to collaborate, help one another, and demonstrate their competency are all powerful learning opportunities for skill acquisition, transitioning from learner to teacher, and personal growth and maturation. The teacher becomes the facilitator instead of the instructor, helping students as necessary by sharing her or his skills or helping connect students who might have the skills the teacher lacks. No longer does the teacher need to be the expert in the room. Rather, he or she knows when to ask clarifying questions, what tools to suggest the student try using to solve particular problem, and how to connect individuals with disparate skills to help realize dreams.

These students also complete CAD work in Tinkercad. This free (except for the $.50 it costs for verification to create an account) online CAD program, usable from any computer running a WebGL-capable web browser, puts CAD into the hands of the users. Simple to use, intuitive, and powerful enough for what more CAD users need, Tinkercad is a great democratizing technology. 

The ease with which Tinkercad works encourages playful exploration and facilitates self-guided projects. The first project one of students created was a name plate for their club's LogoTurtle.

When the cost to join an organization like First LEGO League excludes many schools, introducing a robot like the LogoTurtle into a learning environment is very powerful for two reasons. First, the students get to 3D print the parts and assemble the stepper motors, microcontroller, and electronics for their LogoTurtle instead of spending several hundred dollars to purchase something in a cute shell. Building their own robot helps them learn multiple skills, from 3D printing to electronics, soldering, wiring, reading circuit diagrams, reading and following directions, reaching out for help, collaborating, and debugging.

This experience stands in sharp contrast to the "turnkey" approach of robots like Dash and Dot or that BB-8 robot. Yes, they are great for learning to program and to drive around from the ease of an iPad, but in terms of deep learning and understanding of how a robot works I would rather put a LogoTurtle in front of students. The feeling of accomplishment these two students had upon successfully assembling the LogoTurtle was contagious and affirming for me as an educator. The deep understanding the students gained of the parts that made up a robot and how the parts worked together to make this robot move was a powerful learning experience. The astonishment that high school students who watch us program the LogoTurtle in the computer lab have and the joy we bring from the beautiful art it produces is wonderful.

The second reason why I believe the LogoTurtle fosters deeper learning than a typical off the shelf robot is because it it built around Logo and the importance of debugging in learning to program. Brian Silverman, who with Erik Nauman developed the LogoTurtle with me, said it best so I will repost it here verbatim.

"The idea of mucking about in programming is, for better or for worse, not very popular in grown up computer science. Programming these days has become more of an engineering discipline with the idea being that you should do things once and do it right. Logo is and always was about debugging. Before the do it right stage there are always dozens if not hundreds of do it not-quite-right stages. This iterate-iterate-iterate then iterate again is not very prevalent in work with microcontrollers. LightLogo and TurtleLogo try to make microcontroller programming interactive but they are far from the mainstream."
One of the most powerful mathematics lessons I have ever seen play out with very little intervention on my part happened because of Logo's capacity to encourage debugging. When the goal of the program is to move the turtle or the LogoTurtle, one's mistakes in the program are ready apparent because the turtle does not draw what is intended. The desire to make the turtle learn the right moves is strong and students are typically willing and able to revisit their programs and start mucking around with them to get it "right." The powerful math lesson also occurred because by its nature LogoTurtle is not as precise as a screen turtle. Additionally, the powerful lesson also occurred because of socioeconomics.

I believe that students from less entitled socioeconomic communities have the persistence, experience dealing with setbacks, and flexible thinking that their entitled peers lack. As a result I think they make stronger Logo programmers. This is evidenced in the following anecdote. 

The first procedure the students loaded onto a LogoTurtle was developed by one student in Turtle Blocks then translated from blocks to LogoTurtle syntax with my help.

They downloaded the procedure onto the LogoTurtle and ran it.

Upon drawing it we saw it was close but not exactly like what we saw on the screen. Past experience would have students declaring that this homebrew LogoTurtle "sucked" compared to a store bought robot, which would be more precise and would have probably been easier to program, without typing text commands.

However, this student took it as a challenge to get what the LogoTurtle drew on paper to look like what we saw on the screen. After all, he and his partner put the time into constructing this robot and it was the first time they ran it. This debugging led to a contextualized, concrete examination of arcs, degrees, and angles that were personally meaningful to the students. Additionally, this mathematics lesson was developed entirely by this seventh grade student, after school, in pursuit of art. His peer came along for the ride and learned, too.

We started by calibrating the LogoTurtle to make sure it drew a perfect square.

He then realized that the arc 360 100 command was not drawing a complete circle. He also considered that perhaps he needed the LogoTurtle to turn a little more than 90 degrees. Through trial and error he tried adjusting these two values. We tracked the changes he made along the way so we could see how changing the arc or angle values affected the drawing.

At last, a very close match to what we saw on the screen! The LogoTurtle's imprecision required mucking around in order to best approximate the screen turtle's design. This led to an student-directed exploration of arcs and angles. The LogoTurtle encouraged the student to test his hypotheses about the roles arc and angle play in the design. Furthermore, the ease with which he was able to quickly iterate and examine the changes drawn by the LogoTurtle made a beautiful, artistic, fun, and meaningful challenge.

I do believe that in a more entitled environment the students might dismiss the robot's inaccuracy as a fault of its lowly provenance. After all, the attitude often goes, you get what you pay for. I think in their dismissiveness they would overlook the opportunity to meaningfully muck with the math that was producing the design. I also think that in a rush for "perfection" the lessons of arc and angle would be lost on the dismissive student used to instant gratification by more polished educational technology robots. 

The maker movement oftentimes is thought of in terms of the tools and toys it helps bring to market, from 3D printers to drones, robots to laser cutters. Unfortunately, many of the tools are beyond the reach of schools that are not wealthy, libraries that do not have the public funding, or after school programs that lack money and teachers able to encourage students to take on big ideas. 

The students who are typically underserved by STEAM programs stand to teach us all powerful lessons about perseverance, improvisation, clever hacks, and projects that help improve local communities by teaching its youth marketable next generation skills. As educators we are responsible for using tools and techniques that are accessible to a wide audience, not just an audience with deep pockets and expensive toys. If you are privileged enough to work for and with entitled youth, consider using the skills you learn and use on the job in a job or volunteer capacity outside of work to help less advantaged students built valuable STEAM skills, too. I guarantee you will also learn much in the process.

Access to Free/Libre/Open Source tools helps make powerful learning available to all who have access to a computer outside of school or library. Web-based tools in particular, like Turtle Blocks or Tinkercad, help students who do not own their own computers but who do have access to cloud storage, like Google Drive. Web-based tools allow students to move their work from computer to computer.

Many of these students do not see adult engineers, designers, programmers, or inventors in their own lives. Make a point of recognizing each of them as such: their work involves science, technology engineering, art, and math and combinations of all depending on the project. As their skills increase and their ambitions grow, foster the transition from tinkerer to maker as their work becomes more planned, deliberate, and thoughtfully executed. Provide opportunities for them to share their work in their school, library, and online. Recognize their roles as makers and the responsibility of documenting one's work, sharing the notes, and collaborating with a larger community.

Diversifying the maker movement and maker education is of utmost importance if we are to include all the big ideas that will solve the world's problems from the trivial to the life changing. Excluding people because the tools or software are too expensive is shortsighted education when so much can be done using familiar materials (think cardboard) and FLOSS software. Instead of looking for pre-packaged solutions that lock you into a particular vendor or platform, find projects to which you can contribute your time, testing, or expertise to help grow the project. If you have the means, find an after school program where you can work or volunteer to expose racially, economically, and culturally diverse groups to technology, STEAM education, and the maker movement.


zackboston said…
This is a very thoughtful meditative post on diversity in your own practice, Josh. In my own practice I find that the strategies that work best for youth from family cultural and economic roots underrepresented in STEM are strategies that work well for ALL youth.

I especially like your strategy of working with a few youth to get a visible project like the t-shirt that will encourage and interest their friends to come and make as well. I think that having patience, starting with just a few youth and letting the program grow slowly is the best. It also allows you to thoughtfully tailor the program to meet the needs of the youth at the school -- each group has its own quirky learning culture and specific interests!

(and btw, those expensive kits don't always work perfectly either. . . and it IS much more satisfying and curiosity-provoking to "build your own" smile.)
Josh Burker said…
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!