Imagine a school where kids could do the following: clone jellyfish DNA; build gadgets to measure the electrical impulses of cockroach neurons; make robotic blackjack dealers; design machines that can distinguish between glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers and sort them into separate bins; and convert gasoline-burning cars to run on electric power.
No such school exists, but in August I went to Detroit and met the kids who did all these things, and more. They—along with 22,000 other people—had come from all over the United States and Canada to demo their creations at Maker Faire, a two-day festival of do-it-yourselfers, crafters, musicians, urban homesteaders, kit makers, scientists, engineers, and curious visitors who congregated to present projects, give performances, and swap ideas. Having attended eight Maker Faire events since 2006 (they’re put on by the same company that owns the magazine I edit), I’ve become convinced of two things about children and education: (1) making things is a terrific way to learn, and (2) schools are failing to teach kids to learn with their hands.
Video: The author describes how he began his own do-it-yourself adventure.
The ideal educational environment for kids, observes Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way children learn, is one that includes “the opportunity to mess around with objects of all sorts, and to try to build things.” Countless experiments have shown that young children are far more interested in objects they can control than in those they cannot control—a behavioral tendency that persists. In her review of research on project-based learning (a hands-on, experience-based approach to education), Diane McGrath, former editor of the Journal of Computer Science Education, reports that project-based students do as well as (and sometimes better than) traditionally educated students on standardized tests, and that they “learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than do their traditional counterparts, and are more deeply engaged in their work.” In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, recounts his experiments with students about DIY’s effect on well-being and concludes that creating more of the things we use in daily life measurably increases our “feelings of pride and ownership.” In the long run, it also changes for the better our patterns of thinking and learning.