Rob Gilson in his S.T.E.A.M. classroom, equipped with woodworking and measuring tools, craft supplies and plenty of open table space.

Exploring Maker Culture in Education

An interview with a S.T.E.A.M. educator at Blue School

Why do designers do interviews? Because we want to understand our users the experts already working in this space.

In order to better understand who we’ll be designing for, we first asked ourselves, who understands 9–13 year-olds and how they might interact with technology? Our list included 5–8th grade teachers, parents, maker-space and workshop instructors, and curriculum developers. We were fortunate to be connected with Rob Gilson who has been developing a S.T.E.A.M. program—the method of teaching science and technology interpreted through engineering, the arts, and math—at Blue School for the last year.

Blue School lobby

Blue School

After navigating the hot Manhattan sidewalk as a group of four, we stepped into the entrance of Blue School and knew we were in the right place. The entrance was crowded with razor scooters, skateboards, strollers and helmets. Posters and art projects covered the walls and activity filled the space. Laptop in hand, we found Rob Gilson for a tour.

Part of Blue School’s methodology includes connecting subject learning with an overarching theme. For example, content-specific projects for math, language, social studies, art, and music will also have a central theme (i.e. ancient Egypt) and use the subjects to explore that theme (How did Egyptians use math? What is Egyptian art?). To demonstrate the depth of theme learning, Rob stopped to show us a classroom that had been studying the medieval period. The entire room was converted into an impressive medieval display constructed by the students. We noted models of castles, a toy jousting knight theater, birds of falconry, and working catapults. Even the door to the classroom had been converted to look like a drawbridge. It was clear to us that some very excited students had been able to follow their interests and enjoyed making things.

Moment interns set up to conduct an interview with Rob Gilson

Making in Education

After the tour we took over a table in the hallway and began asking Rob questions. We wanted to understand how Rob designed the S.T.E.A.M. program and why “making” should be part of education. The S.T.E.A.M. program at Blue School focuses on engineering, design, electronics, and tools. Rob also incorporates the five elements of design thinking into the projects: understand, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

He began talking about his background as a math teacher before joining Blue School and how S.T.E.A.M. curriculum teaches some of the same concepts in a more engaging way. We were surprised to hear that many of the projects involved woodworking. He explained that urban students have few opportunities to build with their hands and woodworking provides a great combination of hand skills and math concepts. In other words, giving a kid a hammer provides a type of learning they are not getting elsewhere.

Students will shape these chunks of wood into spoons. Understanding the properties of a material and building competency with tools are important themes in Rob’s classes.

For very young students, building competency with tools is a big challenge and often piques their imagination. Rob noticed that kindergarteners desperately wanted to use the wood saws the older students got to use. As a result, he built a kid-safe “sawing table” where they could methodically cut slices of a log. The slicing activity could have stopped there, but some kindergarteners were so obsessed with the new skill that log slices lived on as ingredients to miniature houses and other projects. Rob feels it is important for him to react to that delight and know when to get out of the way. For older students he recognizes how ownership is key for engagement.

One popular project starts with an open challenge—to build a wooden box. He gives a size constraint so they can’t make, say, a coffin, but otherwise, students quickly decide for themselves what they want the box to be and go from there. The most important takeaway being that starting off a new project with a question can get kids to explore and reflect. For a mask-making activity he asks, “How would I use something that hides my identity to portray my personality?”

Rob shows off some work—a student’s box project
A poster in Rob’s classroom—he teaches design thinking methods like “build to think”

Technology in the Classroom

For the purposes of our exploration and research, we were curious about technology in the classroom and wondered what Rob would realistically use with his students. Where does he see the kid-focused maker and coding tools (littleBits, Makey Makey, Arduino) fitting in with what he wants to teach?

He is careful about blindly adding technology in the classroom and pointed out that it shouldn’t replace something in the learning path that is better accomplished with traditional tools. He also noted that if he did a circuit-building lesson with students that involved a fancy kit, that students wouldn’t see how they could build a circuit without having that kit. In this way, very low-fi parts (wire, wooden blocks, a battery) can help extend the concept of building circuits better. There are also tech issues that impede use in the classroom. For example, the classrooms at Blue School have iPads, but iPads don’t have the same capabilities for coding as a computer. Those concerns aside, Rob has used things like circuit boards, copper tape, and Makey Makey in projects and he is eager to find appropriate tools for his students to learn coding, which will play a bigger role in the curriculum next year.

Our Main Question

Where will S.T.E.A.M. education go in the future and could it include virtual reality? This might depend on the industry and whether tools are created with education in mind. Rob hopes that the “maker” component stays, but would like to see S.T.E.A.M. education use design thinking to solve social problems. Looking at some of the projects for elementary students out there, it does seem that empathy and human centered design are becoming a trend in education.

Think about this kid’s zeal for building things next time you struggle to assemble some Ikea furniture

Our chat with Rob ended and he showed us some of the student work in his classroom, a small but flexible space devoted to tinkering. Woodworking and measuring tools lined the front wall and posters of design principals and construction tips hung from the ceiling. A reading nook and table built by students stood to one side of the space. Brightly painted student projects were stacked on the counters and work tables.

Gazing at the tools and projects we collectively thought, “How fun would it be to be a student in Rob’s class?” After giving our sincere thanks we left Rob’s classroom, a better picture of our users and constraints in mind.

Andrea Everman, Sarah Mitrano, Ian Morrow, and Daniel Park are interns at Moment in New York. Sarah is a recent graduate of Washington University with a BFA in communication design; Daniel is a junior at Parsons pursuing a BBA in strategic design and management; and Ian and Andrea are pursuing MDes degrees at the IIT Institute of Design. They’re all currently exploring the intersection of mixed reality and children’s education. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.

UPDATE: The Moment summer 2016 intern project is live here.