Problem: “How to travel to the East fastest and bring back the most spices.”

Reaching for the “Why”: Engaging with History through Making

By Lesley Turton, Hackley School Lower School Teacher

When Hackley launched its Makerspace a year ago, my colleagues in the K-4 Lower School were intrigued, but we struggled to see its usefulness to us. Little legs only travel so far so fast, and the prospect of taking students across campus to the new Makerspace seemed daunting. In addition, the tools it offered seemed more developmentally appropriate for Middle and Upper School students.

But then I spent a week last summer learning about Makerspace programs as part of our professional development programs and the avenues for expanded learning in the Lower School program excited me. The Makerspace provides great access to creative, hands-on problem solving. How might my fourth grade students engage in the learning opportunity this provides?

Hackley’s Makerspace inspired me. If I could turn our history lessons into this kind of hands-on problem solving, I knew my students would come away with deeper appreciation and understanding of what they learned.

I did not want my nine-year-olds to feel tempted to use all the power equipment available in the Hackley Makerspace, so I decided to create my own Makerspace right in my classroom.

We began with a series of historical knowledge-based questions framed as problem solving exercises. First, we took on a challenge presented by our Exploration unit. “How do we get to the East fastest to bring back spices, while maximizing space to hold the biggest supply?” The students studied the Caravel ships used by the explorers and worked out their own designs, understanding that a ship with greater capacity would require more and larger sails.

Students present their ship design.

Each group then presented their solutions and completed a written reflection on the exercise.

Next, in our unit on Westward Expansion, we asked, “How did the pioneers get across a river?” Presented with the challenge, the students then reviewed the resources and materials that would be available to solve the problem. Each team needed to build a bridge that would span a given distance and support a given weight. Working in small groups, they considered “What other materials should we get?” and then laid out the tools and considered how best to solve the problem. We then tested their solutions, and even the groups whose bridges did not succeed learned important lessons about what it takes to solve this problem.

As it happened, we were in the midst of this project the very day the old Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River was coming down. Now that they were expert bridge builders themselves, the students watched videos about how that bridge was built and what materials had been chosen, and then talked about what they would have done differently. Finally, when the time came, they watched the bridge implode!

Designing Windmills

Finally, we tackled the problem of how pioneers in in the Plains would get water for their farms, and learned about windmills that harnessed the wind to pump and distribute groundwater. Building their own windmills, the students quickly attached this line of problem solving to our contemporary questions surrounding green energy, and the lessons of history became all the more relevant to their lives today.

While engaging students in these problem-solving exercises, these “maker” projects yielded other benefits as well. The students expanded their vocabularies to include words like “caravel,” and learned the backstory of the ship’s invention by a Portuguese prince, as well as the religious origins of the symbolic decorations and the hope for safe journeys these embodied. They learned to be better collaborators, feeding off each other’s ideas, listening and responding. And, they began to embrace the process of problem-solving, and to think as problem-solvers who set out steps — one, two, three, etc. — without needing a teacher’s lead.

Success! We love wind power!

The Makerspace philosophy — even without hammers and saws — challenged us all to think deeply about cause and effect by helping us reach for the “WHY” beyond the rote facts. By transforming “learning” into problem solving, my students gain meaningful ownership of knowledge because they find and confirm the answers themselves, as well as learning to apply what they have learned to other problem-solving opportunities.

My fourth graders were disappointed when I informed them that we had concluded all the Makerspace experiences I had planned for the school year. Their enthusiasm for more has convinced me to schedule one more problem solving project. I hope to have the students determine the “problem” themselves based on our next units of History study.

My students will “graduate” from Lower School this year and move on to Middle School, where many more “maker” opportunities await them. The Hackley students who follow them, however, won’t need to wait for fourth grade to begin experimenting with Makerspace work — while I’ve been building this program in my own classroom, my colleagues in the Lower School have found ways to integrate “making” into their curriculum as well. For example, our Kindergarteners visited the Makerspace to create Kalimbas — musical instruments drawn from African and Caribbean tradition built from wooden boards and metal tines — as part of their music study, and our second graders used the Makerspace to create African Masks. Each of these adventures expands our students’ learning and affirms creative problem-solving at the core of our work.