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Balancing Collaborative and Individual Work: An Example of a School-Based Maker Education Project

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We describe an activity in which a group of 61 high school seniors designed and fabricated physics demonstrations that were part of a large installation exhibited at Maker Faire in San Mateo. The teachers designed the learning experience to simultaneously support students completing projects they were individually responsible for while participating in a collaborative project. These constraints meant that work progressed simultaneously at multiple levels. We investigated the learning that took place through this project through student interviews reflecting on the yearlong process. We found that recurring themes included the ways the individual, group, and class goals interacted, and the roles of prototyping, fabrication, and mentors in their designs.
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Balancing Collaborative and Individual Work: An Example
of a School-Based Maker Education Project
Danielle B. Harlow
Department of Education
Gevirtz Graduate School of Education
University of California, Santa Barbara
dharlow@education.ucsb.edu
Alexandria K. Hansen
Department of Education
Gevirtz Graduate School of Education
University of California, Santa Barbara
akillian@education.ucsb.edu
ABSTRACT
We describe an activity in which a group of 61 high school
seniors designed and fabricated physics demonstrations that were
part of a large installation exhibited at Maker Faire in San Mateo.
The teachers designed the learning experience to simultaneously
support students completing projects they were individually
responsible for while participating in a collaborative project.
These constraints meant that work progressed simultaneously at
multiple levels. We investigated the learning that took place
through this project through student interviews reflecting on the
yearlong process. We found that recurring themes included the
ways the individual, group, and class goals interacted, and the
roles of prototyping, fabrication, and mentors in their designs.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
K3.0 [Computers and Education]: General
General Terms
Design, Human Factors,
Keywords
Education, Mechatronics, Physics, Maker Education, Fabrication,
Secondary School, Engineering.
1. INTRODUCTION
The confluence of the rise of public interest in making things and
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects, the emergence of technology that
enable novices to make sophisticated electronic objects, and the
inclusion of engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards
[1] make this an opportune time to understand how making things
leads to learning: “The maker movement is an innovative way to
reimagine education” [2].
The maker movement and the activities associated with it such as
Maker Faires and Maker Spaces are consistent with Papert’s [3]
constructionism, a theory of learning and instruction that built on
constructivist theories of learning [4]. He posited that people learn
best when making things. “Constructionist teachers look for ways
to create experiences for students that value the student’s existing
knowledge and have the potential to expose students to big ideas
and ‘aha’ moments” [5]. Yet, despite the potential of the maker
movement to influence how we teach students in schools and its
growing presence in more formal education, most research on
Maker Education, thus far, has been in informal spaces such as
museums and after school programs.
Integrating maker education opportunities into schools challenges
educators to balance the demands of formal school with the
sometimes opposing goals of the “maker revolution” [6]. As
Halverson and Sheridan [7] describe, “Perhaps the greatest
challenge to embracing the maker movement in K-12 schools,
especially in our current accountability environment, is the need
to standardize, to define ‘what works’ for learning through
making.” Later, they describe the challenges perceived from the
opposite side: “Perhaps the greatest fear on the part of those
deeply invested in the maker movement is that the attempts to
institutionalize makingthrough schools, after-school programs,
etc.will quash the emergence, creativity, innovation, and
entrepreneurial spirit that are hallmarks of the ‘maker
revolution.’” Others are concerned that integrating maker
education into schools will be reduced to only a focus on the tools
[8] or be trivialized to creating small projects like key chains [9].
Integrating maker activities into more formal education settings
requires considering how to (1) create activities that facilitate
learning standards and curricular goals that schools are held
accountable for, (2) provide effective learning opportunities for
many students simultaneously, and (3) align with the goals of
maker education. We are interested in how educators achieve this
balance and the learning that results from such opportunities. In
this preliminary study, we investigated the experiences of students
enrolled in a high school senior capstone course designed to
provide authentic and assessable opportunities for individual
student achievement, responsibility, and ownership while also
creating a collaborative effort across the entire class.
2. STUDY DESIGN
2.1 Context
This research took place at an engineering academy within a
public high school. Students apply to the program and are selected
on the basis of their application and an interview. Freshmen
through Junior students spend one hour/day in the academy in
courses that cycle through physics, art, machine shop, and
computer aided design (CAD) spaces that each teach content
related to projects that require using all of these content areas to
complete. The rest of their day is spent in regular courses offered
at the high school. In their senior year, the students spend three or
more hours per day in the academy spaces working on one of two
senior capstone projects.
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FabLearn’15, September 26–27, 2015, Stanford, CA, USA.
Copyright 2010 ACM 1-58113-000-0/00/0010 …$15.00
In 2011, the academy began admitting 100 freshmen annually,
divided evenly by gender. This was an increase from 30 students
per year and, thus, the senior class of 2015 was triple the size of
prior years. Accommodating additional students necessitated
changes in the senior curriculum. For the class of 2015, a new
option for the senior capstone project was developeda
mechatronics installation to be displayed in a public setting
(initially at the Bay Area Maker Faire). Mechatronics is a
multidisciplinary field of engineering that includes mechanical,
electrical, computer, control, and telecommunications
engineering.
The mechatronics project was developed by the academy teachers
to meet educational goals including that each student would have
ownership and responsibility for a specific part of the project and
that each student would have the opportunity to engage in the full
engineering process. This had implications for the workflow. So
that all students could be fully involved, the project had to be
designed so that many students could complete work in parallel.
This is in contrast to many large projects in which work is
conducted in series with students having to wait while other
students complete their work.
Figure 1: The final mechatronics installation– the Carousel of
Physics
The mechatronics assignment was structured so that the entire
class (61 students) created one large sculpture over the course of a
school year that took the shape of a carousel (see figure 1). The
carousel was divided into 15 sectors, each assigned to a small
group of four students (one group had five students). Prior to the
beginning of the school year, program staff created the general
design of the carousel and the structure that would hold the
sectors. The program director introduced the idea to students as a
carousel that would house physics demonstrations and would
include marbles that would move between the demonstrations to
activate them. The specifics of the physics topics to include, the
look of the carousel, the demonstrations that would be included,
and how the participating students would be organized into groups
were left to be decided by the class as a whole.
Once the school year started, the class brainstormed physics topics
to focus on in the installation and possible physics demonstrations
to include. Constraints for the sectors were established: Each
subsector was required to (1) include a marble that “narrated” the
sector by moving between the subsectors, (2) demonstrate a
physics phenomenon, and (3) match the primary color scheme
(red, yellow, blue) based on the artist Piet Mondrain.
Each sector group was assigned a physics topic, and each student
within the group designed and built a component (called
“subsector”) that demonstrated a physics principle and the sector
group created a plan for combining the four components into a
visually and conceptually coherent display.
Adult mentors, mostly professional engineers, worked closely
with students during the design phase to create CAD drawings and
work out difficulties. Students were responsible for final designs,
fabrication, and construction of their individual component.
Teams of students developed sector plans, put sectors together,
completed the electrical work, and programmed the components.
While many students were involved in multiple aspects of the
projects, some students were only involved in the design and
fabrication of their own component (subsector).
Our research question at this point is exploratory: Given the
complexity of the entire project, what aspects of the task do
studentsreport as important to the experience?
2.2 Data Collection
To understand the students’ perspective, we interviewed 19 (12
female, 7 male) of the 61 students participating in the
mechatronics capstone project. Students were selected based on
teacher suggestion and student volunteers with a goal of
representing students from a range of sector groups as well as
students who had participated in multiple aspects of the project
(e.g., summer internship to construct the frame for project,
electrical team, programming team). Interviews were conducted in
the final three weeks of the school year. This was done so that, at
the time of the interview, students had completed all stages of
development and presented their final project to a public audience
(at the Bay Area Maker Faire). Interviews were conducted after
the final presentation for two reasons: to minimize the students’
time out-of-class during crucial work periods and so that they
would be able to look back over the year from the perspective of
knowing the end result. Interviews were semi-structured. Students
were asked to (1) describe their subsector, explain the physics it
demonstrated, and describe any physics or engineering knowledge
they had to draw on when designing and building their subsector,
(2) draw a timeline of the year-long process to design and
fabricate the entire mechatronics installation and (3) describe their
understanding of the engineering process. The task of drawing a
timeline of events allowed students to describe the events of the
year that were meaningful to them and conversation then focused
on the events identified by the student. Interviews lasted between
10 and 40 minutes.
3. FINDINGS
In this paper, we discuss four aspects that students repeatedly
identified as important to the learning experience: (1) engineering
timelines of different scales, (2) prototyping, (3) fabrication, and
(4) mentors.
3.1 Engineering Timelines of Different Scales
The nature of the task meant that work progressed on multiple
scales over the duration of the yearlong project: individual, small
group, and whole class. Individual students were each responsible
for a specific physics demonstration (also called a “subsector”)
(see figure 2 for example subsectors). Not surprisingly, most
students spent the majority of their interview talking about the
work they did as individuals with guidance from mentors and
teachers to design, prototype, and fabricate their subsector. The
subsector was required to physically and conceptually fit with
three other subsectors into a sector (see figure 3 for example
sectors). The size and theme of the sector constrained the work
done on the subsectors. Finally, the sectors all fit onto the large
carousel, which physically supported the sectors and housed the
electrical systems.
Figure 2: Refraction (left) and Intersecting waves (right)
subsectors
Figure 3: Waves (left) and Fluid mechanics (right) sectors
The carousel sectors were programmed so that the actions across
the entire carousel could be coordinated. Figure 4 depicts a
timeline of work completed along the three levels of the carousel
(whole class), sector (small group), and individual (subsector).
This timeline was constructed by representing events that were
mentioned most often by students. While the students were
primarily concerned about how their subsector progressed, they
recognized that the development and decisions along each level
influenced the work at the other levels. For example, students
redesigned their subsectors after the sector polygon designs (CAD
drawing of sector including rough dimensions of subsectors) were
completed to ensure that their subsector fit within the space
allotted. Student 19 described that her team of four students who
created a fluid dynamics sector recognized that their four
individual projects were too large for the sector as they were
designed. The creation of a polygon model of the sector helped
them to come to this conclusion. As they worked to make each of
their projects smaller, they also identified that the design of
individual projects constrained the aspects of the projects that
could be resized (e.g., “you can’t just re-blow glass”). Student 19
stated that, “The hardest part was integration,” referring to the
stage when they took their individual projects and worked to fit
them into coherent sectors.
3.2 Prototyping
As part of the project, students constructed multiple prototypes.
We define prototype broadly, including drawings, cardboard
models, and other ways they represented what they would create.
Prototyping played a key role in allowing students to successfully
meet the project constraints.
Many students began developing ideas for their projects by
watching online videos demonstrating physics phenomena.
Students expressed wanting to capture the Maker Faire attendees’
attention. From here, the prototyping phase began. Students began
drawing basic designs of subsectors, while attending to the project
constraints. Student 04 shared that her largest struggle throughout
this process was not selecting a physics phenomenon, but creating
a realistic design that would function correctly. Prototyping
helped her work through this process.
Soon after selecting individual projects, students made basic
prototypes to figure out how to exhibit the fundamental aspects of
their demonstration or to provide proof that their idea was
possible. Student 09 who created one of the demonstrations of
fluid dynamics shown in figure 3 learned how to make a simple
siphon with a straw as a basic prototype for creating a project that
would show water levels in various shaped containers. Another
student, who wanted to show that blinking red, green, and blue
LEDs produced the illusion of white light, stated, “I grabbed a
drill and then put a blinking LED under this sheet of acrylic and
then just rotated the acrylic on the drill and then saw that you
could see the red, green, and blue” (Student 18). For most
students, these basic prototypes were created from materials
already at the school lab or inexpensive materials like cardboard.
Others ordered specific items (e.g., a small steam engine) and
took them apart to understand how they worked and identify
components.
Basic prototypes allowed them to conceptualize their design in
three dimensions, without requiring potentially costly materials
such as filament for 3D printing, or acrylic for laser cutting. Some
students shared that this phase of prototyping helped further refine
their design. Further, even though most students had completed at
a physics courses prior to the project, many mentioned this as the
time when they first started understanding some of the equations
and principals they learned in their physics course. Others learned
new physics concepts to create their demonstrations.
Students eventually moved onto higher quality prototypes of small
components of a subsector, rather than fully built sections,
through the use of 3D printing and laser cutting. Other students
prototyped full versions of their subsectors.
Figure 4: Timeline of events derived from student interviews
Student 06 shared that he built four full subsectors before
settling on his final design, with each prototype informing the
subsequent design. He described that prototyping allowed him to
think about the project in different ways, specifically artistically
and mechanically, while also providing an opportunity to
evaluate the design in alignment with project constraints.
Student 09 commented on how she used multiple prototypes
before deciding on her final design, with back-up plans for each
prototype. She stated, If this changes, then we can use this
design, or if that changes, we can use that design.” Prototypes
were revised again when putting the subsectors together into
sectors. Some groups found out that their subsector prototypes
were too large to fit together in a sector and revised the
prototypes to meet this constraint.
3.3 Fabrication
Related to the idea of prototyping, fabrication, and the tools used
for fabrication also played a pivotal role in the students’ work.
After basic prototyping, students worked with mentors to create
CAD designs, which were reviewed by teachers before students
were cleared to begin building. Students rarely reported
changing ideas during the CAD process. (Note this does not
mean that they did not change their ideas, only that they did not
report doing so.) However, after students began building, they
reported making changes. Student 04 stated, “So I ordered all
my parts and I started making some parts but a lot of them fit
into each other. So I had to make a couple parts, measure them,
change the other parts accordingly and then cut the other parts
out—because the acrylic has a lot of variation with its
thicknesses and size.” Student 19 who created the intersecting
waves demonstration (Figure 2b) described, At the very end, I
had built mine up and it was working and then we were like,
hmm, it seems like a fewlike this last row is like getting stuck
or it's not falling down right and we realized we had forgotten
something in the grid. So there was a ton of friction in the last
row, which is where all the strings arein this row.”
Students also described the role of fabrication tools. One student
(Student 01) described that the nature of the work changed
completely once the laser cutter arrived mid-year as it facilitated
different types of work. A second student (Student 02) began her
timeline by marking the arrival of the laser cutter. She then
described the work that happened before and after that event.
Other fabrication tools mentioned including CNC machines,
lathes, and other tools in the machine shop they had learned to
use over the four-year program.
3.4 Mentors
A fourth important factor was the role of mentors, many who
were professional engineers. Students worked closely with
mentors who assisted them with designs. Mentor involvement
varied by the complexity of the projects. Some students worked
with mentors only when they faced difficulty, others worked
with mentors to create initial designs but iterated on these
designs on their own, and still others depended heavily on
mentors at all stages of the process. Students described that
when they observed mentors who helped with more complex
aspects of the project, they learned how they thought through
problems and about drawing designs and other engineering
skills. This apprenticeship model supported students in
constructing more sophisticated designs.
Some mentors had pre-existing relationships with the school,
while others were recruited when students identified additional
needs. This prompted students to tap into community resources
and create new relationships. For example, Student 06 shared
that he had to find someone with access to a laser cutter early on
in the project before the school obtained one. Similarly, Student
08’s project required finding a mentor who had the skills to help
with complex programming required for her design. She found a
lab manager at a local university who offered to help with the
project. Additionally, Student 09 reached out to the glassblower
at the same university to help her construct parts. She was able
to visit the workshop and learn about the process of
glassblowing from an experienced mentor outside of the school.
4. DISCUSSION
Students learned physics and engineering through an
apprenticeship model and an authentic learning taska
publically displayed installation. They were able to articulate the
physics concepts their project was intended to display and to
identify the stages of engineering they went through individually
and collectively. The design of the task allowed students to have
ownership over their individual projects while also being
responsible to (and constrained by) a larger team. Students were
proud of the work they had done. What was particularly
compelling about this project was that the outcome was a unified
project, yet each student was allowed to use their creativity and
make decisions. The research reported here is preliminary. We
have identified emerging themes from a subset of the interviews
that appears to have contributed to the success of the project
from the students’ perspectives. Future work will follow
students through the process to further understand learning in a
setting designed so that all students have the opportunity to
creatively and significantly contribute to a collaborative project.
5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Our thanks to the Engineering Academy students and teachers.
6. REFERENCES
[1] NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science
Standards: For States, By States, Wash, D.C: NAP.
[2] Peppler, K. and Bender, S. 2013. Maker movement spreads
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[3] Papert, S., and Harel, I. 1991. Situating
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[4] Fosnot, C. T., and Perry, R. S. 1996. Constructivism: A
psychological theory of learning. Constructivism: Theory,
perspectives, and practice, 8-33.
[5] Martinez, S., L., and Stager, G. 2013. Invent to learn:
Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom.
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[7] Halverson, E., and Sheridan, K. 2014. The maker
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[8] Martin, L. 2015. The Promise of the Maker Movement for
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http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/2157-9288.1099
[9] Bilkstein, P. 2013. Digital fabrication and ‘making’ in
education: The democratization of invention. J. Walter-
Herrmann and C. Büching (Eds.), FabLabs: Of Machines,
Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publisher.
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Situating constructionism. Constructionism
  • S Papert
  • I Harel
Papert, S., and Harel, I. 1991. Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, 1-11.
Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom
  • S Martinez
  • L Stager
Martinez, S., L., and Stager, G. 2013. Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Constructing modern knowledge press.
Digital fabrication and 'making' in education: The democratization of invention
  • P Bilkstein
Bilkstein, P. 2013. Digital fabrication and 'making' in education: The democratization of invention. J. Walter-Herrmann and C. Büching (Eds.), FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publisher.