Defining Making: It’s a Pickle (Or Not)

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January 27th, 2015

An end-of-the-year CAISE blog post named the White House Maker Faire as one the defining informal Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education stories of the 2014. That event symbolically reflected the recent exponential growth of the “Maker movement” i.e.. the plethora of “Makerspaces” now in science centers, museums, libraries and other informal learning settings, as well as a recognition that there is something going on in these environments and experiences that is worthy of high profile attention and further investment. As the activity known as making has become more ubiquitous as a learning strategy, leading educational practitioners and researchers have been coming together in a variety of meetings, conferences[JB1] and workshops to better understand the nature of just what is occurring in these spaces as well as in the “makers” who frequent them. Questions about the value and meaning of individuals, families and school groups working side by side to explore and experiment with materials and tools of all types and creating objects for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes, or both, abound. Among the questions that intrigue both formal and informal educators are, “What is the attraction of these settings and activities?” and “What are the participants learning, if anything, while doing them?” While the connection of making to STEM processes and practices may seem obvious, educators, funders and policymakers alike are assiduously trying to unpack, articulate and replicate what aspects of it can be applied to formal and informal learning environments in order to provide enhanced entry points for engagement with, and broaden participation in, STEM. Makeshop

As 2015 begins with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (CMoP) hosting the second in a series of Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded convenings to address some of these questions and issues, this perspective blog pauses to reflect on a discussion thread from the meeting held last summer at CMoP. At that Research on Making and Learning convening, practitioners, researchers, evaluators and other stakeholders from museums, science centers, libraries, universities and other organizations explored the feasibility and utility of defining making as a phenomena that is distinct, yet intersecting with others such as arts and craft, gaming, cyberlearning and a variety of other learning and engagement movements. The meeting also included sessions to brainstorm potential research questions, identify problems of practice and assessment and discuss the implications of scaling up existing efforts- topics that will be the subject of future posts here and are currently addressed to some degree in a growing Evidence Wiki article. As a community of professionals and scholars deeply involved in this work, participants at the July 2014 convening easily generated a nuanced, rich list of distinct, ideal aspects of making that they have observed, designed for or studied. The five breakout groups that contributed to the list also shared and compared the values that inform their interest in and approaches to Makerspaces and making. With lots of overlap among the groups, some of the characteristics, values and words that participants identified as key to making included: experimentation, process, inquiry, questioning, tinkering, iteration, combining, complexifying, repurposing, customizing, interdisciplinary, tangible, transparent, not-necessarily-utilitarian, embracing of failure, mistakes and second chances, cultivating unconventional ideas and solutions, inclusive of a variety of technologies (heritage, novel and remix), involves feedback from materials and people, sharing, cross cultural, supportive community, agency, voice, skill development, playful/curious orientation (to the world), permission, creation, innovation, disruption, multiple pathways, pluralism, meaning-making and audiencing….etc. In the process of brainstorming the list, participants also surfaced a number of tensions familiar to those who have grappled with defining making or any new phenomena. For example, one group of mostly learning researchers “put a stake in the ground” as to what’s at the “center of the target” of making that makes it unique from other contemporary movements, which they suggested must include a physical aspect, i.e. made objects. They argued that making loses its distinction if it encompasses gaming, fine arts and/or performing arts, for example. The group posited that a definition at this point in the movement’s trajectory would distinguish business as usual in making from business as usual in other realms. They further clarified that the boundaries should not be impermeable; but that a making “target” with clear characteristics (e.g. physical, social) at the center would help place other learning activities, strategies and movements such as Scratch, Minecraft and hacker spaces around the perimeter that making should be aware of and in dialogue with. Others countered that while a robust definition is important, what makes making accessible is its connection to and natural flow from other day-to-day activities like playing, taking things apart and fixing them. They probed for a further exploration of what counts as an “object,” arguing that anything from songs to fan fiction could be in the corpus of what is considered making. Others emphasized the importance of the interdisciplinarity of making, which is key to providing multiple access points that might be lost if the definition is too exclusive. Karen Wilkinson from the Exploratorium stated that their institution’s bottom-line criteria for what counts as making is an activity’s “tinkerability”. She shared the example of “pickling” as a test case for what divides their own staff between those who consider it ‘tinkerable’ and those who do not. All there agree, however, that a making experience should offer the opportunity to be able to drop in and get going on something right away. Andrea Saenz from the Chicago Public Library offered that their libraries were good examples of settings where they have observed that people who may never define themselves as makers are able to come in and immediately begin to get the sense of efficacy. This breakout group’s view was that the most important thing was having a perspective, i.e. to be able to define what you choose to do for your place, because “that says something about who your community is and what you value, and that is something we should cultivate.” Another thread of tension throughout the convening was around considerations of making as learning, in particular STEM learning, vs. as an expert activity or what would traditionally be called hobby or crafting. One group pointed out that the latter has a long tradition, which doesn’t really intersect with the recent emergence of the more technology-oriented maker culture, except perhaps with the growing popularity of electronic textiles. Others pointed out that making is also about building community and bringing people together in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. In those instances participants’ primary motivation is not to learn but rather to experience being with other people and making things. Further informing this tension was anxiety about the need to have evidence that Makerspaces support STEM learning, because so much of the current support for making is coming from that funding sector. Rena Dorph from the Lawrence Hall of Science pointed out that helping policymakers understand the investment in making for that particular outcome was key to establishing the public trust necessary for the movement’s sustainability. Edward Clapp from Project Zero at Harvard University suggested that making can learn a lesson from arts education, where a distinction has evolved between its instrumental and intrinsic benefits. Using making to support STEM learning is an instrumental purpose while using it for the benefit of making is an intrinsic purpose. Kevin Crowley from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments observed that one way to resolve this tension was to emphasize the role of making in facilitating pre or even post disciplinary innovation skills that prepare makers to be more innovative scientists, engineers artists, etc. In response one group suggested that multiple onramps to innovative practices might also be a way of connecting to STEM, i.e. people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as part of these disciplines could be drawn into them through making activities that don’t require prescribed instructions, like creative cooking, for example. The discussion ended with a consideration of what it means to be a maker. Janella Watson from the New York Hall of Science observed that while the environment, space and activities were important, there are also a set of dispositions and attitudes that makers carry with them that define any activity as making. She pointed out the important role of facilitators, and their attitudes about the making activities that they ask participants to engage in. “It’s about the open invitation and how it is extended,” she said, “There are elements that we value regardless of the space, and that is the toolbox that we carry.” Next time we will address making in the context of the history of other education movements and share some ongoing and emerging areas of related research.

Related references:

Agency by Design: Maker-Centered Learning and the Development of Self

Making Meaning [M2]

Making STEM Relevant in Underserved Communities

Investigating STEM Literacies in MakerSpaces

Handout – Making Space for Innovation: Sampling of Making and Tinkering

Handout – Dream, Design, Fab! Engaging Youth with Digital Fabrication

The Learning Practices of Making: An Evolving Framework for Design

SWOT Analysis for Institutions Who Follow the Making and Tinkering Experience

Evidence Wiki article on Making and Tinkering Programs