Making and Tinkering

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Rachel Hellenga, Aaron Price, Kevin Crowley and Peter Wardrip. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


​Making has been defined as a process of designing and building objects or artefacts, physical or virtual, independently  or collaboratively (Martin, 2015).   Peppler, Halverson, & Kafai (2016) have noted that Making that has emerged from the Maker Movement frequently integrates digital technologies.  Making has emerged as an engaging entry point and activity for STEM education (Honey & Kanter, 2013; NYSci Making Meaning Report, 2012; Anderson, 2012; Hatch, 2014). Tom Kalil, from the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy has stated that “One of the president’s goals is to get more young girls and boys excited about what’s called STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. And I believe that the maker movement, the maker culture is a really powerful way of doing that” (2010). The US has seen an expansion of Makerspaces and Maker programs. Yet, as an emerging field, the practice of making is ahead of the research. In particular, there is very little research on the learning that takes place through making to support the fervor behind making (NYSci Making Meaning Report, 2012; Honey & Kanter, 2013; Halverson & Sheridan, 2014; CMP/LRDC Research Meeting, 2014). As the field aims to “…encourage young people to create, build, and invent – to be makers of things” (Obama, 2009) at scale, the field also needs researchers and practitioners to identify and address the learning that takes place during making, such as the disciplinary skills and practices developed (like STEM), the motivation and identities that form through engaged making and the 21st century skills that makers accrue, such as problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. 

Findings from Research and Evaluation 


For many years now, progressive educators and researchers have made mention of the role of making and the production of artifacts in learning. Many scholars have documented the deep educational roots of the maker movement including Piagetian constructivism, Freire, the Progressivism of John Dewey, and Reggio Emilia and Montessori’s exploratory curriculum (Blikstein, 2013; Martinez & Stager, 2015; Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013). This history credits Seymour Papert as a founder of the maker movement implying that constructionism is the theory of learning under which the current re-focus on making, fabrication, and problem solving rests. Papert’s constructionism as a theory of how people learn is grounded in embodied, production-based experiences at the core of what it means to learn (Harel & Papert, 1991). More fundamental than that, constructionism’s roots in Deweyan notions of constructivism frames learning as the product of play, experimentation, and authentic inquiry. Papert defined constructionism as, “…the N word as opposed to the V word— shares contructivism’s view of learning as “building knowledge structures” through progressive internalization of actions… It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe (Papert, 1991, p.1, cited in Ackermann, 2001)

Specific tools and programs that have been used in both formal and informal learning spaces build upon Papert’s notion of constructionism including the Logo programming language (Papert, 1980), Netlogo simulations (Holbert & Wilensky, 2012), the Scratch programming language (Roque, Kafai, & Fields, 2011; Fields, Giang & Kafai, 2013) and the Computer Clubhouse programs (Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman, 2009; Barron, Wise & Martin, 2011).  Many other recent educational approaches emphasize learning through making, most notably project-based science (e.g, Kwon, Wardrip & Gomez, 2014) and problem-based learning (e.g. Ertmer, Schlosser, Clase & Adedokan, 2014). Understanding learning as a product of creating artifacts that matter is not new. However, this approach to learning does not necessarily align with the goals, priorities or values of all of the settings within which making takes place.

The recent view on the change learners experience through making has varied. For example, researchers have focused on learners’ development of important skills, practices and dispositions that are catalysts for fostering learners’ interest, identity, positioning for success in STEM disciplines (Moore, Bathgate, Chung, & Cannady, 2013; Bathgate, Schunn, & Correnti, 2014), and orientation towards engagement in innovative career pathways which integrate STEM disciplines (Crowley, Barron, Knutson, & Martin, 2015). In addition, making has been situated under the umbrella of informal arts education and Peppler has highlighted making’s role within the landscape of interest-driven, informal arts learning environments (Peppler, 2013) Similarly, Sefton-Green has addressed making’s role within digital environments (Sefton-Green, 2013).

Researchers and practitioners from the Exploratorium and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh have begun to identify important dimensions and practices for making (Bevan, Gutwill, Petrich & Wilkinson, 2015; Brahms & Crowley, in submission; Gutwill, Hido & Sindorf, 2014; Brahms & Wardrip, 2014; Wardrip & Brahms, 2015). These dimensions are making specific and not tied to a particular content domain. Researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science have made efforts to conceptualize and measure learning and motivation through making, specifically as it relates to STEM topics and dispositions (Dorph & Cannady, 2014). Finally, a recent review suggested that some computer-based making experiences contribute to shifts in learners’ capacity to think computationally (Grover & Pea, 2013).  And Vossoughi and colleagues (2013) have noted that implicit in maker learning experiences is the theoretical notion of learning as fundamentally linked to the social and cultural practices and contexts in which people participate through shared activity (e.g. Lave & Wenger, 1991; Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003).

Making has been critiqued along the following lines:

  • Research and practice on Making has to date paid too little attention issues of equity (Vossoughi, Escude, Kong, and Hooper, 2013).
  • Much of the rhetoric on Making emphasizes a DIY, student-led process that doesn’t acknowledge the essential role of the educator and community in scaffolding productive learning and engagement (Blikstein & Worsley, 2016; Vossoughi & Bevan, 2014).
  • Making’s adoption of Silicon Valley’s mantra to “fail fast, fail often” reflects a dominant-culture/privileged position in which failure is not experienced as a threat; and thus ignores ways in which some communities have historically been positioned as “good” or “not good” in STEM, possibly making the idea or experience of failure more precarious (Martin, 2015; Vossoughi, Hooper, & Escude, 2016).

Directions for Future Research 

How does making support learning?  In what ways can participating in making experiences support the learning of disciplinary knowledge?

What kinds of professional development supports are needed to help educators facilitate inclusive and productive Making programs? How are these the same or different from professional development supports for exhibits?

Should public maker spaces explain the maker movement to visitors in order to enrich their making and design thinking?

  • Interpretive signage: Connect the dots for visitors and point out how the activities and tools in the maker space are connected to the larger maker movement and the story of convergence of digital and physical worlds.
  • Interactivity with low staff requirements: Incorporate interactive opportunities that can be undertaken independently might enable visitors to get familiar with tool use or circuits or other technology skills and concepts while freeing up staff time.
  • Extending the experience: Offer an online showcase of visitors’ work
  • Provide links to similar resources closer to home
  • “Artifacts” or props: Feature items made by professional and amateur makers to illustrate real-world applications of tools and materials featured in the space (Arduino-driven home automation, etc.) and to illustrate the ongoing stream of innovations made possible by crowd-funding

How can a makerspace reflect the mission of its specific setting, whether in a museum, a library, or other educational facility?

  • Use a museum maker space as an opportunity for deeper exploration of themes introduced in the exhibitions
  • Bring books into a library makerspace to prompt 3D printing of an architectural façade.

How can a makerspace influence its setting?

  • Is it time for educational facilities to integrate lessons of the Maker movement throughout their facilities and not just in maker spaces?
  • How would we get maker activities, artifacts, and tools distributed and woven into the fabric of the full experience at a museum or library instead of confined to a maker space?
  • What could be produced in maker spaces that could be displayed or used elsewhere in the facility?


Agency by Design website

Anzivino, L. and Wilkinson, K. (2012).  Tinkering by design: Thoughtful design leads to breakthroughs in thinking.  Hand to Hand, the publication of the Association of Children’s Museums.

Barron, B., Wise, S., Martin, C.K. (2011). Creating within and across life spaces: The role of a computer clubhouse in a child’s learning ecology. In B. Bevan, Bell, P., Stevens, R., Razfar, A. (Eds.) LOST Opportunities: Learning in Out-of-School Time. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Bevan, B., Gutwill, J., Petrich, M., & Wilkinson, K. (2015). Learning through STEM-rich tinkering: Findings from a jointly negotiated research project taken up in practice. Science Education, 99, 98-120.

Blikstein, P., & Worsley, M. (2016). Children are not hackers: Building a culture of powerful ideas, deep learning, and equity in the Maker Movement. In K. Peppler, E. R. Halverson, & Y. B. Kafai (Eds.), Makeology: Makerspaces as learning environments (Vol. 1, pp. 64-79). New York: Routledge.

Crowley, K., Barron, B.J., Knutson, K., & Martin, C.K. (2015). Interest and the development of pathways to science. In K.A. Renninger, M. Nieswandt, and S. Hidi (Eds.), Interest in Mathematics and Science Learning and Related Activity. Washington, DC: AERA.

Making as a context for imagination, play, creativity, and learning.

Martin, L. (2015). The promise of the Maker Movement for education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER)(5), 1. doi:10.7771/2157-9288.1099

Martinez, S. & Stager, G. (2013).  Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.  Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

New York Hall of Science (2013).  Making Meaning.  Retrieved from

Petrich, M., Wilkinson, K. and Bevan, B. (2013). It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?, in Design, Make, Play

Project Zero: Agency by Design.

Resnick, M., & Rosenbaum, E. (2013). Designing for tinkerability. In M. Honey & D. Kanter (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 163-181). New York: Routledge.

Schwartz, Katrina (2012). Harvard wants to know: How does the act of making shape kids’ brains?  Mindshift.  Retrieved from

Vossoughi, S., Escudé, M., Kong, F., & Hooper, P. (2013). Tinkering, learning & equity in the after-school setting. Paper presented at the FabLearn Conference, Palo Alto, CA.

Vossoughi, S., Hooper, P., & Escudé, M. (2016). Making through the lens of culture and power: Towards transformative visions for educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 206-232.