Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Creating and Making and Learning!

What do you get when you put about sixty art, science, library, and classroom teachers into a Maker workshop for a week?  Things like this!

An arts-integrated way to study the stars and planets?!  Yes, please! 

(And I made a gif?)
The class is called CreateMakeLearn, and was hosted at Generator in Burlington. The projects folks made were super, like this little wonder:

This Makey Makey water piano was rigged up by my amazing friend Tracy Truzansky, of Vermont Afterschool.  She is in charge of integrating STEM education and professional development for afterschool staff, and was inspired to rig up this marvel in time for her daughter's birthday.

Her enthusiasm is completely contagious!

Okay, I hear you- So, this looks an awful lot like play... what serious, scholarly learning did you do?

The crux of the week was about Design Thinking. Design Thinking has been written about extensively, but what it distills down to is thinking about solving problems empathetically and creatively. We began our week by considering the needs of a specific person, and designing a chair for that person's needs. One group designed for an astronaut, another for an elderly person, another for a rambunctious toddler, and so on. The group was given a list of the user's needs, and followed precise steps to define the needs, develop ideas, and quickly prototype designs. The end goal is to eventually test out a design, then go back and tweak it for the user.

The Chair exercise.
We made out chairs as a group, and every member in the group of five had to make the same design out of a different material. Designs were drawn, cut out of cardboard (no tape!), squished from play-dough, twisted from pipe cleaners, and built out of toothpicks.

Three ideas for a chair for Maggie Simpson.
The best part of the exercise was seeing how other groups responded to their prompts, and the kind and copious feedback participants on one another's designs. It served as a fantastic ice-breaker for a group of adults only just meeting one another.

After that initial all-group morning, we broke off into several days of amazing workshops on tools, materials, and approaches. The first I attended was learning to use a Makey Makey board, which serves as a conduit for attaching everyday stuff to the computer. Anything that is conductive, like Tracy's water cups, or the fruits in the photo below, can be used essentially as a controller to run the computer.

Playing virtual bongos by tapping an apple and a banana!
But what does that have to do with art?  Isn't this a blog about art education? The most amazing connections can be made to an arts curriculum with a tool like this. Sculptures and drawings made by students could be used to operate applications and programs on the computer. Kids could code little games in Scratch, and control them with a drawing. How do you control it with a drawing? Paper isn't conductive! So glad you ask.

First, taking a class like this inspires lots of play and creative thinking. So at night, my sons and I played with the tools I acquired and tried to figure out what was possible. Here, my son made a controller out of paper, pipe cleaners, aluminum foil, and graphite. Graphite, as in pencils.

Watch carefully, and you'll see that when he taps the word "Piano," written in pencil on his paper, it actually plays the virtual piano on the computer. Crazy. So students would be able to make elaborate drawings and tie them into a circuit to control anything on their computer.

Bunny chick!
3D printing has been around a while now, but this was my first time trying out 3D software to design things. The potential art connections are immense, and likely go without saying, as this is the sort of technology used for models, architecture, and many other fields.  I used Tinkercad to create this goofy little toy.

The week was actually full of toys and play. There was a toy-hacking session, which yielded beeping, whirling oddities like this one:

Ben Matchstick, co-deisgner of Pinbox 3000, led us in making our own working pinball machines, out of cardboard. Learning engineering through play?  How natural, and very how missing from our curriculum.
My own city-themed pinball game underway.
The most outstanding quote from the week was from this slide Ben showed:

"Cut twice, measure once. Fail faster."

There is strong focus in my class on flexible thinking and failure as a path to building creative solutions, so this is a brilliant phrase to repeat often to my students. Cardboard is cheap, easy enough to cut, and a perfect avenue to fail-and-try-again.

Did you say cardboard is easy to cut?  Baloney!

Ben showed us what might be my favorite tool from the week. Art teachers, take note: This cutter is a total gift, and practically impossible to hurt yourself with. My students always get exhausted hands trying to cut cardboard with scissors, and xacto knives are a total no-go with my littlest students, so I have ordered a dozen of these, called the Klever Kutter. Amazingness.

The biggest personal learning experience for me during this course was a vastly deepened understanding of parallel circuits. Stop yawning. Yes, you. Electricity adds an undeniable wow-factor to everything students make. A simple circuit with one battery and one LED can light up a single bulb, and in a series circuit you would quickly need more power.  But with one battery and a parallel circuit, look what you can do!

"Press to light up Orion"
This is a huge new thing for me to learn, because electrical project get expensive really quickly, and batteries are pricey. But LEDs are super cheap. My fifth graders study stars and planets, so I am thinking that this could be both a natural tie-in to their science unit, and also could blend into Greek mythology to learn a deeper understanding of the stories attached to our constellations. To do it, my aim to to teach fifth graders how to solder this year- here's the lesson plan I created. I can't wait!


  1. What an awesome compilation of photos and text to summarize an awesome week!! Can't wait to see how you use this with your students!

  2. Congrats on your position at Edmond's and for delving into the maker movement! It appears you have some great integration ideas for this year. Have a great year!!!

  3. Wonderful Joanna....I enjoyed reading and seeing photos documenting your week! See you soon!

  4. So impressed with the great job of capturing the spirit of CML. It's amazing how a class can be so much fun AND so much of a challenge at the same time.