If you walked into RM Pellant’s classroom at his former school in Cambridge, MA (a school very similar to Breck) last year, you would have seen a group of sixth grade girls, elbows deep in microprocessors, resistors, PCB boards, batteries, and soldering irons. Students were given an open-ended assignment: create an iPhone charger out of an Altoid can. At first, students were confused, asking Pellant what the necessary steps were and how to get an A. After some further prompting, Pellant watched as the girls jumped into the process, ultimately learning not only how to create a functional piece of technology but, more importantly, learning what they needed to learn to get there.
For Pellant, that’s the magic of the “Maker” movement and design thinking. Students are not only learning technology, but learning the iterative processes of design and prototyping in an environment that permits and even encourages failure as a fundamental part of the learning process. The maker movement is about bringing hands-on learning into a classroom where students can create and collaborate in an open environment. The way Pellant sees it, the education system hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years: children are expected to show up, be on time, and told what to do and where to be. It’s an orderly, structured environment that allows little time for open exploration.
The maker movement, which incorporates STEM, STEAM (adding art to the traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and STREAM (which includes reading) has blown this traditional environment open. It gives kids a place to experiment and play with different things of interest to them as a means toward a certain end. The movement follows a recent cultural shift toward the principles of entrepreneurship—about thinking out of the box, collaborating with others to work toward a common goal, to fail and to pick yourself up. Implementing these ideas young—as early as Lower School—gives kids a step up into this space.
The maker movement is also tied to design thinking, and Pellant speaks about his enthusiasm for the design thinking conference he’ll be attending next week in partnership with the D School at Stanford. The first step of the design thinking process is empathy, which Pellant sees as “a beautiful match for Breck because of its emphasis on service learning.” For him, the “MakerSpace” at Breck is a philosophy prevalent throughout the school that marries that service learning component to the understanding of how we can help other people using technology.
Pellant acknowledges that “Breck is a unique animal, with one building and three divisions” but notes that the possibilities for the divisions are numerous. “Breck,” he says, “is at the cusp of a lot of potential for growth and opportunity.” With the new Peter Clark Center for Teaching & Learning and its emphasis on neurological understanding and hands-on practices along with the incoming Head of School Dr. Natalia Hernández, he is excited about the growth potential of the idea at all grade levels. As the MakerSpace idea develops, he would love to see portable carts, or “pop-up MakerSpaces,” throughout the school. If a 3rd grade class is learning about electricity, for example, their classroom could have a cart with copper tape and batteries for them to learn through making within their own classroom space. Ultimately, he says, he would love to have a designated space for “big-ticket items” that have special requirements. He notes that “you can’t limit kid’s thinking by only giving them toothpicks and glue. It’s exciting when you see what kids have built, because their solutions will all be different.”
His dream for this space? “Apple Store meets grandpa’s garage.”
Now that seems like a place we’d all like to visit.
Note: For more information about the maker movement, Pellant recommends Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.