Research Roundup: Some Studies on Making and Learning

KQED Project Zero blog postWe often get parents and teachers asking us if we can point to studies that prove that making is a good approach in the classroom. This question usually gets asked by advocates for Makerspaces who know from their own experience how effective student-driven, interdisciplinary projects  can be, based on what they’ve seen in their own homes and classrooms. We’re delighted to report that a number of research teams have approached us, especially recently,  to ask if they can study what’s happening with Maker Faire, Young Makers, and Makerspaces, to put some real data behind our hunch that this is the way to go in education.

KQED’s MindShift blog recently reported on a project undertaken by a team working with Project Zero:

We’ve been meeting with some of the team members who are making this work happen.

Lee Martin of the School of Education of the University of California, Davis recently received a grant from the Spencer Foundation to study “Adaptive Expertise in “Do-It-Yourself” Engineering Design Projects” and he’ll be observing some of the kids preparing to exhibit at Maker Faire 2013 for his data. Martin seeks to “measure the core STEM attributes of resourcefulness, perseverance, and the ability to learn and innovate in novel contexts, which researchers call “adaptive expertise: efficient problem-solving skills combined with the ability to adapt and learn in the face of novel problems.”

Vera Michalchik, Director of Research on Informal Learning Environments for SRI International (famous for, among other things, for developing Siri), introduced me to a study she’s working on, The Connected Learning Research Network. Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, this first-of-its-kind two-year, longitudinal research study of “connected learning,” focuses on the construction and design of connected learning environments (CLEs) and how youth ages 13-16 learn in them. Check out these two sites to learn more:

The Exploratorium’s Center for Informal Learning and Schools also hosted a conversation last summer called “Making as a context for imagination, play, creativity, and learning.” It focused on three questions:

  1. How does learning shape — and get shaped by — creativity, imagination, tinkering, and making?
  2. What networks are needed to support making and creativity?
  3. How do direct experiences with phenomena, tools, and materials (and other people) impact creativity, imagination, learning, and understanding?

Relatedly, Bronwyn Bevan of the Exploratorium developed the California Informal Science Educator’s Makers Network. Launched with support from the SD Bechtel Jr Foundation in January 2012, the network in this prototype phase contains five science-rich hubs working in partnership with one to three afterschool programs each. The network is emphasizing expanding tinkering in program working with children and youth from high-poverty communities.  With her colleague Julie Remold, Vera and her team at SRI are doing the evaluation and will be presenting their findings at AERA next year. Bronwyn gave me more detail about their study:

As part of this work, the Exploratorium is working with the San Francisco Boys & Girls Clubs.  Exploratorium Youth Researcher, Dr Shirin Vossoughi, is conducting ethnographic studies at two Clubs to identify how academic and socio-emotional dimensions of learning mutually reinforce one another in the context of tinkering.  Preliminary data show that supported by equity-oriented pedagogies (such as positioning STEM as a means not an ends; or positioning children as capable of complex intellectual work by making STEM concepts and phenomena explicit in ways that are organic to the activity) this dynamic intersection of the academic and soco-emotional creates new access points for children who may otherwise be hesitant to participate in tinkering or other STEM-rich activities.

This work has developed out of a multi-year study the Exploratorium has conducted of learning in its Tinkering Studio ®.  Building on design principles and learning outcomes developed through the MAPDD project, led by Bevan and funded by the Noyce Foundation, Exploratorium Director of Visitor Research and Evaluation, Dr Josh Gutwill, is currently developing a library of videoclips of learners engaged in tinkering.  The videoclips illustrate through a set of indicators how tinkering supports engagement, intentionality, solidarity and understanding.  The video library will be the basis of future studies linking design principles and choices to learning outcomes.

Additionally, Vera’s group at SRI is also performing the developmental evaluation for Intel on its new initiative called “Start Making,” led by Jay Silver (inventor of Makey Makey and Drawdio). I asked Jay about the effort, and he described it like this:

We’re trying to put together little seed bombs in the form of activity guides. Of course attached to the activity guide is a set of tools, and everything else you need to enact the activity upon yourself, or to facilitate it with others.

Our first Start Making activity was “Sketch It :: Play It”. We ran it at the Portland Mini Maker Faire at OMSI. It went like this: Sketch a musical instrument with a regular pencil on a regular piece of paper, then alligator clip your drawing to a big sound system and jam out on your drums or synth. It took a digital circuit and user interface design activity, and opened it up to people who see themselves as artists or musicians. The front of the booth was the “performance” area. So as you walk by you are able to see sort of a “living portfolio” of what’s happening. Like walking through a “most recent” section of Instructables. Then in the core of the tent were clipboards, pencils, and paper. As you drew your instrument, there were little test stations on the table so you can see how they’re working. Then you take them to the performance station to rock out and play music with and for others.

Our initiative is to answer the question: “I want to start making, but…” We are like, “Here you go, start with something you already know, in this case pencils.” We believe everyone is a Maker if they want to be, and that a focus on expressivity (like drawing or performing music) can open up the Maker world to many people. We have the basic obvious goals of reaching beginner makers of all ages and inclinations,  spark beginner makers’ curiosity and creative confidence, work with everyone in the space such as the Maker Education Initiative, Young Makers Clubs, etc.

The New York Hall of Science has framed each of its three conferences on making in terms of research questions. We had links to these in our re-post of Joel’s review of the last report they put out, but here they are again:

  • Innovation, Education and the Maker Movement:“In conjunction with the inaugural World Maker Faire, held in September 2010, NYSCI convened a two-day workshop with more than 80 leaders in education, science, technology and the arts to consider how the Maker movement can stimulate innovation in formal and informal education. Participants considered three guiding questions:
    1. How can the creativity that is at the core of Making inform K-12 and career technical education?
    2. What collaborations between educators and Makers could inspire innovation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) learning?
    3. Where do opportunities exist for facilitating connections between the Maker community and participants’ areas of expertise and interest?”
  • Design Make Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Educators: In January 2012, NYSCI convened a conference to discuss how the practices of design, making and play can bridge formal and informal learning environments to improve science education both in and out of the classroom. (See also the Flickr set linked here.)

Finally, we’re very glad to be working with Naomi Hupert and Jay Bachhuber of the Center for Children and Technology of EDC. They are conducting research on our MENTOR Makerspace program to document our current implementation and inform future years. This means they’re helping us identify key factors contributing to successful Makerspaces and defining the contexts in which Making happens in different learning environments: physical environment, administrative environment, instructional context, school/community context, etc.  We’re wondering, what aspects support or impede the development of a successful Makerspace? And, for that matter, what is “success” in a Makerspace? That is, is a successful Makerspace one where students are motivated entirely by their own interests? Or a space where everyone gets to learn to solder and weld? Or a space where learning about and documenting a design process is the primary goal? Or a space where mathematical concepts are integrated into hands-on activities? Or something else altogether?

Let us know in the comments if you know of any other research and studies happening.