Why We Make at the Science Factory

Last Friday at the Science Factory, we hosted the second in a new series of no-school-day programs all about robotics. In these programs, kids in grades 3 to 6 have the chance to work in teams to build and program their own LEGO Mindstorms robot that will complete a given mission. Within the constraints of the robotics system itself, kids have an amazingly wide array of possibilities that allow them to make a robot that is truly their own creation.

While we have included building and tinkering activities in many of our lessons before, this series represents our first attempt at building an entire day around “making” something from the ground up. As much as we hope the students are learning from it (more on that later), it has certainly been a learning experience for us. Some kids are LEGO experts, while others have hardly played with them in their lives. Some have a little bit of programming knowledge, but most have none at all. Some are more than willing to jump in and get their hands deep into the Legos, while others are more timid and need encouragement and direction.

Perhaps hardest of all, some kids are comfortable working in teams while others would much rather do all the work themselves. On an intense, complex project such as this one, going it alone is simply not an option. Finding ways to make these kids work together is crucial to the success of the project. I talked to one kid in the middle of the afternoon who was nearly in tears because of frustration with his teammates. He was not the first of our kids to be in this state, nor do I expect that he’ll be the last.

Why go through all of this frustration? Surely there must be easier ways to convey engineering concepts. While there are plenty of ways to give kids the information that will let them pass a test or get an “A” in class (and these are important too!), there is no substitute for diving head-first into a project that will teach all of this information and more in the process of completing the project.

Learning by making is really hard. It’s hard for the students, who might take lots of wrong turns and meet many dead ends before finally finding a solution. It’s hard for the teachers, who must be comfortable being a guide and mentor for a project where the finished product isn’t known ahead of time. But I believe that the lessons learned through making — not just in programming and building concepts, but in cooperation, teamwork, and perseverance — are a payoff well worth the trouble. By the end, that kid on the verge of tears was beaming with pride in his team’s completed robot.

We are hardly the first museum to realize the potential for bringing maker culture into our educational programs. Many large museums are creating innovative exhibits and events around making and building things, including the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio and Open Make at the Tech Museum. By hosting the Eugene Mini Maker Faire and bringing other making-oriented programs to our visitors, the Science Factory aims to join these museums as places where children and adults can find their inner maker and learn by doing. We hope you’ll join us, too!

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