© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tinker, Solder, Wire And Create: Hacker And Maker Learning Gains Traction

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon

In empty offices, shops and schools around the country, teachers and parents are tinkering with how kids learn everything from art to mathematics.

Sometimes it’s referred to as making, other times do-it-yourself and hacking.  While labels are abundant, a theme is universal:  Helping young people bring their ideas to life will trigger curiosity and learning.  

Supplied by a wellspring of online tutorials and increasingly affordable hardware, the concept has spread rapidly over the past few years.  Now, some educators are using tried and true hands-on teaching methods as the foundation for what they say is a new style of instruction that’s custom built for the digital age.

Enter the makerspace

Renny McDermott studied the sheet music on her laptop screen and then looked up with excitement.

“OK, let me know when you’re ready,” she said. 

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
Eighth grader Renny McDermott programs a small circuit board to play Jingle Bell Rock in the makerspace at Grand Center Arts Academy.

After a nod, the eighth grader at Grand Center Arts Academy connected a wire to a small circuit board called an Arduino.

In digitized tones, "Jingle Bell Rock" spontaneously rattled out of tiny speakers.

“I sing, so it’s helping me with my choir skills because I had to read the sheet music,” Renny said.  “I had to read the sheet music to put it into the Arduino.”

When she’s done, the circuit board will connect to a Christmas tree made with a 3D printer and covered with tiny LED lights.

“It’s like a sense of pride, when you get to do something all on your own,” Renny said.

Helping students weave together art and technology through self-directed projects was the basic premise when the charter school with more than 500 students began piloting something called a makerspace. It functions a little like a school library: Students are allowed to stop in before or after school, during study hall or if they finish early with a class assignment. 

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
Eighth graders Sophie Iffrig (left) and Taylor Scott (right) refine a dollhouse prototype that can also serve as a carrying case for toys.

Makerspace Facilitator Andrew Goodin worked the room on a recent afternoon, stopping to help a student find supplies and distribute a series of pats on the back.   

“They’re working only based on their motivation, there are no grades in makerspace,” Goodin said.  “I think we’ve proved that concept works, based on the projects that we’ve seen.”  

Students bring their own ideas into the lab, and Goodin pushes them to find the limits of their designs. 

Even though some of the concepts are classic, Goodin said this self-directed environment is far from old school.

“In shop class I seem to remember everyone building a birdhouse,” Goodin said.  “In makerspace, everyone’s building what they want to build.”

"Everything just went together to make something I'm really proud of." --Taylor Scott, eighth grade student at Grand Center Arts Academy

Scan the room and you’ll see the full breadth of student work: a cardboard skeeball machine with electric scoreboard, stop motion video being produced with an iPad app and Legos, a remote control helicopter with blades cut from a 3D printer.

Much of the materials are recycled, but students can also apply for $30 grants to help get their ideas off the ground.  

Collaboration and peer-to-peer learning are encouraged, too.

Eighth graders Taylor Scott and Sophie Iffrig giggle as they work on a dollhouse prototype that can also serve as a carrying case for toys.   Taylor said they refined the idea by using concepts learned in communications arts class and then applied math during the design phase.

“Everything just went together to make something I’m really proud of,” Taylor said.

The makerspace has been a hit at the school, with 395 different students visiting the lab a total of 5,421 times last semester. 

“Seeing the diversity of projects and having students have completely open creativity, we really get to see some amazing things,” Goodin said.  

The school is now experimenting with a class that hardwires what’s been learned in the makerspace into more traditional classroom instruction.  

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
Eighth grader Renny McDermott (left) asks for help from Makerspace Facilitator Andrew Goodin (right).

Every other day, a group of 30 sixth, seventh and eighth graders meet for a class that teaches design-based thinking.  A recent lesson plan, for example, asked students to rapidly build a tool out of everyday items that could that could help other kids study.  Once students get the hang of design principles, Goodin said they’ll start merging that knowledge with circuitry, computer programming, 3D modeling and art.

“When students are driven by a project. the skills that are necessary to complete the project are just a natural part,” Goodin said.  “If I’m making something on the 3D printer and I need to design a part by measuring millimeters with a ruler, I’m going to be much more motivated to do that because it’s part of my project.  If I’m sitting in a class being lectured on how to measure millimeters with a ruler I’m going to forget it and not really be interested.” 

Rapid Growth

In the fall of 2012 Samantha Cook helped organize an open lab for kids at an Oakland, Calif., shop that typically catered to adults with a penchant for tinkering.    

Anyone could bring their kids to the event. The first week there were 40 participants, the second twice as many showed up. 

“We looked around and said, ‘wow!’” Cook said.     

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
Teenagers work on a designing a remote control car at Hacker U in St. Peters, Mo.

During the second lab, students were following along with a lesson to build a robot with Popsicle sticks for arms.  Kids on opposite sides of the shop gave the robots different attributes, but in the middle they began sharing ideas.

“Watching that happen, and watching the peer-on-peer mentoring, it was beautiful,” Cook said.   “I think in that moment I said, ‘yes, this is exactly what I wanted to have happen, this is exactly what it should be like.’”

Cook went on to help found Curiosity Hacked, a nonprofit with the mission of encouraging more kids to get interested in STEAM -- science, technology, engineering, arts and math.  Hacking in this context isn’t shorthand for nefarious digital behavior; rather, it refers to building on ideas and combining materials to make something new. 

Word of their project quickly spread online, and a little over a year later there are 40 affiliated groups, or guilds, in big cities and small towns around the country.

Hacker U in St. Charles County was one of the first to join. On a recent evening 16-year-old Jack Eddy has a remote control car spinning on a table at the group’s lab in a St. Peters office park.  He and a group of other teenagers built and programmed the car from the chassis up, which has comes fully loaded with a small camera.

“Because of Hacker U, I plan on going into electrical engineering,” Eddy said.  “Before I had no idea what I was going to do.”  

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
Teri Eddy, director of Hacker U.

  Jack’s mom, Teri Eddy, homeschools her two boys and started the group as way to bring together other homeschoolers with tech-minded kids.

“We just decided to see about getting some of the boys’ friends in their homeschool group together and give it a whirl, and it took off like wildfire,” Eddy said.  “We have a wait list as long as my arm.”

At first, Hacker U attracted other homeschoolers in the area, but just like the group in Oakland, interest grew quickly.  

“Our first wave was 90 percent homeschool kids, now, it’s less than half,” Eddy said.

As kids work on projects like constructing LED lights and computer programming, volunteer adult mentors stand by to help them work through problems and use equipment.  Eddy said the group, which is run as a nonprofit, simply doesn’t have enough mentors to expand beyond the 26 students who attend a weekly class.   But she said it’s not unusual for parents to drive their children in from across the St. Louis region to participate in weekend labs when more adult mentors are available.

“If we could have three times as much space, and three times as many mentors we’d fill up tomorrow,” Eddy said.

The group charges $50 for a startup kit loaded with wires and a circuit board and $30 a month after that.  Eddy said down the road they’d like to create a scholarship fund for families that can’t afford the cost of joining.  

"If we could have three times as much space, and three times as many mentors we'd fill up tomorrow." --Teri Eddy, director of Hacker U.

  Ultimately, Hacker U spun off from its affiliation with Curiosity Hacked, deciding to carve out its own path. 

“It gives us a little bit more freedom, to go on our own path” Eddy said.  “But our values are the same, it’s still open, it’s nonprofit, it’s valuable and it’s popular.”

Looking around a makeshift lab cobbled together out of office cubicles and empty conference rooms, she’s quick to point out that there almost as many girls as boys.

“When a lot people think of this type of environment, they think it’s a bunch of boys,” she said.   “But we have a lot of girls here, and they’re doing great, they love it.”

A new model?

As workspaces across America quickly filled with kids eager to get their hands on everything from 3D printers to sewing machines, education researchers began to take notice.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon
The makerspace at Grand Center Arts Academy.

“Our specific interest is trying to see what are the potentials for teaching and learning with these type of experiences, whether it’s in a classroom, after school or in a casual education setting,” said Jessica Ross, a research practitioner at Harvard University’s Project Zero.

Ross is part of a three-year project called Agency by Design that’s focused on understanding how maker and hacker learning environments shape the way young people think and ultimately learn.

“What happens if young people have an opportunity to understand the designed world, the design of objects in the world and the design of systems?” Ross said. “When you actually have opportunities to make, build, hack, redesign things, can that in fact heighten sensitivity to design around you?” 

To help answer those questions, they started by corralling a loose definition of a learning trend that often morphs or changes in individual communities, both physical and virtual.         

“It looks like a mashup of all sorts of making and designing, from programming to robotics, crafts and traditional shop experiences, all happening at the same time,” Ross said. 

While a precise label is hard to apply, she said it’s that combination of old and new coupled with a greater allowance for self-direction that represents something different.

“The interest in many of the maker educators these days is, ‘what are kids interested in making?’” Ross said. 

"This is something people are really willing to push up their sleeves, dig in and play around with. I don’t know where this will end up, which is kind of exciting." -- Jessica Ross, research practitioner at Harvard University's Project Zero.

Fueled by online sharing, Ross said another key part of the learning trend is trial and error.  Failure is viewed as being a natural part of the process and groups can quickly share information on what’s working, and what’s not.

“One of the values in the movement is iteration and trying, and not that anybody is saying, ‘we have the silver bullet with education, or we have this perfect thing,’” Ross said.   “This is something people are really willing to push up their sleeves, dig in and play around with.  I don’t know where this will end up, which is kind of exciting.” 

Penn State Education ProfessorKyle Peck is drawing up blueprints for a system that capitalizes on the digital momentum behind hacking and making.  Ultimately, he wants to build an online framework that would make it easier for students interested in science and making to find other students with similar or complementary skills. 

“It would take social networking kind of features and build it into this STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) network of people that will include kids and mentors,” Peck said.  “I want that one student in rural town X who’s into entomology to be able to find other kids who are into entomology and find out that they’re not weird, there are 400 other kids who are into entomology.”

Peck would build on the concept of digital badges, made popular by the website DIY.organd used widely throughout the maker and hacker community.  It’s a trend that’s already piqued the interest of the U.S. Department of Education, which funded research into how digital badges can be expanded for continuing education and professional certification.

In general, the badges serve two purposes.

First, they indicate that someone has a specific skill.  Second, they have list of tasks that a student has to complete before earning a badge in a specific skill, sort of like a lesson plan.

“These badges become labels, and indictors that become invitations to work on cool things,” Peck said.

Maker and hacker learning communities have also become petri dishes for researchers searching for ways to merge academic silos that house art and science.

“You don’t have to name yourself something in order to be a member of a group that likes to bend circuits or tinker,” said Carol LaFayette, director of the Institute for Applied Creativity at Texas A&M University. “You can change from one role to another as the project evolves and new needs arise.”

LaFayette is part of SEAD, or the Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design, a nationwide group of researchers interested in breaking down academic barriers between science and art.   

She said this style of learning can be a bridge that connects women and minorities with academic pursuits in which they’re generally underrepresented.   

“There are studies out there that indicate younger students who are underrepresented in technology or career options get really interested when it’s hands on based learning as opposed to when its wrote learning through the different disciplines,” LaFeyette said.

On a larger level, LaFeyette said in the age of supercomputing and big data, to solve complex problems it’s less about brain power and more about raising a generation of thinkers who can connect the dots and ask the right questions.    

“To ask the right question, I think that’s where the creativity comes in,” LaFeyette said.  “That’s not always the way we think about research or creative work, we’re focused on that end result.  The whole idea of designed based learning is that the process becomes the important thing, and the outcome is the byproduct of that process.”  

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.