The Scar of a Maker
As a pool of blood formed on the desk in front of my 5th grade students, I knew they would not soon forget this STEAM activity.
It was the day before winter break, a day when movies and Christmas songs play and classrooms are filled with the sugary scents of fluorescent “fruit” juices and a smorgasbord of other sweets. Midway through the day a noticeable glazed-over look fills the faces of teachers and embracing the storm is necessary to survive through dismissal. A few brave teachers may attempt to sneak a bit of instruction into the day in the form of a winter word search or even a content-related activity if they’re feeling ambitious.
But this year, I was really going for it. My students would complete a Maker challenge. For those unaware of the Maker Movement, it is a shift from standard teaching practices toward experienced-based learning through creating; solving real-world problems through research, planning, and construction. This can involve using 3D printers or programming robotics or, if you are in my classroom, something much simpler. For the entire month I had my students clean and save their breakfast containers without revealing the purpose. Being a Title-1 school with free breakfast meant there was a plethora of trashed containers, but we were going to change that and give those items a new life.
When they entered the classroom on Christmas Eve Eve, my students were just as excited for our mysterious activity as others were for their day of chaotic parties and cheer. Once the dust settled I revealed the Maker challenge:
Use the accumulation of recycled breakfast containers to build a tool or device that would solve an existing problem in our school (bathrooms excluded). To increase rigor, I added the task of writing and presenting an infomercial advertising their devices, complete with script, digital logo, and multiple rehearsals.
I answered a few questions, gave them planning sheets loosely based on the scientific process, and they were off to the races. Ten years in education and I had never experienced such thick humidity of thought in my classroom. The energy was palpable and the sparks of brainstormed ideas were spreading to fully supported forest fires. Groups researched structural design and were using vocabulary high above the pay-grade of a 10 year old. I soaked up the moment wondering if this could be the future of education.
At some point in the education process creativity is no longer encouraged and students are led into a box where divergent thinking is frowned upon. Those courageous enough to see what lies beyond those walls are generally mocked right up until the moment when they are celebrated for changing the world. My hope was that this open-ended activity would support a fear of life in that box.
As groups progressed to the building stage of the process my role transitioned to that of a safety inspector. Exciting energy coupled with a walking space littered with supplies made those dull student scissors seem a bit sharper. I scanned the classroom like a lifeguard. Only I was equipped with scissors sharp enough to slice the more stubborn supplies. I made the initial cuts with little effort and the students rejoiced as though I was an all-powerful gatekeeper allowing them to continue on their journeys.
As inventions were taking shape, I began circulating the room, interviewing students about the problems they set out to solve. Those all too common one-sentence summaries were replaced by detailed explanations backed up with research and reasoning. I finally made my way to the group I considered to be most naturally intrigued by science in and out of the classroom. The kind of students that would spend recess transporting bugs to more biodiverse locations and tallying the various species of trees. This project could not have been more in their wheelhouse, but they appeared to be lagging way behind their classmates. But when they showed me their diagram, complete with labels naming specific materials and describing the methods of securing and manipulating them, my fears were replaced by confidence that this attention to detail would result in a much faster build.
The informal meeting had spurred them to increase their pace and begin the constructing process. I took another lap of the room, monitored the progress of the other groups and, upon my return, was shocked and elated to see their progress. They had gathered materials, cut them to size and shape, fastened quite a few of their pieces, and only needed assistance in the puncturing department.
Class Invention: Condiment Dispenser
The base of their invention was a large, plastic juice container, much too thick for student scissors to cut into. Like contractors, they had already made a mark where the hole was needed, so I grabbed my trusty teachers scissors, steadied the container on the desk, and pushed the point into the plastic with enough pressure to feel just a bit unsafe. To my dismay, the closed scissors had only dented the container, and I was going to need a single sharp point to penetrate the thick plastic. I raised my weapon, blades open, steadied my hand, and struck the beast with fury. As soon as I hit my target the scissor bounced off the mark and was redirected across the smooth side of the bottle. My pinky finger was equally redirected, but to the inside of scissors. As the pad of my finger slid along the entirety of the sharp blade, in slow motion mind you, I knew that my plans were about to change.
Initially, the students only noticed that I was unsuccessful in creating a hole, but it quickly became obvious that I had cut myself quite badly, mainly due to the shiny red stripes streaming down my arm. To their credit, that group of mini-scientists handled the horror scene like professionals. One student rushed to get paper towels, another suggested that I sit down, while the other two took a trip to alert the neighboring teacher. Before the dizziness set in, I took a quick peak at the damage and could see right down to the bone. Word quickly spread in our classroom community and a crowd had gathered to see the rare spectacle of a very bloody and much too pale teacher.
Before I allowed the horrified administrators to escort me out of the classroom, I had one demand; the math specialist had to cover my class. She shared my passion for project-based learning and would surely embrace this activity. The show must go on!
As the assistant principal drove me to the nearest Urgent Care to get my finger sewn back together, the only negative thought that crossed my mind was that I would not be able to witness the well-rehearsed and passionately acted group infomercials.
Do I regret taking on such an elaborate project the day before winter break? No.
Do I believe my students gained an interest in science, creativity, and inventiveness that could have lasting effects? Most definitely.
If possible, would I have sacrificed a second of this engaging STEAM experience for a brand new pinky? No way.
I would, however, have just used a push-pin.
Another Class Invention: Emotional support robot for anger management within the classroom.