Purposeful Making by Adam Singer

(written by Adam for Designing Purposeful Making Experiences, Jun 2017)

Children inherently love to build and create.. And when students have a their own meaningful connection to their work, feel their ideas are valued and that they are part of a collaborative and trusting class community, students can leverage that joyful love of making for the benefit of affecting positive change, bringing purpose to the deep struggles which come with problem solving.

Many years as a middle school science teacher taught me that my students were most engaged when they were working on a making project in which their original ideas were deeply embedded and when they felt safe enough to try out their crazier ideas. When I taught at a K-8 school and opportunities opened up for students to build projects with a deeper purpose  (e.g. making a Mini-Exploratorium the gym for the elementary students), the level of agency my students displayed was off-the-charts, which in turn brought deeper meaning to my own work as an educator.  Now that I have the opportunity to create making experiences full-time at a middle school having taken over an old woodshop, I struggled with re-creating that same sense of purpose, worrying more about the quality of the finished product and what tools my students were getting to learn to use. My mind was blown open this past fall when I attended the FabLearn conference and was exposed to a multitude of educators who had been working very actively in applying the design/engineering process to problems meaningful to the students and social issues affecting the students; communities. I left that conference hungry for creating meaningful making opportunities for my students.  I tried my hand at a “Solve a Teacher’s Problem” project where 90 students identified a need or problem at the school and designed/built a solution for their client. It was a good first start, but was lacking much needed structure and focus on clear goals. Thankfully, Aaron Vanderwerff reached out to me and invited me to study this topic more fully in Designing Purposeful Making Experiences

On my first day of Designing Purposeful Making Experiences (DPME), I was inspired by a conversation with Bryan Flaig, who told me about an incredible project he did on the fly with his students this past year where his students worked on designing solutions to the problem of seagulls pooing on students at lunchtime. Bryan explained that his students attacked the problem from many angles, from designing protective hats to basketball hoops above the trashcans encourage students to throw away their food trash. In this one passing example, I saw a example of a project where students were problem solving on a topic that had built-in meaning with a topic that affected their own community.

Inspired by Bryan’s project, I built out a two-project plan for my 7th/8th grade engineering class focused on solving problems in their lives and communities. In the first semester, groups of students will identify an addressable problem affecting their community (community defined however they want: school, neighborhood, etc.) and iterate a design to a functional prototype.  For the second semester project, second semester, I refined the previous year’s “Solve a Teacher’s Problem Project: to have the students identify a client in one of their communities (school, neighborhood, family), with a specific problem or need and iterate a design solution into a deliverable finished product for their client. I was able to leverage the wisdom of the folks at DPME to structure the project to focus students on project ideas that will have lasting meaning enough to get them through the frustrating moments and improve sense of classroom collaboration culture through structured sharing (classroom lab meetings and gallery walks).

I walked into the DPME workshop with a sense of purposeful making that was was based on who the student was making the project for and what societal problem they were attacking. My personal concept of meaningful making was blown wide open by a thinking activity we worked on progressively for two days diving into what makes things meaningful for the teacher, the student, and the school, and the intersections between them. This had me reflect quite deeply into the very culture of my classroom, the language we use, and why a student would find purpose in doing what we are asking them to do in the first place. Ultimately, I leave DPME with a pair of great meaningful projects as well as a whole host of ideas to reflect on in shifting my overall classroom culture and practice to support students finding meaning in most everything we do, not just the “meaningful” projects..

Adam Singer is an Engineering and Maker Teacher at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, CA.