Maker Education on a Budget

There is growing interest from schools in the Maker Movement and Maker Education but with this have come some subtle misunderstandings about what it is all about. For one the modern maker movement is all about the mindset of the maker rather than developing a set of specific skills for making. The second confusion stems from a belief that the maker movement is all about the tools and the makerspace and that as such it involves large budgets.
Agency by Design is a research initiative by Harvard’s Project Zero that set out to understand the benefits which might be derived from adopting a maker mindset. A key finding is that Maker Empowerment is a vital component of successful maker projects within schools. 

"Maker empowerment: A sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one's world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking." (Agency By Design)

This implies that the maker is an individual who sees the world as a set of objects and systems which can be improved, modified and adapted to new purposes and who engages in the process of making these changes. The maker according to the framework proposed by Agency By Design, looks closely at objects and systems so as to understand them, explore their complexity as derived from their parts and how people and systems interact with them and then seeks opportunities to unlock the hidden potential in what they have noticed. 
This model aligns beautifully with Design Thinking. In Design Thinking we find a model for the sort of action that is central to the maker mindset. A process for understanding what is there and through strategic thinking and an iterative process of planning, testing and modifying, allows new ideas to be revealed. Founder of IDEO, David Kelley explains that "the central tenet of Design Thinking, isn't one of aesthetic or utility, but of empathy and human observation’. We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.” This is echoed in the words of NSW Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus that states "Design thinking is the thought process involved in understanding and developing solutions to design needs and opportunities. Consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from designed solutions are core to design thinking. Design thinking methods can be used when trying to understand a problem, generating ideas and when refining a design based on evaluation and testing.” (NESA)
The Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus has an increased focus on both Design Thinking and Maker Education. It is broadly divided into two overlapping parts; Working Scientifically and Design & Production. In Design and Production "Students identify factors that may influence and dictate the focus of the design idea. They explore options, consider existing solutions, generate alternatives, represent and refine ideas and communicate design decisions for a range of audiences.” They will also be required to “undertake a range of practical experiences” linked to the processes of Design and Production. This requirement is likely to cause school administrators stress as they contemplate the cost involved in meeting this requirement. 
Making can however be achieved without access to the more expensive toys of the maker movement. Indeed, much can be learned from working within the constraints of a very minimal budget. A first step towards a successful low budget maker programme is to embrace the concept of the prototype. Here the aim is to produce at low cost a physical representation of a design that captures the essence of the idea but does so with low cost materials. Paper, cardboard, tape and recycled or repurposed items are often sufficient when developing a model that will demonstrate the idea without the polish of what would become the finished product. Low cost prototyping is also more likely to encourage a rapidly iterative process where design ideas are radically changed or completely abandoned. A 3D printer might produce a more detailed and impressive looking model, but the time taken in both designing it and printing it is likely to discourage students from starting over with a new idea. 
Cardboard is a great material for school students and most schools have an abundant supply. Either brought from home by students or gathered from the office or canteen, corrugated cardboard provides an ideal building material. Students can explore its properties before using it in their constructions and in doing so are bringing an understanding of the materials they use to the process. Traditional methods with cardboard involve copious use of tape and glue in the production process. Hot Glue Guns can bring an element of speed to the process but also bring an element of risks when students ignore the clear warning in the name “Hot Glue” until after a visit to the nurse.


MakeDo is a company that has produced a simple solution to the process of joining pieces of cardboard together. They produce a set of plastic screws that can be easily used to hold two or more pieces of cardboard together. The process is simple enough for Kindergarten students to master and the screws are immediately and readily reusable. A set of cardboard saws with safe plastic blades and plastic screwdrivers complete the the tool kit. It is s simple idea but it focuses attention on the iterative nature of design thinking and allows the maker to quickly experiment with ideas while producing very little waste. Ideas like this are what will bring making into the hands of every learner.
Adding technology to the mix brings additional affordances for learning and new opportunities for exploration. LED lights and button cell batteries are cheap way to add electronics to a project. Electric motors, servos and solar cells can be purchased cheaply online and used to build a kit of maker supplies that are used on a project and then recycled into the next one. Adding an Arduino based computer can also be achieved at very little cost and for educators willing to spend some time in the online markets can be had for less than what is spent on most craft projects. The end result may not have the aesthetic appeal of a store bought robot but will have involved the students in hands on learning and a product that they played a part in bringing to reality. 
By Nigel Coutts


For more ideas on using paper and cardboard as materials for Maker-Centered Learning see:

"Make: Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures You Can Cut, Fold, and Roll" by  Kathy Ceceri