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At ISTELive 24, combining project-based learning with hands-on engagement yields inspiring results with maker education and makerspaces.

How to use PBL with makerspaces across your curriculum

At ISTELive 24, combining project-based learning with hands-on engagement yields inspiring results

Key points:

Project-based learning (PBL) has many definitions, but at its core, it is a teaching method through which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

Combining PBL with makerspaces (also called maker education) gives educators an infinite number of projects, assignments, and activities that engage students and truly immerse them in learning.

The best part? It’s possible to combine PBL and maker education across the curriculum–and during a must-see ISTELive 24 session, Nicholas Provenzano, a teacher, technology coordinator, and makerspace director at University Liggett School in Michigan, demonstrated just how to do it. Provenzano is also the 2013 winner of ISTE’s Outstanding Teacher Award.

Maker education is when a person can demonstrate understanding through the creation of an artifact. It could be a video, a photo essay, a 3D rendering, or even an interpretive dance performance.

With PBL, “the kids do a significant portion of the heavy lifting–that’s how I look at it,” Provenzano said, noting that students should do at least 51 percent of the work. “It’s not you speaking at them for 45 minutes and telling them to work on their projects. It should be, ‘This is the topic–what interests you, what do you want to dive deeper into? Here’s a rough outline of what you need to accomplish–now share it with me by creating something.’”

This is where PBL and maker education intersect.

Why maker education?

1. Mental health: Research shows that being creative through the arts helps heal the mind and body. Educators talk about writing across the curriculum–what about arts across the curriculum?
2. Creativity: Creativity leads us in directions we wouldn’t necessarily see or know to go.
3. Engagement: “You won’t have a problem with a kid on his phone if he’s working on an awesome project he’s excited about. We want that engagement,” Provenzano said.

“People always assume that when you do PBL, the teacher doesn’t do anything,” he noted. “You’ll log more steps moving around your classroom with PBL than anything else, if you’re doing it right.”

Now, projects are nothing new–students have made dioramas, tri-fold poster board displays, and egg drop challenge designs for decades. But combining PBL with maker education leads to fully engaged students who are creating and problem-solving.

Using examples from his own school, Provenzano offered a look at just a few PBL and maker education projects students have created, including:

  • A rap about the themes, symbolism, and other elements of The Great Gatsby
  • An interpretive dance linking characters from The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye
  • A photo essay using gothic elements to illustrate the basic tenets of gothic American literature
  • Using a 3D design program to redesign the Great Sphinx of Giza
  • Recording a Spanish-language version of SpongeBob SquarePants in front of a green screen
  • Using Sphero RVR+ programmable robot to defuse a “bomb”

“The projects are infinite,” he noted, adding that teachers can use SchoolAI for project ideas and details.

“Makerspace PBL is all about culture,” he said. “Do your students feel safe to build? Do your students feel safe to screw up? If you don’t have failure built into your maker education and your PBL system, just forget it. I don’t want a kid to not try an idea because they won’t get the A. Embracing those failures has to be part of your culture.”

Tools and resources to support PBL and maker education:

  • Book Creator: A great tool for organizing portfolios and keeping information together
  • SeeSaw: Offers a great introduction to portfolios, and students can document online and offline work
  • Cardboard and duct tape: These will always be essentials in a makerspace
  • Makedo: Tools for students and cardboard can connect cardboard without tape
  • Strawbees: Offers tools and building components for a STEAM classroom
  • Snorkl: An AI tool with which students record and share their reasoning, then receive
    instant feedback to drive deep and meaningful learning
  • MakeyMakey: Great if you’re into coding and physical computing
  • Microbit: Helpful for coding, and physical computing; also offers a virtual option
  • 3D printers: Students can design and bring to life their own ideas
  • Soundtrap for Education: For podcasting and music-making
  • Magic School: Another AI tool to help educators
  • Figma/Figjam: Figma and FigJam are design and collaboration software students and educators can use to ideate, create, and share work
  • Minecraft EDU: A beloved sandbox game that is so much more than a game
  • MadeCode Arcade: Students can create their own arcade games
  • SchoolAI: Great for generating project ideas and details

Provenzano offered a great tip about misguided worry that teaching may be replaced by AI and AI teaching tools: “If you can be replaced by AI, you should be. If you’re just showing up and playing videos every day–yes, YouTube should replace you.”

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