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More than play: teach your students to MAKE a difference

If you’ve ever been to a Maker Faire, you may have encountered the delightful Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, a 1984 Volvo covered in singing Billy Bass fish and other animatronic seafood. The art car was meticulously constructed by a group of makers known as “Team Sashimi.” It has been captivating audiences with ballads ranging from Queen to Sinatra for over a decade. Team Sashimi’s style of Making, like any art form, is fueled by a mixture of curiosity, passion, skill, and, of course, exceptional originality. To me, however, the playful and artistic works crafted by Makers like Team Sashimi signal the beginning of something much greater.  Just as computing once existed as an obscure domain for hobbyists, today’s era of Raspberry Pi’s, drones, and cheap sensor technologies that drive the Maker Movement has yet to reach mainstream users. We Makers are still hobbyists, but that’s changing. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that youth are prepared for the shift.

Today’s most brilliant Makers are beginning to expand their work beyond the realm of art and entertainment with inventions that not only delight and inspire, but save lives and address crucial social needs. Three excellent early examples of this shift include Matternet, Embrace and Bespoke. These companies exemplify the utility of new, cheap technology in improving lives, a trend that is already proving itself to be an economic game changer.


Bespoke 3D prints customized and fashionable back braces that patients with scoliosis are actually excited to wear​.

If the Maker Movement is to meet its full potential, youth must not only be taught about coding and circuits, but also given skills to use technology in ways that create positive change and economic opportunity. More than anything, impact of this nature requires empathy, the deep understanding of a need that impacts a large number of people. For the past three years I’ve dedicated most of my time to helping educators build empathy and real-world problem solving into Maker education and I’ve often found that when you add real needs to the equation, students with very little interest in technology can be motivated to build highly technical skill sets. In other words, engaging students with real-world applications of technology not only improves student understanding of social issues but also increases the overall technical proficiency of a class.

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Maker education increases students' engagement with what they're learning.​

In 2013 my team released an Open Education Resource called the City X Project to help teachers do just that. City X is a workshop for 8-12 year old students that introduces 3D technology in the context of solving social problems. The goal of City X is to teach youth to use tools like Tinkercad and 3D printers to create more than toys, trinkets, and prefabricated models, but to practice prototyping unique solutions to real problems. I’m now developing related experiences for high school and college-aged students with The Resilience Challenge, a competition that teaches participants to use design, technology and social entrepreneurship to solve local problems. During The Resilience Challenge participants complete self-directed “tasks” from online learning hubs like Autodesk Design Academy and Instructables to earn points, prizes, and special opportunities. The experience is designed to lend a connected structure to diverse online learning resources while keeping user needs at the core of participants’ work. Our motto: “Fall in love with the problem, not the first solution that comes to mind.”

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Students building a physical prototype of their design.

Technology alone leads to extraordinary creativity and unique solutions, but Making a difference requires more. Students who master empathy along with a technical foundation will become the world-changing leaders of tomorrow. 

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Students work together to ideate and brainstorm.