Thursday / February 22

It’s National Making Week: How to Support Youth in Every Community

As we celebrate National Week of Making, June 17-23, with a presidential call to action that “every company, every college, every community, every citizen joins us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country,” let’s be sure that every child not only has a chance to participate, but to engage in meaningful learning experiences.

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We are excited by the maker movement’s outreach and expansion into schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and community centers. While holding promise for providing greater access to tools and STEM practices, making has room to grow to become more accessible, especially in under-resourced communities. In this blog we share effective practices from the field for increasing access to making, the challenges and opportunities that come with this work, and ideas for expanding the vision of making.

  1. Welcome all youth. First off, youth need to feel that they belong in order to step into a maker space. Whether in an afterschool program, library weekend class, or one-day Maker Faire experience, youth need to believe that someone like them will fit in. How can we support an inclusive environment? One way is to invite local artists and makers to participate and showcase their work. This not only provides youth with connections to community experts, but also allows children to see how people they know or can relate to may thrive in a maker space.
  1. Make your program accessible. When and where maker programs are hosted matters most for youth from underserved communities. Digital Youth Divas Program offers programs on Saturdays so that parents can participate and makes sure that program sites are easily accessible by public transportation. The Exploratorium collaborates with Boys and Girls Clubs in San Francisco to provide making programs at community-accessible libraries. The Community Science Workshops are open door, drop in, and located in neighborhoods within walking distance of schools and homes.
  1. Make activities relevant. Not all youth want to program robots; some may want to build a bird feeder or repair a sewing machine. Try showcasing projects that youth and their families may already be involved in. Digital Harbor Foundation drew upon their youth’s local concerns and invited them to work with 3D printing and digital fabrication to create solutions in their city.
  1. Start with activities that are fun and build confidence quickly. For example, the Exploratorium Tinkering Studio’s afterschool program with Lighthouse Community Charter School built upon student knowledge of circuitry over several weeks. First, youth took apart old battery-operated toys and examined their circuitry. This took away the pressure of needing to know anything ahead of time or needing to create something new at the first meeting. Toy parts were then repurposed for building circuit boards that were donated to the school. In the following weeks, youth built on this knowledge to make paper and sewn circuits, learning to solder in the process. As skills and confidence grow, you can allow projects to become longer-term.
  1. Youth-driven. Choice can be especially empowering for youth who have been disenfranchised in school STEM. Free-choice in making that celebrates youth ideas can flip deficit-based views of children by emphasizing their assets and strengths. But self-directed learning doesn’t just happen. Youth’s willingness to challenge themselves is influenced by how they feel about their capacity to learn and their comfort level with challenges. Techbridge is intentional in promoting a growth mindset around challenging work. As an example, staff share their prototypes, highlighting what they didn’t get right rather than finished projects that might feel daunting to some girls and accentuate product over process.
  1. Be thoughtful when it comes to pairing students. Think about how you feel when you’re stepping into uncharted territory in a new domain. Support from a partner can make the difference between mastering challenging skills or giving up. Check out research on pair programming by Jill Denner and the CS Teaching Tips curated by Colleen Lewis at Harvey Mudd College. These resources offer insights into strategies that support or undermine persistence. For instance, pairing students with significant gaps in skills can lead to one partner dominating the activity while the other sits on the sidelines (and feels less competent over time).
  1. Girls’ maker space. For girls who begin with less experience tinkering or lower confidence in their tech abilities, a maker lab may seem chilling. Numerous programs have taken on the gender gap and designed welcoming maker spaces for girls. Gender-neutral objects including art, nature posters, and plants can help increase participation in tech programs by females. But girls aren’t all the same. We encourage you to get input from girls to learn what appeals to them. Consider hosting a girls-only program like DoItYourself (DIY) Girls, which offers making and STEM for elementary and middle school girls and Make-HER, which is for girls ages 8-12 and their mothers at libraries. If your programs are coed and you want to recruit and retain girls, try hosting a time just for girls like Assemble, in Pittsburgh which offers Girls’ Maker Night for middle school girls. Learn more ways to create girl-friendly maker spaces in a white paper by Techbridge.
  1. Expand what it means to be inclusive. Making for youth with special needs? Don’t overlook their interest and potential for learning through making. Just ask Amy Hurst at the Prototyping and Design Lab whose work helps individuals who have physical and intellectual challenges design real solutions for their accessibility needs. Maker Tom Heck worked with high schoolers to develop assistive technology prototypes for elementary school students with physical and cognitive impairments so they would have easier access to computer games and other technologies. This project was a win-win for both groups of students.
  1. Connect making to the future. Invite mentors to get involved. You can recruit from universities, tech companies, and alumnae of your programs. Not only can volunteers help support technical elements of projects, but they can serve as role models sharing their personal stories. Be sure that volunteers are supported in advance so that they understand their role. Some mentors get so involved in debugging technical or design challenges that they take over and disempower the very students they’re there to support. We strongly encourage you to recruit mentors who reflect diversity—not just ethnic diversity but also socioeconomic and ability and interest areas. You can access free resources to recruit and train role models from Techbridge.
  1. Don’t forget about families. Attendance at a Maker Faire with the cost of admission, transportation, and food is expensive. We recently attended the 2016 Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA. Lots of families came; but we noticed, as in past years, that visitors didn’t reflect the rich demographics of the San Francisco Bay Area and especially not the communities that we work with. This year tech sponsors supported students from underserved communities to attend the Faire. We applaud this effort. We also encourage sponsors to make it possible for families to attend with their children. Just imagine how a day of making might transform into a regular practice of shared creativity and learning for these families.
  1. Let’s share what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s share our glorious goofs and challenges that we learn from as well as those that we need help with. Making experiences are both fun and hard. Self-directed projects can be complex and the learning process longer and not at all straightforward. Finding the balance in supporting students in their self-directed explorations isn’t always easy and we don’t get it right for all youth all the time but we can learn together to do better to increase access and equity in STEM.
  1. It’s not one size fits all. Escudé and Vossoughi provide thoughtful insights into the kinds of facilitation needed to create maker spaces that are truly equitable and accessible. We encourage you to put just as much thought into your program’s teaching practices as you do into project logistics. Consider what social supports youth need to feel safe persevering through multiple iterations, to navigate collaborative work, to deepen their understanding of scientific phenomena, and to ask “what if” type questions. More work is needed to understand what it takes to engage different groups of youth in making including girls, English language learners, and youth with different abilities. Let’s advocate for research and resources to prepare and support educators, especially those who work with youth who have been marginalized in STEM.

As we celebrate this week of making, let’s commit to doing more and hold each other accountable so that collectively we do better. Let’s figure out not only how to increase access to making opportunities, but also how to ensure that every child has positive experiences with STEM learning that honors their perspectives, knowledge, interests, and families.

Written by

Linda Kekelis is the founder and former CEO of Techbridge, a national nonprofit that offers afterschool STEM programs for girls. Over the years Techbridge expanded from activities that were more prescriptive with step-by-step directions like kit building to open-ended and girl-directed projects. Making has been important for this journey that both enriches the learning experiences of girls and adult facilitators. Linda consults on programs and research related to STEM, particularly on how to increase access for youth and families from underserved communities.

Jean is a senior researcher at the Exploratorium of San Francisco. Jean works closely with the Tinkering Studio to build research-practice partnerships with local organizations to examine what students learn through making, what pedagogical practices support rich STEM learning, the types of professional development supports teachers need to thrive, and how to bridge learning across informal and formal education. Jean is a co-PI on the Research + Practice Collaboratory project funded by the National Science Foundation (DUE-1626365).

Linda and Jean Learning Together: Our Research + Practice Partnership
We met through the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN), which is a collaborative partnership of researchers and practitioners committed to supporting youth in STEM through making and tinkering. Techbridge was one of four after-school programs in CTAN, which is hosted in the Center for Informal Learning and Schools at the Exploratorium. Collaboration was woven into the work; from the start we were involved as partners in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. This partnership provided an opportunity for us to study STEM-rich making and learning in afterschool in order to understand making from the perspective of different groups of girls and also understand the professional development needed to create a safe learning space for youth. Our project was funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and National Science Foundation (DUE-1626365). Watch our recent video about the project and our findings at the NSF STEM for All 2016 Video Showcase.

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