“There is so much momentum right now that can be used to create opportunities for children to see themselves as creators, who can solve problems and use new and old technology to bring their ideas to reality.” – AnnMarie Thomas, USA

Of the many trends impacting education today, the Maker movement may be one of the most creative and unconventional. The movement is a technology-based extension of the DIY subculture, focused on engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. Since 2006, Maker Faires have sprung up around the world, encouraging participants to learn practical skills and apply them in creative ways.

For AnnMarie Thomas, who leads the non-profit Maker Education Initiative, the movement was a revelation. As a former engineering professor and teacher-trainer, Thomas had “always been interested in the playful side of engineering education.” That interest, Thomas told us, “has led to projects such as using circus arts to teach dynamics and working with undergraduate research students to develop Squishy Circuits, a method for using conductive and non-conductive play dough to sculpt circuits.”

As head of an organization dedicated to creating more opportunities for young people to become makers, Thomas is a tireless advocate for the movement and for its potential to interest kids in STEM subjects. She is a frequent writer on the subject – see her recent Edutopia piece on STEM and the Maker movement here – and we’re proud to have her as our guest in today’s Daily Edventure.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I have been fortunate to have been a member of many passionate teams of people. Prior to my position at the Maker Education Initiative, I was an engineering faculty member at the University of St. Thomas, where I also co-founded, with colleagues from the Schools of Education and Engineering, the Center for Pre-Collegiate Engineering Education which offered Engineering Education programs for in-service and pre-service PK-12 Educators. Through this work I had the honor of working with amazing educators who were working to bring engineering and design topics into their classes and programs.

The Maker Education Initiative is a new non-profit that is working to create more opportunities for young people to make, and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark in science, technology, engineering, math, the arts, and learning as a whole. We are working to do this by building community networks to support young makers and working to develop ways for people and organizations to share curriculum, successes, challenges, and ideas with each other.

What has changed as a result of the maker movement?

The Maker movement is growing in both scale and areas of impact. We are seeing makerspaces opening in libraries and schools, Maker Faires in cities around the world, companies holding job searches for “makers,” and makers starting their own businesses.  Making is about community, and makers are finding more and more ways to gather and learn together, both online and in person. For example, in September, over 55,000 people, including many families, attended the World Maker Faire held at the New York Hall of Science.  The Maker Education Initiative hosted an “Education Café” at this faire. We had over 20 different workshops and presentations from formal and informal educators, and parents who are working to bring making to more children and families.  It was incredibly exciting to see the different ways that making is being integrated into the school day, after-school programs, and at museums and libraries. There is so much momentum right now that can be used to create opportunities for children to see themselves as creators, who can solve problems and use new and old technology to bring their ideas to reality.

Regarding the Squishy Circuits project, it has been wonderful to hear from parents and teachers who used this method to teach their children about circuits. We have heard from mothers and fathers who learned about circuits alongside their kids using this method and schools and museums around the world who have incorporated it into preschool classes, library workshops, and more.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

One of the lessons that we are learning from the maker movement is that we live in a time when it is possible to share and collaborate with others around the globe.  Collaboration and exhibition are key aspects of making. By sharing your projects and your materials with others, you benefit from seeing the ways that people build off of your work and learning from their challenges and successes. Most importantly, it means that you have a community to support you as you learn and try new things.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology, new and old, is at the core of the maker movement. Makers are using a variety of tools, ranging from screwdrivers to 3-D printers, to create things. Makers have been very agile at adopting new technologies and merging them with older tools and methods in creative new ways.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

It’s incredibly exciting to see programs and efforts that give children the opportunity to be creators, not just consumers, of the world around them. Making is about empowerment, and finding the things that you are passionate about so that you can bring your ideas to life.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)? For teachers who are hoping to bring more making to their classrooms I would advise them to reach out to the makers in their community through makerspaces and local maker fairs. Additionally, there are some great resources, such as Make: Projects and Instructables, for project ideas online.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Online collaboration tools allow educators and makers to share what they’re working on and their successes and challenges. This means that when you want to learn something new, or find ideas for new projects there is a wide array of content available for you to work and learn from.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Rather than a tool, I’d wish for every child in the world to have someone who supports them in following their passions. Having a person who can say to them, “That’s a great idea. What can I do to help you make that happen?” is life changing for a child. To me, the maker movement is really about the people, not the technology. Makers’ openness to trying new things, their creativity, and their willingness to collaborate and share their work set powerful examples to children about what is possible — that everyone can be a creator.

AnnMarie Thomas

  • Birthplace: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
  • Current residence: Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • Education: SB MIT (Ocean Engineering, minor in Music), MS, Ph.D. Caltech (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Website I check every day:  Twitter. I look forward to seeing what the educators, parents, teachers, and others that I follow are posting and pointing to.
  • Person who inspires me most: This changes daily. There are so many people out there who are working tirelessly and passionately, to make the world a better place for children.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Boston (For work and pleasure)
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? A few moments ago. My daughters were pulling each other around the house on a rocking chair.
  • Favorite book: This changes daily. I’m an avid reader, particularly nonfiction, so it’s hard to pick just one. If I have to pick one today, I’ll go with The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson.
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