Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens | Edutopia

Patrick Waters

Professional Educator, The Monarch School, TX with a STEM & Maker Focus

The rise of the Maker has been one of the most exciting educational trends of the past few years. A Maker is an individual who communicates, collaborates, tinkers, fixes, breaks, rebuilds, and constructs projects for the world around him or her. A Maker, re-cast into a classroom, has a name that we all love: a learner. A Maker, just like a true learner, values the process of making as much as the product. In the classroom, the act of Making is an avenue for a teacher to unlock the learning potential of her or his students in a way that represents many of the best practices of educational pedagogy. A Makerspace classroom has the potential to create life-long learners through exciting, real-world projects.

Making holds a number of opportunities and challenges for a teacher. Making, especially to educators and administrators unfamiliar with it, can seem to lack the academic rigor needed for a full-fledged place in an educational ecosystem. However, project-based learning has already created a framework for Making in the classroom. Let’s see how Making could work when placed inside a PBL curriculum unit.

What Do You Want to Do?

The first step in designing a PBL unit for a Maker educator is connecting specific content standards to the project. The development and adoption of new content standards in math, ELA, and science has placed increased importance on the process and construction of a student’s learning. Making loves the process and allows the teacher to move fluidly between levels and subjects. When I designed a middle school level Forces and Motion unit,NGSS MS-PS2 dovetails nicely with CCSS Mathmatical Practice. My students would have to interpret and communicate their results through mathematics. Once I chose the appropriate standard for my students, I could begin brainstorming projects.

Choosing, thinking, reflecting, and sorting possible projects should be a career-long process. Good projects don’t fade with time — they get richer and more exciting for both teacher and student. Great projects, on the other hand, are opportunities for learners and teachers to collaborate with those around them. As such, my students and I might spend weeks asking ourselves inquiry-driven questions and checking out online resources (such as those listed below) as brain fodder. Collaboratively, we narrow down our choices. I use my voice in the process as sparingly as possible, but I do guide my learners to projects which reflect our subject area, my own expertise, and my strengths as an educator to projects which can be completed in the time allotted. Lastly, we determine if we have the right resources and tools. It’s a messy process, but the results can be incredible.

Essential Questions

With an appropriate project chosen, an educator can begin framing the learner’s journey. Essential questions are best tool available for Maker educators to frame this journey. Essential questions are open-ended prompts which initiate, engage, and guide the student into the learning process. With practice, the students can frame the questions themselves. Collaborate with your students by having them list their queries and send them off to find answers from a myriad of sources. Keep the ones they can’t answer yet. In a strong inquiry process, the students reveal their previous knowledge and their needs, allowing the teacher to craft respectful, differentiated learning goals that match. Once completed, the project becomes less of a daily race to fulfill lesson plans and more of a quest to document your students’ growing capabilities. In my classroom, our Forces and Motion unit began with «How do we make a derby car travel faster?» Then it changed into «Does mass increase the car’s velocity?» — and a whole host of other questions. Making is a process, and strong essential questions allow the educator to frame the journey while allowing the learner to make inquiry-driven discoveries.

Making requires partners. Find a colleague in your school to support delivering cross-curriculum instruction. Chase down community partners, such as local Makerspaces and scientific organizations, who may lend expertise and resources. I’ve found Twitter indispensable for connecting with other educators with similar passions. Bring these resources into your classroom.

Finally, an educator can start thinking about individual lessons. The teacher can break down large units into smaller essential questions («How does the arm length effect the distance of a catapult shot?»), and use these smaller questions to build to a monster prompt («Can I make a catapult which shoots a marshmallow over 30 feet using these materials?»). With careful planning, these small labs take very little build time, often reuse materials, and allow for a gradual building and exploration of knowledge. Good preview and reflection cycles allow me space to introduce and reinforce the standards, and allow the students time to process and apply their knowledge. I often use blogging as an online showcase of my students’ mastery.

Failure Is a Preferable Option

Good projects require failure. Great projects can teach a student grit, but you have to model it yourself first. Processing failure with your students turns a moment of fear into an opportunity for learning in a safe place. Strong PBL units increase student engagement while empowering students, therefore minimizing maladaptive behaviors.

Teachers new to PBL and Making often make similar mistakes:

  • Choosing projects too large for their comfort level and resources
  • Focusing on the outcome, not the process of Making
  • Thinking the educator must have the answer

Making is a discovery process for both educator and learner. Making allows the teacher to move from author of knowledge to master fabricator or builder. Making allows the educator to model the learner that he or she wants students to become.

Making requires support from all the stakeholders in the classroom: students, parents, colleagues, and administration. In order to build that support, an educator has to communicate by:

  • Giving voice to the students’ desire to learn
  • Inviting parents to witness their students’ learning and creations
  • Collaborating with other teachers to share and grow professionally
  • Building administration support by inviting them to see the growth of your classroom

Blogging in any form is the most effective tool available to the educator, a platform for all these levels of sharing.

If you’re looking for more about Making, check out these resources:

And if you have experiences with approaching a PBL unit as a Maker, please share in the comments section below.

Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens | Edutopia.

The Difference Between Projects & Project-Based Learning

Projects in the classroom are as old as the classroom itself.

“Projects” can represent a range of tasks that can be done at home or in the classroom, by parents or groups of students, quickly or over time.

While project-based learning (PBL) also features projects, in PBL the focus is more on the process of learning and learner-peer-content interaction that the end-product itself.

The learning process is also personalized in a progressive PBL environment by students asking important questions, and making changes to products and ideas based on individual and collective response to those questions. In PBL, the projects only serve as an infrastructure to allow users to play, experiment, use simulations, address authentic issues, and work with relevant peers and community members in pursuit of knowledge.

By design, PBL is learner-centered. Students don’t simply choose between two highly academic projects to complete by a given date, but instead use the teacher’s experience to design and iterate products and projects–products and projects that often address issues or challenges that are important to them.

The chart below by Amy Mayer is helpful to clarify that important difference between projects and project-based learning. Ultimately, the biggest difference is the process itself.

Project and Project Based Learning - differences


Summer Planning for Successful PBL | Edutopia


It is often said that leading and teaching in project-based learning schools are like building an airplane while flying it. During the summer, we land the plane and we have a chance to just build. In the spirit of summer, this post is brief and concrete so we have more time for the beach and planning! Here are three ways you can plan for student success this summer:

1. Plan Projects for the Entire Year

This is the perfect time to design or review the design of the projects you and/or your team will facilitate this year. Create the documents you will provide for students through out the project. This is the perfect time for you to research the topic(s) yourself, make community connections and get excited about facilitating student learning through the project. The more you get done in the summer, the more time you have for assessing student work during the project instead of planning learning activities for the project as you do the project.

2. Do the Project Yourself

Watch this short video by Jeff Robin from High Tech High in San Diego. Jeff makes his point very clear at the end.

3. Leaders: Plan Your PD for the Entire School Year

Set your goals. Make your learning targets, assessments and learning modules and set the dates for the adults too! Just like the teachers, school leaders should do as much concrete, upfront planning as possible. Once the school year starts the plane is back in the air and the urgent can often trump the important. Use the summer to tackle the important planning.

As I write this, we are officially halfway through summer vacation — maybe more than half for many schools; it is not too late to plan! While it is counter intuitive, the more you work during the summer the more relaxed you will be during the school year so plan those projects in detail now, do the project yourself, first and plan professionals development for the entire year not just the first few days.


Summer Planning for Successful PBL | Edutopia.