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Computer Science and "Makered"

Are you a Maker? Do you even know what that is? And how, exactly, is this related to Computer Science? The exact lineage of the Maker Movement is debatable. The idea of making things, hacking, repurposing, and doing things by hand is a long human tradition. It's also a long tradition within Computer Science. Popular Mechanics and The Home Brew Computer Club come to mind as well known examples of the culture of making as it applies to technology and computing. But recently, Making, as embodied to some extent by MAKE magazine and their Maker Faires, has been making new inroads into our lives, and especially into education.

In education, making, makerspaces and fablabs have been primarily focused on STEM (or STEAM) disciplines, arguing that current educational practice has made these subjects too abstract and too much about rote memorization. To really learn these subjects, students must participate in active, hands-on learning, the argument goes. The idea of making in education has come to be called by many, makered. Educators will recognize in makered the tenets of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning and CS educators in particular might recognize the work of Seymor Paper lurking behind much of the discussion of bringing making into the classroom.

In some circles, makered has become synonomous with 3D printing, electronics, building robots, and working with Arduinos and Raspberry Pi's. But many de-emphasize the technology involved in making and focus on the active nature of building something, whether with electronics or cardboard, especially in schools where expensive technology equipment is out of reach. The tension between physical products and digital ones or some combination of digital and physical makes makered an interesting topic to explore in CS Education.

In recent years, CS Education has begun to emphasize the big concepts of Computer Science rather than being solely focused on programming as the one way into CS concepts. Activities and assignments that are part of CS curriculum often leave out the computer altogether and teach such things as loops and sorting algorithms using objects, board games, and even people. Like maker educators, CS teachers see the value in creating and using physical objects and active techniques to teach concepts. Philosophically, these two groups of teachers, are not far apart at all.

Broadly speaking, many maker educators are also CS educators, especially in the early grades. Elementary and middle schools have added makerspaces and maker programs as a way to incorporate CS into their curriculum. But there are some maker educators who are librarians, English teachers, science teachers, history teachers, who have no CS background and sometimes face the prospect of now having to create a project that involves programming. They come to CS out of necessity. On the flip side, some CS educators are tied to programming and digital products as their sole purview and shun the idea of having to work with electronics and hardware, much less cardboard and glitter. Maker educators are always looking to learn from CS educators and I think CS educators can learn a lot from their maker counterparts.

Making, or if you prefer, physical computing, offers an engaging way to introduce or extend Computer Science. From using Hummingbird Robotics kits to make Artbotics projects to building sophistaced Arduino projects, there's a wide range of skills that students can gain from combining physical objects with computation. Working with physical objects that people actually use is a both an engineering and a human-computer interface challenge. Printing a surround for an Arduino project involves thinking three-dimensionally and learning about scale in a way that's not at all abstract. Even creating a Rube Goldberg machine, as my Physical Computing class did last year, involves the same kind of problem solving and logic that programming requires. Paper crafts and sewing are also popular kinds of projects that can be combined with computing, thanks to small and sewable computing products like the Lilypad and Gemma Arduino. And these kinds of projects, as Yasmin Mafai pointed out in her CSTA 2014 keynote, are appealing to girls, making them a great way to engage more young women in Computer Science.

It's worth trying a maker project in your CS class, whether it's something that combines the digital with the physical, like programming an Arduino to fill your dog's food dish, or something completely physical like a Rube Goldberg machine. You'll be surprised by how fun they are and by how much students learn from doing them. And if you're interested in learning more about makered, join me on Tuesdays at 9 P.M. EST for my #makered Twitter chat.

Resources:

Invent to Learn, by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez
MAKE magazine
Instructables
Adafruit
Sparkfun
#makered Twitter chat

Laura Blankenship
9-12 Representative, CSTA Board of Directors

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