In 2021, educators from throughout the United States of America were invited to participate in the Maker Learning @ Home cohort, a six-month professional learning experience for educators committed to continuing opportunities for making while learners are at home.
Matthew O’Reilly is a former classroom teacher at Dexter McCarty Middle School. He is currently serving as an assistant principal in the Bethel School District in Eugene, OR. He believes that his superpower is that he is an “idea factory.”
In the fall of 2020, our students began working on proposals for a community solutions design challenge contest. Students were noticing a rise in homeless camps in our area and they wanted to help.
Our STEAM program had recently received a jump start through using Measure 98 dollars to inspire students to invest their interest into CTE classes when they arrive in our high schools. Measure 98 is an allotment of money that the state has put aside to help our middle school and high school students be successful in finding a career path that will suit their needs and interests. In the case of middle school students, the idea is exposure to different pathways or job clusters. Although this project appears to be heavy on the engineering design pathway, it really offered students the ability to look at construction, architecture, food services, social work, and many aspects of the health sciences field.
When we started the brainstorming process, I used what one of my mentors termed “the lasso technique.” The idea is to pose a really broad question to the group and slowly tighten the loop as they begin to form ideas. In this case, the broad question was, “What is something in our community that we could help?” Initial ideas were really global, such as issues around the Coronavirus, masks, etc. Our questioning led us to more localized concerns. For Oregonians, fires were a concern as well as future earthquakes and flooding. These have been discussed a lot already and students started talking about seeing people who are navigating homelessness in our city and the Portland metro area as well. For some of our students, the idea of navigating homelessness had never crossed their minds. For others, it was a real possibility throughout the pandemic with their families struggling to find or keep work.
We talked about how the county has services that are already offered that are not being accessed. We worked on empathizing with this group to figure out why these services were not being accessed and then began ideating to come up with solutions.
Much of the work that is done here by the facilitator starts with helping students identify an issue in their community. Once they have addressed this, the next step is to talk about empathy and ways that we can empathize with others. Depending on the age of students and life circumstances, this may be easy or more difficult, but it is a necessary step that cannot be skipped. Helping students produce open-ended questions and facilitating safe interviews is the next part for the adult.
If the learners needed to talk to an expert to learn about how they might create a setting for them to successfully take their services on the road, I would work to set up a Zoom interview with one. If students found that they needed material to complete the model/build, I would work within the community to secure it for them.
As we got deeper into this project, students assumed leadership and the planning of activities. They decided to begin by creating weekly agendas for our class using backward design. In the early stages, I was more in charge of creating the agenda. Once they had a more concrete idea of what they were doing, the transition happened fairly naturally. My role at this point was mainly to facilitate their needs, such as learning Tinkercad or obtaining materials, setting up pick-ups/drop-offs, etc. Students collaborated with one another throughout this project. We also collaborated with an engineer who did some more complex computer aided design/drafting (CAD) work for us. Our students have also interviewed a food truck owner, a therapist, and a social worker, and they worked together to create the interview questions as well. Student voice drove the theme of this project and also the themes of the needs that would be provided and/or met for our homeless population. We worked out of a digital notebook using Google Slides that we could use to record our ideas as we started to design the different containers/trailers. We also created a schematics template that students could use in Chrome Canvas to draw out their ideas.. Students created a “shopping list” of materials that they were interested in using to create their models of the differently themed containers (kitchen, restrooms, social workers).
This project began during a time period when students were learning at home through virtual means. As 6th graders, this was one of their first “maker mindset” experiences. As time passed and we got deeper into this project and grant, the local health measures changed and it allowed students to return to school on a hybrid schedule. Students were given the choice to come to school or continue learning at home.
A focus that we had was to provide the same access to the learning and materials for all students that were involved in this project. We accomplished this through continuing to meet in our virtual classroom as a team with students in the classroom as well as at home.
The culmination of this project led to the possibility of students proposing the solution to the local government. In this specific case, we explored the idea of approaching the mayors in the Portland metro area and sharing our schematics, ideas, and models with them.