Rethinking Schools: Hackerspaces

James and Ali Solder

What are "hackerspaces?"

Hackerspaces are "community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects1. Essentially, it's a community workshop: Some have wood or metal-working equipment and community tools, others have welding equipment, others focus on computing and programming. Each hackerspace is different. To become a member generally you'll pay an annual fee which gives you access to the equipment and the space. Many hackerspaces will offer classes given by members to the general public and have drop-in days when non-members can pay a small fee to use the hackerspace.

A hackerspace is a large, self-directed learning environment. Maybe you want to make your own Geiger counter or build a sidecar for your bicycle. A hackerspace would provide you the space and tools to get it done. On top of the space, the best thing about hackerspaces is that they encourage collaboration. It's a place where you can walk around and see what other people are working on, ask questions, and get some help from smart people if you need it.

Why Hackerspaces in Schools?

I first starting thinking about how schools and hackerspaces fit together after listening to CBC Spark's segment on Hacking the Library, featuring several libraries that are teaming up with hackerspaces to provide additional learning experiences for their patrons. That piqued my interest. Libraries are community learning spaces. Schools are community learning spaces. If hackerspaces are popping up at libraries, why not in schools?

What are the benefits of having a hackerspace at a school?

  1. Real-world application of content. I recently took the Praxis II Physics exam. I spent a lot of time studying content related to electricity & magnetism. Why? Besides not having taken a class on the topic since 1999, I lacked a deeper understanding of the topics- primarily because you can't see magnetism and electricity the way you can see a ball flying through the air. Inductance? Capacitance? These are tricky concepts that I know I struggled to understand deeply. However, if you provide the time and space for students to build things like USB chargers for their iPods, or super-capacitor flashlights- where students can harness inductors and capacitors to build useful objects, then there's a much better chance they'll gain a deeper understanding of what capacitors and inductors are and how they're used.
  2. Student choice. There are amazing communities like Instructables or Make Projects where students can find ideas for projects. Even if you wanted students to all build something related to a specific topic (i.e. electronics with capacitors, for instance), there is such a huge variety of projects available online this would still allow students to pick something that interested them personally.
  3. Giving students agency over their "stuff." Making stuff is empowering. Taking apart and restoring a trashed bike gives you a sense of pride about the bike that wouldn't exist if you had just bought it from the store. If your remote control for your TV breaks, you might just go buy a new one- but if you recently built your own solar battery charger, maybe instead you'd take apart the remote control and fix it yourself.
  4. Connecting the school to the community. Ideally, I see schools as centers of community- a place open to all community members as a place of learning beyond just the school day for students. I envision a school hackerspace run very much like any hackerspace: open to anyone in the community who would like to become a member, available to community members during school hours and students after school hours, providing classes for the community (ideally some classes being taught by students), and providing a place for the community to share their expertise with students and students to share their expertise with the community.
  5. Not just a wood shop class on steroids. I wouldn't want to see the hackerspace used as its own class- like wood shop classes might have been in the past. I think it'd be much more powerful if the school day were arranged so students had independent time set aside to work on self-directed projects (a lĂ  Think Thank Thunked). Not just for hackerspace projects, mind you, since not all topics and projects would be hackerspace appropriate, but certainly the hackerspace would be available.

If I was in charge of building a new school2, I'd work my butt off to try to get a hackerspace as part of my school. I realize there would be a lot of potential details and issues to work through to get it done, but I think the learning and community that would result from such a space would be well worth the effort.

Note: I've never actually been to a real hackerspace. Unfortunately there don't appear to be any hackerspaces in Connecticut (according to Hackerspaces.org). If someone would like to get on that as well, I'd be on board.

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  1. From Hackerspaces.org. (back)
  2. I have some time right now if anyone's interested in trying to do this...seriously people!(back)

Master's Project: Self-directed learning in the science classroom

Well...to be precise, it's titled "Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom." Catchy, I know.

To be honest, this is a bit old. I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but recently realized I never had despite always meaning to do so. I implemented this project in the spring of 2010 and officially submitted my project in June of the same year. It won me a "Scholar of Excellence" award, so it must be at least somewhat decent. 😉

The Goods

Though the full paper may not be of interest to you, let me recommend the Lit Review. I went through many, many papers on constructivist environments and instructional technology's impact on student learning. It'd make me very happy if anybody found this even remotely useful.

I've decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so have at it. Here's the full paper in variety of formats for any of your consumption needs:

  • Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom

Description

Simply put, students worked in teams of four to five and shared a team blog. Students investigated any topic that interested them around the general theme of climate change. Students were tasked with researching the topic and sharing their learning and questions on their blog. There were no due dates (other than the end of the school year), though students were all required to write a certain number of posts and comments on their classmates' posts (for more details, check out the Project Design section of the paper). For a bit on the rationale, here's an excerpt from the Introduction and Rationale:

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific information and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology the importance of teaching students specific content information decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new knowledge when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of information and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that has been used for many years in many content areas with various age levels. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

Let me know what you think or if you found anything useful for your own purposes.

Science and Self-Directed Learning

I've just completed my Master's Proposal1. While the process wasn't exactly enjoyable, I did enjoy being required to sit down and think through a pretty major student-centered unit from beginning to end.  My hope in designing this unit was to hopefully narrow the divide between how a scientist does science and how we teach students science.

I'll give you the quick & dirty summary below, but if you'd like to read the entire proposal: Have at it.

Goals

  • Make learning about science more like doing science
  • Allow students the freedom to follow their passions (within a broad framework)
  • Connect students to professionals who actively work or participate in their area of interest
  • Foster creative thinking and problem solving skills among students

In the first few weeks of the semester students will be introduced to:

  • the ideas behind the project and goals of the project
  • tools that will allow them to communicate and collaborate with classmates and outside collaborators
  • participate in smaller projects designed to grow independent learning and monitoring skills

The Main Thrust

  • Within a general topical framework (in this case: global warming), students will investigate topics and ideas that they find intriguing and interesting.
  • While there will be no set groups, students interested in similar topics may choose to investigate these ideas together. If they want to follow different paths later, they can freely dissociate as well.
  • Student experimentation, observation, and investigation will be encouraged.
  • Students will be expected to take their investigations beyond simple internet research.

Assessment

  • Students will meet at minimum twice a week with me to discuss what they've learned so far, problems they've run into, and future topics of investigation.
  • Regular reflections will be expected from each student. These can be in any format.
  • 5-minute "What I've Done So Far" presentations will be given by each student two weeks and four weeks into the unit.
  • A final demonstration of learning will conclude the unit. The demonstration can be done in any format that can be shared online. The emphasis of the demonstration is to show the depth and breadth of the students learning.

I Still Have Questions

  • I feel I can accurately assess student learning throughout this project. I'm not sure how to actually give students letter grades.
  • I'm worried about kids buying into the whole thing. Perhaps this is just unnecessary worrying, but I'm having nightmares of students just sitting around for 6 weeks twiddling their thumbs. What can I do to buy them in?
  • I want to connect kids to "experts." These "experts" don't need to all be climate scientists2, just people who know or have some experience on the topic. This means you. And your friends. And your colleagues. Participation could range from something like mentoring a student, to a one-time Skype chat, to simply commenting on student work.
  • Can you help?

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  1. WOOHOO!!     (back)
  2. Though if you happen to be a climate scientist, we'd love to have you help out.     (back)