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Mobilizing the maker movement

By Ryan Imbriale
April 1, 2017
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I’ll never forget the choice I had to make in middle school. Enroll in band or industrial arts.

The labyrinth that is middle school scheduling didn’t allow for students to participate in both, so I elected to grow my talents in the musical arts. Making that choice put me on an academic path that set the tone for my entire learning journey.

While I loved playing an instrument and have never questioned the choice to engage in that experience, sacrificing the opportunity for exposure to the industrial arts bothers me to this day. In the context of school, I was not offered any other opportunities to build, create, design or construct. This lack of design thinking carried forward into high school, and influenced my college major and career path. Fortunately, a new vision for “making” across all subjects has led to an infusion of maker learning within education.

In “The Call to Excellence” from the Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) guiding document called Blue-print 2.0: Our Way Forward, we say that our work, once fully implemented, “will provide students with the flexibility to learn in different ways on different days.” The statement adds that students “will be able to access multiple and varied opportunities for learning, exploration and enrichment ...”

Baltimore County is home to an incredibly diverse urban-suburban school district. Our students represent 108 countries and speak 85 languages, meaning equity must be at the center of every discussion had and decision made. We’ve made great strides toward creating equitable learning environments – our district’s transformation of teaching and learning, powered by customized and personalized educational experiences, is already well on its way to realizing our initial vision grounded in equity and access – but the work doesn’t end there. BCPS continues to push the envelope and raise the bar for excellence, creating access to innovative learning opportunities for every student.

As our work of transforming teaching and learning has progressed, the maker movement, both in and outside of education, has been democratizing design and production, thanks to dropping product costs and increased access. The maker movement at BCPS grew organically. Teachers and students clamoring for hands-on, experiential learning opportunities gravitated toward creation rather than consumption. It became clear that we had to provide systemic supports to foster this work and spread making curriculum to all of the district’s 173 schools, centers and programs.

While costs for tools and materials have declined over the years, it’s a reality of our system, as well as many others throughout the world, that not all schools can fund and support these efforts at the same level.

To fully support equitable maker learning opportunities, we established the BCPS Makes program, a multi-pronged approach supporting everything from tool acquisition to fully developed learning experiences. These offerings include direct school support for their makerspaces, while simultaneously creating districtwide programs in which all students can engage in these learning experiences.

The centerpiece of the BCPS Makes program is our Mobile Innovation Lab, a renovated school bus that contains the tools and technologies for all students to engage in innovative learning experiences. The Mobile Innovation Lab Residency Program serves our elementary schools, providing experiences in robotics, 3d design, programming, electronics and engineering.

Our planning team has worked across content area offices to plan instructional activities that not only provide opportunities to learn and apply skills and concepts reflected in standards such as the 2016 iste Standards for Students, but also core content standards. This allows us to establish a presence at any school during any point in the academic year and provide meaningful exposure to career and technical fields – something missing in most elementary school experiences – while simultaneously addressing digital age and core content skills.

By mobilizing the equipment housed on the Mobile Innovation Lab, we provide not only an opportunity for all students to engage, but also an avenue for administrators and teachers to see the benefits of making some of these experiences a permanent fixture in their buildings. In addition, thanks to our efforts around the creation of a centralized maker learning lending library, teachers throughout the district can borrow and use – at no cost to them or their school – these tools in their classrooms. By centralizing these efforts, we maximize efficiency in our spending while simultaneously allowing schools to “try before they buy” or even sustain maker programs through a rotation of borrowed materials.

I often wonder if my career path would look dramatically different had I been given the opportunity to build and design earlier in my schooling experience.

The maker movement has many aspects of that industrial arts class I missed out on, but what is so exciting is that it takes the isolated course model and pushes opportunities into elementary school classrooms, ties the learning directly to content standards and provides access for all students.

Ryan Imbriale is the executive director of innovative learning for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. For the past 19 years, Imbriale has worked to improve teaching and learning by emphasizing edtech’s value in reaching as many students as possible, as effectively as possible. He is a former iste board member.