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A 3D model of Tyrian purple, the ancient Phoenician dye extracted from murex sea snails.

This blog is the script for a final video project for my Educational Technology class as a doctoral candidate at the University of Northern Colorado. The final video can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/jimJqjsetNM.

Introduction

3D modeling and printing are taking the Do-it-Yourself world by storm as makerspaces spring up in many schools. Considered to be an innovative way of learning next-generation skills, 3D modeling and printing are fun hobbies, but are they effective educational tools? Is 3D technology worth the cost and the time it takes to learn? Will a 3D printer merely sit in the corner and collect dust, or will it be frequently and effectively used to teach class concepts? Is 3D printing just another new toy or is it a pedagogically sound method for deep learning?

My name is David Black and I have taught media design and science classes for 30 years at the secondary level. I have developed multi-disciplinary projects that combine science with 3D modeling, but I lacked a theoretical framework. This video explores the history and innovation of 3D modeling and printing within a theoretical framework of constructivism and a project-based learning pedagogy to effectively teach science concepts. We will look at the diffusion of this new technology, how it works as a medium to convey learning, the basic steps and history of producing 3D models and prints, and provide examples of 3D technology use in science classrooms.

A photo gallery interface for the AM to FM project. Designed as a scrapbook, the animation zoomed into the pages and each item became a category for different images that could be viewed interactively. The entire interface was programmed in Macromedia Director.

A Theoretical Framework

When students create their own science educational content, or learner-generated digital media (LGDM), they achieve a deeper understanding of the science. Researchers have found that students not only learn science content well through media creation, they also develop marketable media design and 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity (Hoban, Nielsen, & Shepherd, 2013; Orus, et al., 2016; Reyna, 2021).

Reyna and Meier (2018) conducted a literature review of studies that use learner-generated digital media to teach science concepts. They concluded that previous studies were limited because they lacked theoretical frameworks or sound pedagogy. These researchers assumed that the participating students already knew how to use media design technology tools since they were so-called “digital natives.” According to Reyna and Meier, just because students grow up using computers and digital devices doesn’t mean they have ever developed media creation skills such as video editing or 3D modeling. In a follow up study, Reyna scaffolded media design skills training through smaller partial projects embedded in a theoretical framework of constructivism and a project-based learning (Reyna & Meier, 2018; Reyna, 2021). As an example, a teacher might have a student team create a short Public Service Announcement (PSA) as a practice project to gain skills in using cameras, lighting, and microphones and to learn the entire video creation process or workflow before tackling the final project.

A final (?) version of my model of constructivism, with students as explorers, teachers, content creators, makers, designers, coders, engineers, scientists, critical thinkers, collaborators, communicators, and problem-solvers. My model suggests that students need to move from being passive learners to becoming active and creative learners.

Constructivist theory proposes that learning is a socially mediated cognitive process whereby learners experience a subject and construct their own meanings for it. They create mind maps or schema that tie previous learning, emotions, and social reinforcement together with their new knowledge. Schema develop through the processes of assimilation, where the new knowledge is placed into existing categories, and accommodation, where the schema are revised to acknowledge divergent information. Constructivism acknowledges that the learner is at the center of the process.

3D modeling is inherently a constructivist activity, as creating the models literally requires constructing one polygon or primitive at a time. That the model exists only in virtual space does not mean it is any less a constructed medium. By 3D printing the virtual model, the printer builds an actual model one layer at a time. If properly planned and conceived, students can also construct science knowledge through 3D modeling and animation. Instead of consuming scientific content, students become producers of content. They become the experts and the teachers, and learning occurs as a natural byproduct of the process.

Lev Vygotsky was a pioneer of constructivist theory. He also developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development shown in the image at right.

Constructivist theory can be traced all the way back to Socrates, who said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” John Dewey proposed that students learn by doing, that is, in an active, creative process where they construct their own meanings through discovery with the teacher as a guide on the side, not the sage on the stage (Brau, 2020). It is the opposite of objectivism, where teachers are the center of the process and must somehow pour their knowledge into their students’ brains. Lev Vygotsky added that learning is socially mediated through interpersonal interactions, language, and culture and that students learn within their zone of proximal development; as students learn more, what they can do with help (the ZPD) expands (Brau, 2020). Jean Piaget developed cognitive constructivism where children develop naturally through various stages from concrete to abstract, with each stage of cognitive growth affecting the construction of learning (Brau, 2020). Seymour Papert developed his constructionist theory where students construct learning through making. He saw computers as a tool for learning and invention where students learn through doing and experimentation, including the use of computer programming and media design. Today’s makerspaces are based on his theories.

The characteristics of gold-standard project-based learning, as developed by PBLworks, formerly the Buck Institute for Education.

Project-Based Learning Pedagogy

Project-based learning is a natural fit as a pedagogy for media design creation. It usually occurs in teams and the conclusion is a public product. According to PBLworks, formerly the Buck Institute for Education, gold-standard PBL includes seven characteristics (https://www.pblworks.org/):

(1) A challenging, meaningful question or problem to address; (2) Student inquiry using authentic data or sources where they discover the learning for themselves as a natural outgrowth of the initial question; (3) Student voice and choice in the type of project chosen and how it will be accomplished; (4) Collaboration and communication as students actively participate and work through issues creatively; (5) Frequent opportunities for critique and formative feedback, with revision; (6) A public presentation of the final product; and (7) Student reflection on what they have accomplished and learned.

Each project ends with a presentation before a public audience, usually at some type of back-to-school night with feedback and suggestions from the audience. Knowing that their work will have a public audience motivates students to deliver a high quality product and helps to actively engage them in the process of learning. As John Spencer, a well-known PBL guru, explains:

Students who engage in authentic project-based learning have increased agency and ownership. They’re often more excited and engaged in their learning. When this happens, they retain the information for a longer amount of time while also learning vital technology skills like digital citizenship and media literacy. However, they also learn vital soft skills, such as collaboration, communication, curation, and problem-solving. As they work through iterations and revise their work, they develop a growth mindset. Often, they learn how to seek out constructive feedback. This connection to the community can help them develop empathy (Spencer, 2021).

Marshall McLuhan invented the concept of the global village and was famous for saying that “the medium is the message.”

The Message and the Medium

In the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan created the concept of the global village, which predicting the interconnectivity of the World Wide Web, and famously stated that “the medium is the message.” Such technologies as print and movable type have a profound effect on the human psyche and cultural understandings. Humans re-invent themselves and how they communicate with the invention of each new medium (McLuhan, 1962). Richard Clark argued conversely in the 1990s that the medium of a message was unimportant to the learning process and that cost-effectiveness was the only consideration in choosing one medium over another in instructional design (Clark, 1994). If more than one form of media can be used for a particular learning task, then they are replaceable with each other and the medium does not influence the message. Robert Kozma (1994) takes a middle ground, similar to Kalantzis and Cope (2012), where the medium conveys or mediates the message, influencing the message because of the medium’s unique affordances (advantages, disadvantages, limitations, conventions, etc.). Learning from a video with its linear format is qualitatively different than learning from interactive media such a website or a CD-ROM-based multimedia title. Learning from printed text alone is different than learning from text with images, or moving text and images in the form of a video.

A simple chart can show a great deal of data, such as this one showing the growth of STEM related jobs from 2012 to 2020.

3D modeling and animation has its own affordances that allow it to present a unique learning experience unlike other media. It can visualize large datasets, allowing patterns and inter-relations between data to be understood that purely numeric data tables cannot. A chart of the stock market can lay out several indices together for comparison over time, representing over 80,000 different data points in one infographic, which would be impossible to interpret as raw data but is easily accessible visually (Krum, 2013). If the data represents values in a two-dimensional grid, then a 3D graph is the best way to visualize and understand the data, as in the example of the voltage data I will talk about later. The medium chosen to convey learning is therefore an essential part of the learning experience. This agrees most closely with Kozma’s middle ground stand on the Clark-McLuhan continuum (Kozma, 1994).

With this in mind, let us now turn to an examination of the history of 3D modeling and printing as an innovative technology and how it can be used in science classrooms.

The movie Tron by Disney broke new ground by including scenes that were completely made of 3D animations.

History of 3D Modeling

The first experiments with 3D computer modeling began in the 1970s using mainframe computers, the only ones that could handle the millions of calculations necessary. A group at the University of Utah’s computer lab led by Ed Catmull developed a process to build smoothly polygonal models with accurate reflections called raytracing. As microprocessors improved and computer speeds and power increased, the first entertainment applications appeared. By the early 1980s movie studios were experimenting with computer graphic inserts for special effects. Disney’s Tron brought complete scenes designed and rendered in 3D, followed by even more photorealistic effects in The Last Starfighter with complete Codon Armadas including spaceships, planets, and asteroids.

A still frame from Robert Abel & Associates’ “sexy robot” commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl. It was an advertisement for canned food . . . By the way, this was the same Super Bowl where the infamous “Big Brother” commercial introduced the Apple Macintosh computer.

Meanwhile, some of the artists that started with Tron founded their own studios, including Robert Abel and Associates, who created a number of iconic and Clio Award-winning TV commercials including the famous 1984 Super Bowl sexy robot commercial that introduced innovative motion capture technology (Art of Computer Animation, n.d.). Lucas Films and Industrial Light and Magic experimented with completely 3D animated short movies. When Steve Jobs left Apple Computers and invested in the studio, they became Pixar Animation Studios and created the groundbreaking Luxo, Jr. animation. Jobs encouraged John Lasseter to create a full-length 3D movie; the result was Toy Story in 1995 and the rest is history.

History of 3D Printing

In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published a description of a liquid resin-based photopolymer that becomes solid by hardening each layer with focused ultraviolet light, but he did not file a patent (Goldberg, 2018). In 1984, Charles Hull invented a similar system called a stereolithography apparatus (SLA). Refinements continued, including building up layers by sending UV light in cross-sections. In 1992, the first Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) device was invented, which uses a laser beam to sinter or weld together a powder into layers.

The original MakerBot Thing-o-Matic, one of the first commercial 3D printers for home or school use.

Although both of these techniques are still used in high-end industry, the type of 3D printing most familiar in schools is the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technique where a plastic filament on a spool is fed into the printer by a motor, melted by a heated nozzle, and deposited in layers continuously to make cross-sections (3Dsourced.com, 2019). For each layer, the build plate is moved down. It is also called Fused Filament Fabrication. This type of printing was first developed in the late 1980s by F. Scott Crump who went on to found Stratisys in 1990 as the first company to build FDM printers and plastic filament.

Altogether, these technologies are referred to as additive manufacturing because the models are built up, or added, layer by layer. By comparison, a 3D milling machine or CNC router uses subtractive manufacturing because it starts with a larger blank and carves away parts.

By 2009, when the first FDM patents expired, new companies entered the market with lower cost desktop 3D printing machines such as MakerBot, FlashForge, Prusa, Ultimaker, Dremmel, and others. Various types of plastic filament became available, including Polylactic Acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), and even flexible nylon filaments, fused metallic filaments, and water dissolvable filaments for printing supports. Filaments come in many colors and finishes, including filaments that change color as they spool into the printer. A new development is 3D printing in full color, however these printers cost $3500 or more. To print in color, 4-process color (CMYK) dyes are added to a base color filament as it extrudes.

The 3D process begins with primitive objects such as cylinders and spheres assembled in 3-dimensional space, as shown here in TinkerCAD. Boolean commands can use one object to cut holes in other objects.

The Process: From Model to Print

Many 3D models are available for free on Thingiverse (https://www.thingiverse.com/) and other sites, but ultimately the fun of 3D modeling is to do it yourself. Complicated by working in three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional computer screen, in 3D modeling primitive objects such as spheres, cubes, and cylinders are given textures and composed into scenes. They can be combined to add, cut, or intersect other objects using Boolean commands. Other objects are created using a polygonal mesh like chicken wire. Meshes act as three-dimensional vectors and can be modeled from equations and deformed using envelopes. Grayscale images can be converted into terrain objects with light areas as mountains and dark areas as valleys.

Primitive objects are shown as a wireframe model, sized and moved into a complete composition such as this Greek temple.

To create complete scenes, the objects are aligned and composed, the camera positioned, lighting and atmospherics provided along with other procedural effects, then rendered out through ray tracing as if the scene were being photographed by bouncing a beam of light out from the camera. To animate objects, a timeline is added and the objects are given hierarchical links from parent to child, a process called forward kinematics. The pieces can be moved, rotated, and otherwise changed over time by adding keyframes on the timeline. The computer then renders out an animation frame by frame, creating all the in-between frames itself. Complex characters can be rigged with bones and joints or morph targets to deform the polygonal structure over time.

Learning 3D animation is traditionally a difficult and time-consuming process, with each step from modeling to rigging to texturing to animating done by different teams of specialists for a major CGI-based motion picture. Teaching students how to do all of these steps competently can take several weeks of class time, if not years, which few teachers or subjects can afford to do. However, new tools are simplifying the process.

This model of a dinosaur has had bones and joints added, which can be rotated and animated to distort the wireframe model. This model can walk, thrash its tail, turn its neck and head, and eat unsuspecting time travelers.

TinkerCAD is a browser-based modeling tool that has a range of primitive objects and simple textures that can be combined into more complex models, which can then be exported and printed with a 3D printer. It is not set up to do complex polygonal modeling or animation, but is a good introduction to working in three-dimensional space. SculptGL is another browser-based modeling tool. It does create complex meshes, but instead of subdividing polygons one at a time, the tool works as a ball of virtual clay that can be pushed and pulled. The model can be colored with paintbrushes and the final models and textures exported as .OBJ files for use in more sophisticated animation software. I have not yet found a browser-based tool that can assemble complete scenes, add keyframes, rig bones and morph targets, and render out animations. There are full-scale downloadable programs available for free or as educational licenses, including Blender and Autodesk Maya. Many tutorials exist online for how to use these programs.

Once a 3D model is completed it is saved as an .OBJ or .STL file, then imported into a 3D printer’s slicing software which provides the G-code directions for moving the print nozzle across the build plane while extruding the melted filament. Where overhangs occur, supports must be built in (which can be done automatically or by hand). Once the model begins to print, it can take several hours to complete a moderately large print. The print must then be removed from the build plate and the raft and supports snapped off and sanded.

The benzene molecule, shown above in TinkerCAD, now printing out on my 3D printer.

Subject Integration and Adoption of 3D Modeling and Printing in Schools

Reyna’s 2018 literature review concluded that most previous research in learner-generated digital media lacks theoretical frameworks or solid pedagogy. This agrees with the TPACK model of technology integration (Rodgers, 2018), where the affordances and workflow of the technology, the appropriate pedagogy for teaching, and how students learn the content knowledge through the technology or medium must be considered to successfully integrate technology into the classroom. By using a constructivist/constructionist framework and the pedagogy of project-based learning and by training students how to create the media as they develop their own science-related content, we are following the TPACK model.

For 3D modeling, we cannot assume that even digital natives know how to use the conventions of modeling in three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. It is a challenging innovation to learn, and many problems can occur in the modeling and printing process. Students do not naturally know how to subdivide polygons, use Boolean commands to cut holes, create procedural UV texture maps, create the lighting and atmospherics needed for a scene, or set up a 3D object for a successful print. This is highly technical work, and requires practice and scaffolding with simpler projects before large-scale media projects can be undertaken. Time must be set aside for training and practice either in class or using a flipped classroom model. The purpose of the 3D modeling – to learn a science concept – must be carefully considered and needs to be worth the time and effort and cannot be adequately taught through any other medium.

For adopting new technology, there is always a balance of risk and certainty. Some people and organizations are willing to accept risk to stay ahead of the curve, others, such as most schools, are risk-averse and will not adopt new technology until it has been widely accepted. This puts them behind the curve as laggards or late adopters.

Because of these challenges, 3D modeling and printing have been slow technologies to truly take hold in schools. Although 3D printers are popular now, most schools and teachers have little idea how to use them effectively. If we use Everett Roger’s model of technology adoption (Legris, Ingham, & Collerette, 2003), schools are usually in the late adopter or laggard phase for adopting 3D technologies. They do not want to waste the time or dollars to invest in a 3D printer just because it is the newest shiny thing. Some individual teachers may be ahead of the curve and ready to adopt, but they will need to learn how to use 3D technologies on their own; there is little to no professional development training available through school districts unless provided by teacher associations.

Using 3D Modeling and Printing in Science Classes

Because of the time and challenge required to do 3D modeling, printing, and animation there should be a compelling reason for using this medium in a science classroom; the 3D model or animation must convey a scientific concept more effectively than other forms of media. Some possible applications include modeling and animating scientific processes or principles, modeling complex authentic data where it cannot be visualized in any other way, and creating accurate models of science-related objects that can be examined.

To demonstrate how data can be visualized in 3D, my chemistry students this week studied electrochemistry by comparing the voltages of different combinations of metal electrodes, recording the data in a two-dimensional grid separated by commas. We used a free program from the National Institutes of Health called ImageJ to convert the raw numbers into a grayscale image, with higher values represented as lighter shades of gray and lower numbers as darker shades. This image can be converted into a 3D object by Adobe Photoshop. Finally, an altitude sensitive texture is applied and text added and the scene rendered as an image or animation. Patterns in the data that are difficult to notice as raw numbers become readily apparent as a visual image. Students can easily see that magnesium is the most reactive metal and has the highest voltages. 3D visualization has great advantages over trying to understand a grid of numbers.

The SOFIA airplane, as modeled by my 6th grade Creative Computing Class.

As an example of building models to illustrate concepts and objects, in 2004, my media design students began work on a video documentary for KUED, Salt Lake City’s PBS station, on the history of AM radio in Utah. They created animations of transistor radios as part of the title sequences of each segment based on photographs of actual radios. They modeled interfaces for an interactive DVD of our final video and for an accompanying CD-ROM programmed with Macromedia Director. Students in my 6th grade Creative Computing class each modeled a part of the SOFIA aircraft, or Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, and my high school students assembled, textured, and animated the final model. It was used to demonstrate how the telescope works for a video we made about my flight on SOFIA in 2013.

A diner modeled for the AM to FM project. The animation zoomed in on the jukebox, which acted as an interface for the history of AM radio.

My media design students created models and animations of Mars space probes for an interactive CD-ROM on Mars Exploration which they presented at a student symposium at Arizona State University. They learned how to access and model 3D terrain data of Mars from the MOLA instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor probe to analyze possible landing sites on Mars which we then printed out using color-changing PLA filament. Other students collaborated with the NASA Lunar Science Institute to study selenographic features and create a 3D animation of the Big Impact Theory of lunar formation.

My biology students use TinkerCAD or SculptGL to model and print viruses for a unit on microbiology. To visualize the periodic properties of the elements, my chemistry students create a grid of data points and convert it to 3D models using ImageJ and Photoshop. My eighth grade physical science students created a 3D animated video with greenscreen narration showing a possible habitat that astronauts can live in on their way to Mars. To represent land forms on Earth, my students access EarthExplorer by the United States Geological Survey (https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/), which allows grayscale heightmaps from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to be downloaded and converted into highly accurate 3D models.

A viral mini-museum. My biology students recently chose a virus, then modeled and printed it in 3D and created a display poster on its infection vector, parts, symptoms, and treatment.

All of these examples took time to learn and execute, so we needed to have compelling reasons for using 3D modeling that were worth the opportunity cost of time and the steep learning curve. In each case, using 3D enabled us to present authentic data more completely and helped us visualize important scientific concepts more effectively than other types of media.

Using 3D modeling has benefits for students. Visualization of big data sets has become a growth career, as has 3D printing of everything from prosthetic limbs to cars to rocket parts. It allows for rapid prototyping and has become a necessary component for engineers. My students have used these techniques to create visuals for winning science fair projects, such as this one that determined whether surface features on Mercury were caused by impacts or volcanism. As part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program, my media design students downloaded Mars dust opacity data from December 2003 to January 2004 and converted it into animations showing how a dust storm arose over the Tharsis Plateau, blew across the equator, and spread globally just as the Mars Exploration Rovers were approaching. My current physics students are using altitude data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s LOLA instrument, turning grayscale heightmaps of the Moon into 3D models, then mapping spectroscopic data from Moon Mineralogical Mapper instrument to show where different commercially viable minerals might be located according to surface landmarks as shown here (Fa & Jin, 2007). They are creating a poster of their results for the ExMASS program to compete with students from nine other schools.

The alchemist in his lab. As part of a project to teach students chemistry lab equipment, I had them create their own versions of florence flasks, and other equipment, new and ancient, as well as models of various minerals. We put these together into this scene for fun.

Conclusion

In this paper I have described many 3D modeling and animation projects created by my students. They have learned many positive things about STEAM careers and processes along the way, but of most importance, they learned science concepts more deeply through 3D modeling than through any other method. Although 3D modeling can be rewarding in its own right, it has additional benefits for students including teaching marketable skills and providing them with opportunities to collaborate, communicate, solve problems, and enhance their creativity. Given our limited time as teachers and the high opportunity cost, we have to be very sure that 3D modeling also enhances science learning in ways that other options can’t achieve. In my own experience, the projects are well worth their time. Other teachers will have to look at their own situations and determine whether or not it is worth investing the time to learn and use 3D modeling in their own science classrooms.

Thanks for reading this. I hope it provided some ideas into how and why to use 3D modeling and printing in your science classroom.

References

3Dsourced.com (2019). Fused deposition modeling: Everything you need to know about FDM 3D printing. Retrieved 3/18/21 from: https://www.3dsourced.com/guides/fused-deposition-modeling-fdm/.

Art of computer animation (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/5xwLFRdewgE.

Brau, B. (2020) Constructivism. In R. Kimmons & S. Caskurlu (Eds.), The Students’ Guide to Learning Design and Research, EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/studentguide/constructivism.

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Center for Educational Innovation, (n.d.). Constructivism. Center for Educational Innovation, University of Buffalo. Retrieved from: http://www.buffalo.edu/ubcei/enhance/learning/constructivism.html

Edutechwiki,(n.d.). The media debate. Retrieved 4/18/21 from: http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/The_media_debate

Fa, W. & Jin, Y. (2007). Quantitative estimation of helium-3 spatial distribution in the lunar regolith layer. Icarus, 190 (2007), 15-23.

Goldberg, D. (2018). History of 3D printing: It’s older than you are (that is, if you’re under 30). Retrieved 4/18/21 from: https://redshift.autodesk.com/history-of-3d-printing/

Hoban, G., Nielsen, W., & Shepherd, A. (2013). Explaining and communicating science using student- created blended media. Teaching Science, 59(1), 33-35.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2012). Literacies. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY

Kozma, R. B. (1994), The Influence of Media on Learning: The Debate Continues, School Library Media Research, Volume 22, Number 4, Summer 1994.

Krum, R. (2013). Infographics: Effective communication with data visualization and design. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.

Legris, P., Ingham, J. & Collerette, P. (2003). Why do people use information technology? A critical review of the technology acceptance model. Information & Management, 40 (2003), 191-24.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

Orus, et al. (2016). The effects of learner-generated videos for YouTube on learning outcomes and satisfaction. Computers & Education, 95 (2016), 254-269.

Reyna, J. (2021). Digital media assignments in undergraduate science education: An evidence-based approach. Research in Learning Technology, 29 (2021), 1-19.

Reyna, J. & Meier, P. (2018). Learner-generated digital media (LGDM) as an assessment tool in tertiary science education: A review of literature. IAFOR Journal of Education, 6(3), 93-109.

Rodgers, D. (2018). The TPACK framework explained (with classroom examples). SchoolologyExchange. Retrieved from: https://www.schoology.com/blog/tpack-framework- explained.

Spencer, J. (2021). PBL for all. Retrieved from: https://spencerauthor.com/pbl-for-all/

A still from an animation showing a dust storm on Mars forming above the Tharsis Plateau in December, 2003 just as the Mars Exploration Rovers were approaching. The data from for this animation was downloaded from the atmosphere opacity measurements of the Mars Global Surveyor space probe.
As educators we don’t often question the need for standards. After all, without standards, teachers would teach whatever they want to. Yes. Exactly.

What I am about to say will be considered as educational blasphemy. I have to say it anyway. Here goes: Education standards do more harm than good.

There, I’ve said it. Now I need to defend my claim logically.

When state boards of education and national committees get together to write new standards, they are doing so with the intention of improving learning outcomes in a subject area such as history or math or science. But I argue that higher standards have not and will not lead to improved student outcomes for several reasons: first, standards become an end unto themselves instead of being a means to the end of improved outcomes. This means-ends inversion leads to a myopic focus on meeting standards, as evaluated by high-stakes tests, above all else and to teachers being pressured to teach to the tests in a misguided effort to increase scores. Even if schools are able to increase scores, it does not mean that students are learning more in any long-term fashion. When school funding is tied to meeting standards, district leaders and principals put emphasis on test scores and encourage teachers to do what is needed to improve them. Shifting time and focus toward passing tests moves students away from inquiry experiments, creative projects, and other activities that make learning fun and meaningful, leading to lower motivation. As classes become boring and meaningless, student learning actually decreases and creativity is stifled. The student outcome that society needs the most is creativity. Education standards therefore hurt society.

Second, standards are meant to be minimal guidelines. Any competent teacher should be able to meet standards and go beyond them to teach with the passion that leads to extraordinary education. Yet teachers who do so and step beyond the bounds of the state standards are often censured and cautioned to stick to the approved curriculum. Teachers are forced to play it safe in order to keep their jobs. Extraordinary education entails risk; playing it safe will never lead to students caring deeply about a subject or learning how to be creative innovators within it.

Third, the very notion of standards is based on the idea of standardization of education, to make all education everywhere the same experience for all students for a particular subject. It is saying that all students are like the Model T Ford, which Henry Ford said one could buy in any color as long as it was black. Our educational system has been based for far too long on an obsolete assembly line model, with students as raw materials entering the factory floor, moving through standard classes taught by standard teachers and emerging as standard models of some outdated ideal of an educated high school graduate, fit only to fill standardized roles in standardized jobs. Businesses complain that they can’t find enough graduates who can think for themselves, develop creative innovations, communicate and collaborate effectively, or even complete basic tasks like reading directions or doing basic math problems that come up. The graduates might have passed a standard Common Core math class and know how to do standard rote problems, but when they face anything in the real world that deviates from the narrowly specific problem sets they are used to, they cannot solve the problem. Since life is one big story problem, they are ill equipped to develop creative solutions to even small challenges.

As world problems increase and deepen in complexity, we don’t need standardized graduates. We need graduates who are out-of-the-box thinkers, creative innovators, and problem-solvers who can communicate and collaborate globally. We think that by increasing educational standards we will somehow get the types of graduates we need, but that is simply not happening. No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, have attempted to raise national standards with the goal of improving student learning outcomes. They have failed miserably. Students are less equipped for life now than they were 20 years ago before these laws were passed. This is because standards do not, by themselves, raise educational quality. In fact, they can lead to a vicious cycle of diminishing educational quality as shown by the diagram at the top of this post and again here:

Although education standards are created with the best of intentions, they often do more harm than good.

Let’s start at the top. National commissions, businesses, and parent groups are successful in their calls for raising national or state educational standards and legislatures have passed laws to hold schools accountable to meet them. In order to hold schools accountable, schools must be assessed and the easiest way to do that is through mandatory testing of all students in critical subjects such as math, science, and English. Those schools that do not measure up are deemed unworthy and labeled as failing schools. Principals at failing schools face getting fired, so they encourage teachers, in many subtle and not so subtle ways, to do what they must to bring up test scores. Facing censure themselves, the teachers start to spend more class time teaching specifically to the test, drilling students and forcing them to memorize enough facts to get through the tests. At the same time, since only certain subjects are being tested, schools tend to put more emphasis on those subjects and provide less time in the daily schedule and less funds toward other, non-tested subjects such as art, music, and humanities. This means that students have less opportunities to learn creative subjects. With teachers now spending more time on drill and practice of testable facts, less time is available for inquiry labs, hands-on activities, and creative projects. Classes lean more toward rote learning and become boring and meaningless to students, who now have even less opportunity to find creative outlets. They do not learn how to collaborate, communicate, solve real problems, experiment, invent, tinker, make, or create. They do not learn how to be innovators, only learning how to regurgitate facts on tests. These graduates struggle in colleges and are not prepared to solve the problems they encounter in real jobs. Employers and business leaders call out for students who are better prepared and ask state boards and legislatures to raise standards. And around and around it goes. It is a vicious cycle.

The worst part of this cycle is the wasted potential I see daily in students who are convinced they are not creative, who prefer to read textbooks and answer questions at the end of the chapters because that’s what they’re used to and know how to do and who never get past the lowest level of factual knowledge in Bloom’s taxonomy because tests rarely get past measuring facts. Even if students learn enough facts to pass the end-of-year tests, they do not retain them for long because the facts have no context or depth, and within a month or two they are forgotten. Yet these students come into schools as kindergartners confident in their creativity. Somewhere along the line, as their attempts at innovation are stamped on repeatedly in the name of standardization, they unlearn how to be creative.

Another tragedy of this vicious cycle is that each step in the process is based on faulty assumptions and non-sequiturs. Having high standards and accountability does not mean we have to design more tests. There are other ways to evaluate schools, and higher test scores do not necessarily mean students are learning more and certainly not better. That we have mandatory tests doesn’t mean we have to cut funding for arts and humanities programs, yet that seems to commonly be the case. This is not an either-or proposition or a zero-sum-game, yet most school districts act as if it were. We can emphasize STEM fields and the arts. We can teach STEM through the arts. I have seen it done effectively. I know of a school near Salt Lake City that teaches science, math, and history through dance. Yes, dance, a program that is usually the first on the chopping block of school districts. The students demonstrated the germ theory of disease through a very effective dance routine. I can give numerous examples of teaching STEM through art from my own classroom, but that will be a future topic.

The worst assumption made by the proponents of standards is that the so-called “soft skills” of creative problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking (the Four Cs) are somehow not important for STEM fields and careers. The Next Generation Science Standards actually de-emphasize creativity as a science and engineering practice. Yet all effective scientists or engineers I know of rely frequently upon their creativity and innovation to solve problems that crop up in their research. Creativity is a critical skill, yet our emphasis on standards is crushing it out of future scientists and engineers.

I am in a graduate program titled Innovation and Education Reform but I fear that reform is not enough. What it will take is a wholesale transformation of education, a systemic integration of creativity and innovation into education to meet the needs of the complex problems we face and to stay competitive as a nation. Every attempt we have made at raising standards has merely put more pressure on teachers and students and moved us further away from the model of schools that I have in mind. I would like to see creativity integrated into schools as a virtuous cycle, as shown in the diagram below:

If we teach creativity and innovation, it will lead to more scientists and engineers, more makers, builders, creators, and inventors and therefore to more inventions, more discoveries, more products, more businesses, and an improved economy. This will lead to happier citizens and a better society. The question, of course, is how to move from where we are to where we need to be.

This diagram is more complex but more profound, not because I am claiming any level of profundity, but because the ideas expressed here are rarely examined in this combination. Starting again at the top of the diagram, if we deliberately teach students to be more creative and innovative (how to do this will be the subject of my dissertation) then there are several avenues that should be pursued. The first is that science classes should teach the processes of inquiry and experimentation, or what we used to call the scientific method. Reducing science to a body of facts is to render it dry and meaningless when scientific discovery should be an invigorating and exciting process followed by all students. We cannot expect future scientists to make new discoveries if they do not learn the process of inquiry.

I believe that all schools should have well-supplied and supported makerspaces where students can learn to tinker, make, build, and invent (please refer to my previous blog post for more on this). Part of the makerspace’s purpose should be to teach entrepreneurship and the process of invention, the engineering design cycle, and manufacturing and marketing skills. For a good example of this, look at the Innovation Design program developed by International Baccalaureate. I had the opportunity to be trained and teach this program and it is rare even for IB schools to offer it; mine was one of only a few such programs in Utah at the time.

Teaching creativity should also involve project or problem-based learning (PBL), with a focus on solving problems through design and developing skills for team work, collaboration, and communication. Teaching creativity and innovation through inquiry, making, and PBL will lead to increased scientific exploration and discovery, to more inventions and better products, and to starting up new businesses that will improve our economy and standard of living.

Another area of teaching creativity and innovation that I believe does not get enough attention (and is worth a research project or two this semester) is to teach students how to express themselves through media design software and design thinking skills. Even if teaching these skills only leads to critical media literacy it will be worth the expense in computers and software, but if done right it can enhance students’ creativity through allowing them more avenues to express themselves, to find their voices, to communicate their ideas, and to design educational content that will teach others. I think that we have not done enough research on the importance of training students to be teachers. I follow the old saying (with my own modification): “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Train him how to teach others how to fish, and you feed a village forever.”

Words to live by . . .

With more inventions and products, more educational content, and a higher standard of living we will have more resources available to improve education and other social programs. This will lead to happier citizens. As we teach others how to evaluate media claims and how to express themselves, we will build better informed citizens and allow voices to be heard who have been marginalized before. We have only to look at the misinformation out there concerning the effectiveness of wearing masks during this pandemic to see why scientific and media literacy are critically important social skills. Better informed citizens contributing their own voices will make better decisions both as consumers and as voters, which will lead to a stronger democracy and a better, more equitable society. This entire process will feed back on itself as a virtuous cycle; teaching creativity will lead to more creativity which will lead to a better society and increasing recognition of the importance of teaching creativity and innovation.

Given the complex challenges our society faces, we need to completely overhaul our educational system. I see this as the only way to fully integrate creativity and innovation, which must be done to solve our problems and keep our nation competitive. Now, hopefully, you see the rationale for why I am getting my doctorate and why my dissertation will be about how and why to teach creativity. I can see no other area where I can contribute more.

Examples of student projects created in my makerspace at New Haven School. On the left are 3D printed dinosaurs and virus models, 3D terrains of Mars, a working model of a human hand, rubber band shooters, and illustrations of micro-organisms.

Over the course of the last six months I have been exploring makerspaces as part of my continuing doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado. Makerspaces are becoming more common in schools, libraries, businesses, and even individual homes and can be anything from a corner of a room dedicated to creative projects, a mobile cart shared by several classes, a workshop, an area in a school or public library, or a dedicated building. To make, as in the maker movement, means to exercise creativity and innovation to design, build, test, and improve projects. Makerspaces are places to create products and knowledge, not just consume them (Moorefield-Lang, 2015). Other terms used are hacker spaces, DIY (do-it-yourself) labs, fab labs, creation centers, etc. A generation ago, they were the wood, metal and sewing shops of high schools. Now they have become associated with STEM education, combining digital and physical creativity tools to promote science, technology, engineering, and practical math through hands on project-based learning (Sheridan, et. al., 2014).

Research Questions:

I began to conduct background research over the summer as part of my larger schematic on teaching creativity and innovation. As part of a course on case study research methodologies, I have designed a research project to explore the nature of makerspaces. At their heart, makerspaces should promote (and even actively teach) creativity and innovation (Halbinger, 2018), but I wanted to see how true this was in reality. Do the directors of makerspaces and the teachers who build them in their classes consciously try to use them to promote creativity and innovation in students? Do they deliberately teach entrepreneurship and other skills that future innovators will need? Because we live in an innovation economy fueled by new and creative products and services, we need to train future generations how to be innovators. But how should this be done? This question is central to what will become my dissertation research.

I have been involved with developing my own makerspaces at the last three schools I have taught at, adding pieces of equipment, supplies, materials, and projects over the last ten years. I want to know what effective practices and pedagogies are available to teach innovation through making. As I’ve built up a classroom makerspace at New Haven School, I have added capabilities, asked questions, and interviewed teachers who have already gone through the process. Many of the teachers at the Teacher Innovator Institute sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum, of which I am a part, have their own makerspaces. We received training from Josh Ajima, director of the district makerspace for Loudoun County School District in northern Virginia, who told us that makerspaces do not need to have a lot of fancy equipment. It is really all about the philosophy of making, of students using their hands to explore and learn by doing and building, not sitting and listening. It is a very constructivist approach in the best tradition of John Dewey and Seymour Papert.

Fabric swatches from an inquiry lab on the factors influencing natural dyes. I use my science lab as a makerspace and laboratory interchangeably.

Another question I have tried to answer through this project is the degree to which regular classroom teachers are making use of makerspaces and project-based learning to teach required concepts and course objectives. As a science teacher, how can I use making in a biology class to teach microbiology or paleontology or physiology? What types of skills need to be taught and scaffolding constructed that will help them be successful? Should I teach 3D modeling in a chemistry class, for example?

During background research I have identified seven different levels of makerspaces. These are:
1. Elementary schools (Rouse, Krummeck, and Uribe, 2020).
2. Middle schools (Slama, 2019).
3. High schools.
4. Colleges and universities (Wong and Partridge, 2016).
5. Community makerspaces, such as ones in public libraries (Moorefield-Lang, 2015).
6. Commercial makerspaces, set up as a for-profit business funded by patron subscription fees (Sheridan, et. al., 2014).
7. Professional in-house makerspaces, for specific research and development projects.

I wanted to know if these different levels of spaces have different types of equipment, projects done, challenges, training, and funding issues. I decided for my case study class this semester to do a comparison between these different levels and report on my findings. After gaining IRB approval and trying to work through all the COVID craziness, I contacted several makerspace directors for the levels that I lack experience with. These are middle school, commercial, and community. University level makerspaces will have to wait for another time.

My makerspace is used to directly support student projects for subject objectives, such as learning the organelles in an animal cell through baking a cake, as in this student project.

Methods and Choice of Makerspace:

I needed to find makerspaces within proximity of my home in Orem, Utah and did research in the local newspapers to find any articles. I knew that our local public library has a makerspace, but it has been closed during the pandemic. I found a library-based makerspace in a middle school in central Salt Lake Valley. I found a commercial makerspace in Provo, a neighboring community. I located names of directors and contacted each makerspace, but setting up appointments was challenging during the pandemic and some of the interview dates had to slip until after Thanksgiving as COVID cases surged in Utah and the governor locked down all after-school activities. I set up a Zoom meeting with one of the Orem Library makerspace director and took tours of the middle school and commercial makerspaces. I sent a list of questions to each person in advance so that they could be ready for my visits. During the visits, I videotaped my tours and interviews, then transcribed the footage using Otter software, cleaning up the results for clarity.

An example of an elementary school makerspace: the Collaboratory at American International School. Student projects are displayed hanging on the wall.

Elementary School Makerspaces:

In the spring of this year I interviewed three teachers who are part of the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum and are all 5-6 grade teachers. Two have classroom makerspaces, the third is the director of a district-wide dedicated makerspace.

They told me that the complexity and purposes of makerspaces in elementary school depend greatly on the grade level of the students. Early grades generally use a “craft corner” approach – an area of the classroom with supplies for art projects including construction and drawing paper, pencils and crayons, safety scissors, cardboard boxes and tubes, glue, and so on. The types of projects used are mostly for teaching fine motor skills and general learning and literacy. Challenges included purchase and maintenance of supplies. Funding is usually achieved by donations. One teacher posts a list of needed supplies at the beginning of the school year and asks parents to send whatever they can in with their students; another teacher provides a required purchase list for each student at the beginning of the year. Supplies must be organized into two categories: those that are freely usable by students and those that can only be accessed by the teacher for particular projects . Otherwise, the needed supplies will be used up, because some students will randomly glue things together just for fun (even in high school). Critical supplies must be rationed.

By upper elementary grades the students have reached a level of sophistication sufficient to begin higher-order projects, such as learning simple computer programming (coding) with modular block languages such as Scratch. They can begin to learn 3D modeling and printing, simple electronics using snappable circuits, and engineering design projects for constructing objects such as bridges and towers. The teacher who directed a district-wide makerspace found that the greatest challenge was completing projects in the limited time each student had to use her space, since they could only reserve it for 1-2 days per month across multiple schools and classes.

Elementary students making projects in the Collaboratory makerspace.

As the sophistication of projects increases, so does the need for more complex equipment. Usually this is in the form of kits or self-contained programmable robots such as LEGO Mindstorms, Cubelets, Spheros, and Ozobots. Some time must be spent teaching students the basics of each type of technology; to solve this problem, many teachers have experienced students pair up and teach the less experienced. This fosters a culture of cooperation and motivates learning.

For my central question about creativity, the three elementary teachers agreed that creativity and innovation are essential skills and should be taught early to students. As Michelle, a fifth grade science teacher, puts it:

I have a makerspace in my classroom this year, and they’re all the time in my makerspace creating weird things or beautiful things or whatever, but they love to make things and make new things out of old things. And they go, like, you may have assigned everybody the same STEM project, but they carry theirs a little bit farther than what you’ve even thought about it going.

She deliberately teaches them to be aware of their creative process by reflecting on the experience afterward through a FlipGrid video:

I always make them do a FlipGrid after where they talk about, you know, what they used, what their idea was and why they wanted to build that. And it really encouraged the other ones to take it a little farther than what they were, instead of just making a flower out of a pipe cleaner. They were actually making things.

Michelle recognizes the importance of creativity for scientists and why it is an essential part of science instruction:

Because my husband’s a scientist and my daughters are scientists, I know that they have to think creatively, and they have to think outside the box. And they have, of course, real-world problems that come with their jobs, but they have to come up with ideas that haven’t been thought of before. And they have to be creative in their approaches.

She does not deliberately teach how to be creative through any lesson plans or curriculum, but she encourages creativity in many ways, such as allowing students to go beyond the requirements of the project, experiment, and then reflect upon it. She also encourages creativity by putting constraints or limitations on their projects, such as a budget and the need for having a plan worked out before any materials are handed out:

There’s one STEM project that I do that they have the materials and all the materials cost money. Well, the tape, charge them per centimeter because I don’t want them using all my tape. But it’s so funny, I’ll put this stuff out that I think has nothing to do with a project and they will find a way to use it. You know, so I just try to provide as many materials and they always have to make a plan and they have to list materials. And you know, that’s a hard lesson for some of them because they have to agree on a plan within their group.

This process teaches cooperation, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving skills in addition to creativity and innovation.

She finds that there is never enough time or space, as creative makerspace projects always take more time and room than anticipated. She does not get any funds from her district specifically for her makerspace and has to use her allotment of instructional money to support her makerspace while relying on parents to donate what they can.

Middle school makerspace featuring Keva Blocks, which can be used to build all kinds of structures and to teach engineering design concepts.

Middle School Makerspaces:

I chose to profile the makerspace at a middle school in the central part of Salt Lake Valley. The neighborhood was first built in the 1950s and 60s during the Baby Boom and is now beginning to age. Some of the older homes have been provided for families of refugees from western Africa and middle Eastern countries, whose children now attend the school. There is also a large homeless shelter whose children attend the school. To balance this, students from a gifted program in the district also attend this middle school. There are about 1100 students in the school under normal conditions, but only 650 of them are now attending in person with the rest online during the pandemic. 62% of the school consists of minority students, mostly Latinx, and 38% white. 24 flags are represented in the school’s library, and it is common to hear west African dialects and Arabic spoken in the halls.

The makerspace has been established in the school’s library, and the librarian began the space when she first started at the school 1 ½ years ago. She inherited an unused library budget and decided to create a makerspace with sets of programmable robots including Spheros, Ozobots, and Cubelets. She purchases 20 iPads to control the robots and a set of Keva blocks for general engineering design projects. She has also purchases a 3D printer but has not yet used it.

She finds the Keva bricks to be in great demand, as they are simple, unbreakable, and can be used to build many structures. While I was observing, the makerspace was open for an after school club. She had the students create cantilevered bridges across gaps between tables, or at least create the longest overhang of bricks. Without mentioned terms like torque, center of mass, or even cantilever, she was teaching engineering principles. There were 13 students there, seven girls and six boys. The girls sat with other girls and the boys worked with boys. The director told me that this is often the case at the start of the year but eventually the girls and boys mix together across genders. This was only the third time they had been together because of multiple closures due to the pandemic. Of the students, four were black and the rest white; two of the boys working together were speaking an African dialect to each other. All were showing persistence and creativity in their approaches to solving the problem; when their bridges collapsed, they quickly picked up the pieces and started over. It was a safe place for them, without criticism.

Using Keva blocks to build a free supporting cantilevered structure, part of an engineering design challenge.

She will move them on to the Spheros, creating challenges for the students to build the tallest towers they can with the Keva bricks, then use the Spheros to attempt to knock over each other’s towers and protect their own. Eventually, the Spheros are used to push a small soccer ball around, with larger programmable robots used as goalies. Teams attempt to play soccer while controlling the robots with their iPads. She doesn’t provide much instruction but relies on the experienced students to teach the newbies and knows that the students, if given a fun challenge, will figure it out for themselves.

Her most important goal for the makerspace is not to teach science, engineering, or creativity per se but to provide a safe place for experimentation. If that exists, then creativity will be a natural result. She attends to the social-emotional well-being of the students, knowing that many of them come from challenging home environments.

There are challenges. She has had sufficient funds so far, but her equipment is new enough that it has not broken down yet or needed replacing. The Keva bricks are so basic that they will last many years; she simply needs more of them. Her biggest challenge is having enough time with students; it is an after-school club that meets only once per week for one hour, but this year the school has received a grant for a program that lasts 30 minutes each day, cutting into the short amount of time she has with the students. She can only do one simple challenge in the 30 minutes left. To help solve this, the lab and materials are available during lunch. As the year progresses and students learn more, she expects more students to come during lunch. The pandemic has limited how far she has been able to teach this year. She has largely come up with her own projects and challenges, with help from lesson plans created by the makers of the robot kits and Keva bricks. It is the lack of time needed to train herself that has prevented her from using the 3D printer.

Building out a free supporting structure with Keva blocks.

She sees her makerspace as a space for creativity. As she puts it:

“Makerspace is for an individual to come in and create and have ownership, something that they’re able to do on their own [and to] build and collaborate with others.”

As to whether classroom teachers use the makerspace to support their classroom content, she says that some are beginning to do so. For example:

One of our teachers teaches Greek mythology and that history part and so she gets into the catapult. And so I ordered through Keva planks, catapult building . . . they’re able to take the Keva planks, and all of that and build the catapult set they’ve been learning about on that. Also, with the Keva planks, you can build the castles, the bridges, all of those kind of things that they had back in that era, for those students to be able to compare and to understand more how all those things were built.

She believes that makerspaces can be models of inclusion as students learn to collaborate and work with each other. She has the more experienced students work with beginners with activities that are fun, safe, and cooperative. One example is to use the Keva planks to build towers, which teaches architecture and engineering, then use the Sphero robots to attempt to knock down each other’s towers. The teams use some Spheros to guard their own towers while attempting to attack the others. She emphasizes teamwork and emotional learning:

“. . . it was just awesome to watch them talking and working with each other on that. And that’s what I would see is kids getting along, and just trying to create and build something together. They weren’t making fun of other’s buildings, everybody worked great with each other. And I think that is what I want to see. I want to be able to see that kind of stuff because they don’t get that in the classrooms.”

Her makerspace isn’t about coding or learning math or STEM. It is about providing social-emotional learning and being able to have fun and work together with students from diverse backgrounds. As she explains the main goal of her makerspace:

“Mine isn’t about them coming away knowing coding, or them coming away being better math students. My goal is for them to come away with a social emotional learning. . . . my master’s studies has been in SEL, and that’s what I believe makerspace does is it helps students get that, that social emotional learning, especially when they’re working with others, . . . really, they’re playing with others. And they’re playing with others that are so different. They come, all of them come from so many different backgrounds. And what a great thing to see, I think, and to see them get along with each other, talking and working with each other. When they were building the city there, it was just fun to watch them talking with each other. And, you know, and just getting along.”

This was a finding that surprised me – that a makerspace was more than a place to learn about STEM fields. It has a higher purpose to teach students collaboration, creativity, communication, and to foster inclusion of all students.

Creating a bulletin board on the history of chemistry as a class project at New Haven School. Students created the captions and designed the bulletin board to fit into a space on the front wall of my classroom. I have moved it now so that it hangs on my ceiling.

High School Makerspaces:

I did not visit any high school makerspaces, partly due to the COVID pandemic and partly because I already have considerable experience with this level. I have helped to build makerspaces at several high schools, including my current school.

New Haven School

Using my school classroom budget and a grant from the National Air and Space Museum, I am building a makerspace in the corner of my science classroom. This space is used to support my classroom activities and projects, which are all centered around content objectives. For example, I have cardboard boxes, foamcore sheets, hot glue guns and glue, string, straws, and beads which are used for making working models of human hands for our biology unit on the musculo-skeletal system and 3D models of the nearby stars for astronomy. I purchased a 3D printer and teach my students how to use TinkerCad and SculptGL to create models that we can print out, such as models of viruses for our microbiology unit, or dinosaurs for a unit on paleontology, or organic molecules for chemistry, or terrains on Mars for astronomy (as explained here: https://spacedoutclassroom.com/2020/08/21/3d-printing-mars-terrains-using-mola-data/ ). We use PVC to build frames for stop-motion animations and physics equipment; wooden dowels, popsicle sticks and clothespins for rubber band shooters in physics; and Scratch software to design review games and animations.

One engineering project is to design a bridge using a small budget of spaghetti noodles, a sheet of paper, 2 feet of tape, and four gummy bears. It has to support a Matchbox car pushed across it without killing poor Tubby the Dog. If you don’t know who Tubby is, look him up . . .

I feel that a makerspace is not just equipment and supplies but also software, and that media design skills are a necessary part of the process. I use a mastery system of grading based on my own model of how to move students from passive to active to creative projects. Each unit, I list the concepts that need to be mastered on the vertical scale of a matrix and ways that students can demonstrate mastery across the top. They are encouraged to move along a continuum from passive to creative, and creativity is one of the characteristics that are graded during their peers’ Critique process, which provides positive suggestions and feedback so that students can improve their projects. All of the projects are graded on a scale of 0 to 8, with zero being no demonstration of mastery yet and 8 being full mastery with high creativity, quality, and with teaching concepts to others. I have submitted an article about this process to Educational Leadership and will write about it in more detail in a future blog post.

Student teams in my physics class designed, built, tested, and revised these rubber band shooters as an exercise in engineering design. They had to meet specifications of being able to test different pull back lengths and shooting angles.

The result of this process has been an increase in both creativity and concept mastery. Students are now more self-directed and will read the textbook or search the Internet to find the information they need to create their projects; I rarely need to lecture any more. My philosophy is that we need to invert Bloom’s taxonomy and put creativity first. Imagine that creativity is an apple seed, growing down to the roots of knowing facts, understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing and growing up to innovation.

Other High School Makerspaces:

Other schools have various types of makerspaces. In some, dedicated rooms or spaces are built that house a variety of tools and support many student and teacher led projects. They are often created as part of Career and Technical Education courses, and Utah has a robust CTE program and a series of magnet schools called U-Tech where high school students can attend from their local schools for three hour classes each day in such fields as Medical Assistant, Dental Assistant, Welding, Computer Networking, and Media Design. I ran a media design program at what is now known as M-Tech (Mountainland Technical College) for nine years, teaching adult education and high school classes.

Other schools have initiated national programs that teach entrepreneurship and engineering. At least two Utah schools are part of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a turnkey solution that includes curriculum, projects, and certifications geared towards engineering design. It is rather expensive, at a $50,000 annual subscription fee. Another national network that is part of at least three school districts in Utah is the Center for Advanced Professional Studies, where students learn entrepreneurship by working with local businesses to design and test solutions to problems and market their results.

Lassonde Studios is a live-in makerspace that allows 24-7 access to making for students at the University of Utah

University Makerspaces:

I have yet to visit a university makerspace, but through my research I can see that there are several types. Some colleges have makerspaces inside their school libraries open to students for working on projects on a pay-for-materials basis. In some cases, community members can also use the makerspaces for a fee. Some colleges of education create makerspaces as part of their teacher preparation programs to train prospective pre-service teachers how to use and run makerspaces.

University engineering and design programs usually have the most complex makerspaces. They hope to entice the best students to enroll at their schools and to promote entrepreneurship and new start-up businesses that will enhance local economies and bring in more community donations. They act as incubators and kickstarters, sometimes even providing grant money to promising student teams. At Brigham Young University, the Venture Lab supports engineering and design students by promoting their business ideas through an Ideathon, where students can pitch an idea and receive feedback from the audience and local business leaders. Small start-up grants support materials costs, and the lab provides construction and testing equipment for a wide variety of projects ranging from electronics to wood to metal to plastic fabrication, with commercial level additive and resin 3D printers, milling machines, CNC routers, laser cutters, etc.

At Lassonde Studios at the University of Utah, an entire new building has been built as both a dormitory and makerspace for students who are entrepreneurs, creators, programmers, designers, and innovators. The entire central core includes fabrication shops and meeting spaces that can be used for free by residents of the hall for design, prototyping, testing, and marketing ideas. At $45 million, the building is a hub for entrepreneurship and is rated as one of the ten best university makerspaces in the world. You can check out a video of student entrepreneurs at Lassonde Studios here: https://youtu.be/9C0DXJjiAi4.

I do not know how the pandemic has impacted these spaces. I hope to visit one or both of them during winter break or early next year to complete my initial research into makerspaces.

The makerspace at the Orem Public Library in Orem, Utah

Community Makerspaces: Orem Public Library:

The Orem Public Library in Orem, Utah established a makerspace four years ago. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but equipment can be checked out by community members. I interviewed one of the directors of the space concerning its purposes and goals, challenges and successes.

As more libraries began to have makerspaces, library patrons began to ask if the Orem library would be building one. As he put it:

Our division manager had seen them at other libraries and thought that it would be a really cool service for us to offer. We have had patrons in the past asking if we were going to have something like that, that they’d seen around or if we were ever even just going to have more equipment to check out, like projectors, and digitizers. The kind of archiving and family history aspect of it is really big in the community. So people were asking for those type of things.

The library staff looked at community interest and the types of needs and services they could provide. They could see that family history and archiving was a common request, including digitizing old photographs and videos, supplying high end Bernina sewing machines, providing 3D printing services, and creating a video and sound editing booth with green screen, lights, cameras, music keyboards, and computer software. A conference room in the library was tasked with becoming the new makerspace and a community grant of $11,000 was used to purchase equipment. The new director traveled to other communities and to a commercial makerspace in Washington, DC to learn how makerspaces were working.

After four years, they have seen some interesting patterns develop in how the space is being used. As he explains:

“I think the archiving is a big one, being able to digitize your slides and negatives, and actual like print photos, and your VHS tapes and other cassette tapes. The kids who are getting into 3D printing has probably been the most popular. It’s been really popular with kids who are kind of interested in that or learning about that or just interested in the technology. And then also community members who are developing prototypes and or replacing like little things around the house that they’ve had for 40 years but never got rid of because they love it, but they’re missing this one little piece, and then we can usually help them print that. But other than that, I’d say converting stuff to digital has been the number two interest in there. And then we’ve also had a lot of people interested in, like the sound booth, and the green screen wanting to create some blogs and vlogs, creating content.”

He went on to say that the most common thing children want to print is a toy off of Thingiverse for $1 or so in plastic. The sewing machine can do simple embroidery and is used for costume design. They hold occasional cosplay classes to support this demand in the community.

The major challenges of the library makerspace is that of sustainability. As the 3D printers are used, new ones must be purchased to replace them as they wear out. Other equipment is more durable but expensive and there is only a limited amount of operational budget. Space is at a premium, with the green screen, lights, and other equipment crammed in his office as the library builds a new auditorium and additional conference room spaces. A final challenge is training; his major was film and sound editing, and he has an assistant who has learned how to do 3D modeling, but they have little time to teach patrons how to use the higher end software or machines they have less experience with. They have to assume patrons know the software already and can only occasionally provide one-on-one instruction when the makerspace is not very busy. Most of the adults who want to digitize their archival photos do not know how to do this. I asked if they have a need for volunteers to help teach patrons and he enthusiastically agreed and said he is hoping to set up a volunteer schedule when the makerspace reopens. I volunteered to help out when that time comes; it will give me a chance to see the makerspace in action and get a better feel for the types of projects and patrons there. They have created a few training videos but more are needed, and he has insufficient time to film and edit them.

To learn more about the Orem Library makerspace you can take a virtual tour here: https://youtu.be/pnmJgHbro3o.

Part of the ProLab Studio makerspace in downtown Provo, Utah. It is a subscription-based commercial makerspace.

Commercial Fee-based Makerspace: ProLab Studio, Provo, Utah:

To understand the commercial level of makerspace, I researched labs in my community and found a relatively new makerspace in downtown Provo, Utah. There had been one previously in the same neighborhood but when I tried to stop by and see it a year ago it was no longer in business. When I contacted them the new space, one of the employees was willing to answer the questions that I sent him and act as my tour guide when I visited on Friday last week.

This is a makerspace created as a for-profit business venture. It had originally been set up by the owners for a different purpose and they had bought the machines and equipment solely for doing custom work. When that did not pay off, they decided to open up the shop as a makerspace in the community for anyone to pay a monthly subscription fee and come in to use the equipment themselves.

They have a variety of machines and tools at a higher level than a community makerspace, including an embroidery machine, a dye-sublimation large-format printer, four well-used 3D additive printers including two Prusas, two laser engravers, a CNC router, a milling machine, three resin-based 3D printers, and a variety of electric tools such as table saws, band saws, drill presses, etc. The wood tools were in a separate area with a vacuum system to control sawdust and doors to drown out some of the noise.

You can tell a great deal about the types of projects done at a makerspace by looking in the trash bin. Here at ProLab Studio, patrons are using laser cutters to create Christmas ornaments and other shapes out of thin plywood sheets.

They do not make enough money off of the subscriptions themselves to pay for employees and make a profit, so they also accept custom jobs online from people that need projects done but who don’t what to do them themselves. They rent out part of their floor space to other companies: a sound booth for recording podcasts, a company that makes custom Nerf guns (there were many boxes of Nerf bullets in the back storage area), and a design studio. They inherited a large space in the basement repair garage of an old car dealership in the business district of southern Provo. The dealership is so old that among the signs painted on the bricks on the outside of the building is one for Edsel cars. The basement repair shop area has been cleaned out, partitions knocked down, and is now rented out entirely by ProLabs. They are only using half the space so far, and have plans to expand their woodshop into the large storage area in the back.

They had their best month ever in March of this year and then the coronavirus hit, slowing things down. It was fairly quiet when I was there – no patrons were using the equipment and only a few laser engraving projects were being done. The upstairs portion of the dealership was opened up as a display area and was housing a Christmas boutique, so quite a few people were walking around the area and eating filled churros from a food truck parked by the dealership, but none were finding their way around the side and down to the makerspace.

The types of projects done range from hobby crafts, learning new skills, and personal projects through prototypes of products for businesses to small-scale manufacturing. Some patrons see a product in a store that they feel can be made cheaper, or a business might want a set of embroidered caps or color-printed shirts for a promotion or a corporate event or team. Some patrons come to gain experience and practice different making techniques to enhance their resumes or job prospects. Looking in the trash bin, there were quite a few thin plywood sheets that had been cut out into patterns of Christmas tree ornaments; apparently many of the personal projects this time of year involve making DIY Christmas decorations, including wood cutouts for tole painting. One sheet had a girl’s name cut out of it, possibly as a birthday or Christmas gift that will be a decoration in a daughter’s room.

My tour guide told me that the major challenge had been having enough patrons lately due to the pandemic. They have plenty of space, a rarity for makerspaces, and their equipment was already paid for by the previous business. They use subscriptions for rental, employee salaries, and purchasing new or replacing old equipment. They have not done much in the way of advertising, as word-of-mouth has been sufficient up until now. The type of people who want to use makerspaces are generally good at searching them out using Google. They have weathered the COVID slowdown by increasing their custom work orders, which is really their major source of income.

The largest challenge they have is training. They cannot do much training of patrons; although some of these machines are fairly easy to use, such as the laser printers, other equipment such as the wood lathes and milling machines takes quite a lot of training to use safely. Employees do not have the time of training themselves to be able to teach others how to use the equipment, so they must rely on people already having expertise. They know most of their patrons and their capabilities well and so far haven’t had to set up any type of database or certification requirements, but they admit it may need to be done. They have not yet held any in-house classes but have created a video for training on one of the machines and may decide to do more. There will still need to be a hands-on component to the training; not all the knowledge needed to effectively run a complex machine can be learned from watching a video only.

The Fabrication Shop at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There are five 5-axis milling machines, and the large tan object to the right of center in this photo is a custom drilling tower. Any part for a space probe, such as a robotic arm or the rocker-bogey suspension of a rover can be created here.

Professional In-House Makerspace: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA is one of ten NASA field centers. It specializes in designing, building, and testing robotic space probes that explore Earth and other planets. To accomplish this mission requires highly sophisticated knowledge of interactive design, electronics, mechanics, propulsion, communications, data processing, and other engineering and technical skills in addition to expertise in planetary science and orbital mechanics.

Space Probe Approval

For a space probe to be approved and developed takes a number of steps. First, Congress must approve funding for the probe based on opportunities for launch, which depend on the orbits of the planets. For example, probes can only go to Mars once every 26 months when Mars and Earth align. An Announcement of Opportunity is made at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, and teams of scientists at various universities and space research centers compete to have their instrument fly on the probe. They submit proposals and the best ones are given seed money to create and test a prototype. The designs which test out the best and fit with the probe’s mission are selected and the scientific groups then build a final version which is shipped to JPL. Meanwhile, the bus (basic structure of the probe) is designed along with its systems, which include propulsion, communication, power, navigation, and landing sub-systems, if needed. Prior to the development of design software, space probes took up to ten years to design, build, and launch because each department designed its own part of the probe, then had to redesign when their parts didn’t fit with the other parts.

Wayne Zimmerman shows a group of teachers the cryobot that is designed to melt its way through layers of ice on Mars or Europa and has been tested successfully on an island off the Norwegian coast. Photo taken summer, 2004.

The Project Development Process

In the early 2000s, the Project Design Center was created to speed up the process of probe development as all system engineers work in the same room interactively. If propulsion requires larger fuel tanks, then communication and power systems need to be moved. All parts must be under an established weight and be able to fold together to fit inside the faring of the launch vehicle. The probes are a real-world transformer: They fold together for launch, then unfold for their cruise to another planet, then transform again for aerobraking or retro-rocket orbital insertion, then fold another way for entry, descent, and landing. Once the design is approved, the major parts are machined in the Fabrication Shop, which houses five 5-axle milling machines, a specialized 25-foot drilling tower, etc. Small devices and their micro-electronics are built in the Micro Devices Lab. All the parts are assembled and tested in the Assembly Building, which has a series of clean rooms. Once the vehicle is built and working, it is disassembled and shipped to the top of the hill and the parts are subjected to environmental stresses in the Environmental Test Lab, generally referred to as Shake and Bake. Parts are placed on shaker tables to simulate the vibrations of launch, placed in an acoustic chamber and blasted with over 150 decibels of sound to simulate the acoustic stresses, and placed in vacuum chambers under intense radiation to simulate the vacuum and radiation environment of space. Many parts fail; for most components of a probe, several copies must be made so that at least two space-worthy versions are available, the primary and backup. Once testing is complete, the parts are shipped to Cape Canaveral where they are reassembled inside the launch faring at the top of the rocket inside a clean room. Finally, they launch, cruise to their destination, and go into orbit or land. Every step of the way is tested and retested. Having a failure of a space probe wastes hundreds of millions of dollars and years of the scientists’ and engineers’ lives. Probes have failed for minor reasons, including failing to convert English units into metric units or the failure of a single explosive bolt to fire.

Continuing our tour of the Fabrication Shop at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

JPL as Makerspace

JPL can be considered as the ultimate makerspace; all of the labs and shops at JPL have the overarching purpose of designing and building space probes and their instruments. Every project is unique, all results are innovations. As I have been told by JPL engineers, if it were easy or routine to make, they would have it done somewhere else. New technologies are tested all of the time, such as unfoldable solar sails, inflatable tires and habitats, probes with quantum level instruments and micro-thrusters that will fit inside a shoebox. Every building at the lab holds surprises. In one lab a cryogenic torpedo probe sits on a table. It has been designed and tested to melt its way down through layers of ice, sampling for signs of life along the way and sending data back through a wire tether to a lander. It may be used on a mission to land on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and drill through the ice to test the liquid water ocean underneath. In another lab, a spider bot is being tested that can crawl down the cliffs of Valles Marineris on Mars. Rovers such as Curiosity, Perseverance, Spirit, and Opportunity are tested in an outdoor Mars Yard made to simulate the slopes, regolith, and rocks at a landing site. They are also tested inside at the In-Situ Instruments Lab. The Spaceflight Operations Facility receives data from probes in space through the Deep Space Network of radio antennas. The Multi-Mission Image Processing Lab takes that binary data and reassembles it into photos and 3D images.

An engineering test model of the Curiosity Rover in the In-Situ Instruments Lab (ISIL) at JPL in 2012. The actual rover was scheduled to land on Mars two days after we took this tour.

Many different specialties are needed by JPL. Students with experience in digital imaging, data processing, engineering, 3D modeling and CAD, computer programming, planetary science, electronics, mechanics, and so on are in demand. JPL looks for many types of talented people, and the more experience they have with collaborative problem-solving, creativity, innovation, and making, the more attractive they will be. For example, Rob Manning was a drafting student in high school and college who was hired at JPL to help design space probe parts. His talent has been recognized, and he is now in charge of the Seven Minutes of Terror of Mars landers and rovers, the most critical phase of Entry, Descent, and Landing. A thousand things must happen at exactly the right moments for a probe to successfully land on Mars. That so many probes are successful and last well beyond their designated life spans (the Mars Odyssey probe has been in orbit 19 years) is testament to the quality of engineering and craftsmanship at JPL.

To identify talented students and encourage them toward STEM careers, JPL brings in high school and college interns each summer to work with project engineers. Many of these go on to permanent jobs at JPL. They have a very active Education and Public Outreach department headed by David Seidel, one of my favorite people on the planet and whom I have worked with to provide educator workshops. As a teacher visiting JPL, one is struck with the focus and single-minded purpose of the employees and their attitude of being able to bring about the impossible, literally doing what has never been done before. The culture of experimentation, questioning, collaboration, thinking outside the box, testing, revision, and engineering makes it one of the most exciting places to visit on the planet.

David Seidel, Education and Public Outreach Director at JPL, leading a tour of the Microdevices Lab with a group from the NASA Explorer Schools program in 2004.

Emergent Themes:

In conclusion, my study of makerspaces has shown some common themes across all of the levels of makerspaces:

Training: There is a continuing need for training of both patrons and teachers/ directors/ employees. As new technologies and equipment are added to makerspaces, teachers find it difficult to take the time to learn and practice the new technology. Patrons need to be certified on new equipment and receive training on using design software. Some makerspaces solve this problem by having experienced students teach new students, or through formal classes or one-on-one instruction as time allows. Other spaces use videos to train patrons on equipment. Some makerspaces require formal certification before patrons can use equipment on their own.

Encouragement of Creativity: Although little evidence was found of formal teaching of creativity and innovation, all makerspaces encourage and support creativity either deliberately or indirectly. There is a major disconnect between the expectations of university level makerspaces and high school makerspaces; few high schools teach innovation or entrepreneurship, yet university makerspaces are set up to incubate new businesses and therefore expect students to already know these skills. Some programs have been created, such as entrepreneurship as a college major with courses designed to teach business acumen, funding, and marketing for start-up businesses, but more needs to be done especially at the high school level to train students to be innovative inventors and entrepreneurs.

David Seidel explaining how rovers are tested in the Mars Yard at JPL, summer 2002.

Challenges: Funding for initial set-up and continued maintenance and sustainability is the most common challenge followed closely by space; most makerspaces are short on room for building, testing, and storing projects. Another common problem for makerspaces in schools is lack of time for completing projects; teachers usually underestimate the amount of time required to creatively complete a project.

Structure: Makerspaces can either be highly structured and teacher-centered or they can be more student-centered where students work on individually chosen projects. Once common theme was that the structure of school makerspaces changes during the school year; at the beginning, when training on tools and equipment is needed, the lessons are more structured. As students gain competency, they are better able to propose and create their own projects.

Support for Content Area Subjects: When makerspaces are inside an individual teacher’s classroom, they are used to support content standards and objectives. When they are in school libraries with dedicated teachers, the integration with specific subject areas becomes weaker and the makerspace directors often use their own curricula or lesson plans. Often only an occasional teacher will visit or have student use the space to create content related projects, which lessons the potential benefit of school makerspaces. There is a general lack of training for classroom teachers on how they can integrate making into their lessons.

David Black (yours truly) in front of a large vacuum/irradiation chamber at the Environmental Test Lab (aka Shake and Bake) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 2004.

Demographics: In some schools, makerspace usage is dominated by white male students, but in others there is a more balanced and equitable demographic. At the beginning of the school year in K-8 grades, the girls usually work with girls, but the groups will become more mixed by the end of the year. In some schools minority students are well-represented, in others more needs to be done to ensure full inclusion. Many makerspaces need to be redesigned to allow accessibility by people with disabilities. More girls and minority students should be engaged in making if we are to ensure an equitable balance of future engineers and innovators.

I am not through with this research yet; I hope to visit a number of my colleagues in middle and high schools and to visit univeristy makerspaces and other commercial makerspaces over the next few years to see how creativity, innovatin, inventing, and entrepreneurship all fit together in makerspaces.

Here is a summary diagram I created as part of my final report for the case study course:

A summary table of my findings from the comparative makerspace case study.

References:

Caruso, B. (2019). Innovation instruction in the academic library: A new focus. Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 31 (2), 88-99.

Halbinger, M. (2018). The role of makerspaces in supporting consumer innovation and diffusion: An empirical analysis. Research Policy, 47 (2018). 2028-2036.

Kye, H. (2020). Who is welcome here? A culturally responsive content analysis of makerspace websites. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 10 (2), Article 1.

Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, (2016). Welcome to the Lassonde Institute, retrieved from YouTube on
12/11/20 at: https://youtu.be/9C0DXJjiAi4.

McAllister, G. (2019). MakerSpace review – Orem Public Library, retrieved from YouTube on 12/8/20 at: https://youtu.be/pnmJgHbro3o.

Moorefield-Lang, H. (2015). When makerspaces go mobile: Case studies of transportable maker locations. Library Hi Tech, 33 (4). 462-471.

Rouse, R., Krummeck, K, and Uribe, O. (2020). Making the most of makerspaces: A three-pronged approach to integrating a makerspace into an elementary school. Science&Children, Feb. 2020, 31-35.

Sheridan, K. et al. (2014). Learning in the making: A comparative case study of three makerspaces. Harvard Educational Review, 84 (4), 505-531.

Slama, J. (2019). New makerspace creates welcoming school culture at Midvale Middle, The City Journal, Dec. 4, 2019.

Steele, K., Cakmak, M., and Blaser, B. (2018). Accessible making: Designing a makerspace for accessibility. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 9 (1), 114-121.

Wong, A. and Partridge, H. (2016). Making as learning: Makerspaces in universities. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47 (3), 143-159.

Zammarano, F. (2013). United Nations International School’s makerspace AKA Collaboratory. Maker Ed, retrieved 12/8/20 from:
https://makered.org/blog/united-nations-international-schools-makerspace-aka-colaboratory/

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who proposes that creativity is a cognitive state of flow, where the challenges of a task are balanced with the skill level of the individual.

Any human characteristic must be complex, given the many differences between people including their opinions, experiences, and mental abilities. Creativity is one such concept; an idea that everyone understands but that no one can agree on. We know that it exists and is widely distributed, but we cannt agree on what it actually is. I have been crawling down this rabbit hole for my entire professional life and especially this last year as I have begun a doctoral program in Innovation and Education Reform at the University of Northern Colorado. In my last post, I tried to lay out all the concepts related to creativity and innovation in order to systematically explore them over the four years of my doctorate (and beyond). The first concept that needs tackling is to develop a working definition of creativity, then move on to a definition of innovation.

Personal Destinies by David L. Norton. Not the easiest book to read, it discusses a philosophy of eudaimonism, or the development of the individual’s full potential, something that resonates with me as an educator.

For my first semester EDF 670 course, I was required to complete a detailed doctorate-level literature review. I delved deeply into the research on creativity, going all the way back to a Creativity course I took in college back in 1982. The leading definition then was that creativity was a process for solving problems using a rational sequence of steps (more akin to the current definition of the engineering design process). In a political philosophy course during my masters degree program, I was required to read Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism by David L. Norton (1976, Princeton University Press). He used a Greek conception of creativity as an inner trait or drive (called the daimon) that must be expressed for an individual to become themself, the second great Socratic imperative. Everyone has individual talents or gifts that can be developed; these talents are commensurable, in that our society consists of many different people whose talents compliment each other. Further research has identified other definitions for creativity, such as a great deal of research I did on creativity as flow, a mental state where skills balance challenge as proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

While preparing for this blog post two weeks ago, I researched websites that attempted to define creativity, thinking that I might find some alternative explanations beyond what was in the literature. I came across a website from Dr. Donna Hardy at Cal State Northridge who taught a course in the Psychology of Creativity (Psych 344/444) from 1997 through 2010 and asked her students to provide their own definitions of creativity, which were posted on the site at: (http://www.csun.edu/~vcpsy00h/creativity/survey.htm).

I have downloaded these definitions and analyzed them to develop an expanded list of possible approaches to creativity, including those I had already identified from my literature review. This resulted in a list of nine possible definitions. With these in hand, I went back through the student survey and tallied which categories their definitions fit into. In some cases the choice was obvious, but in others the definitions fit into more than one category, so I gave them multiple tallies. It was an admittedly subjective process, and the definitions are not mutually exclusive and possibly not comprehensive. There could still be other definitions that I have not considered. There were some students who refused to define creativity or said it was undefinable, used a tautology to define it (such as “creativity is the act of being creative”), or said that it was different for every person. I created a category 0 for these non-definitions. Altogether 548 students wrote their own definitions, of which I recored 748 tallies.

The nine definitions I came up with are as follows:

Categories of creativity definitions:

0. Undefinable, or refused to define, or said that it has a different definition for each person

  1. An innate personality trait, skill, talent, drive, need, passion, daimon, muse, or genius. There exists a commensurability of talents where each person has a different set of gifts. It is a human characteristic that cannot be taught, but it can be enhanced, encouraged, or diminished.
  2. constellation of cognitive or mental skills that can be taught, practiced, and improved.
  3. A mode of thought or frame of mind that is autotelic (self-rewarding) including imagination, exploration, conceptualization, appreciation of beauty, spirituality, visualization, and flow (when there is a balance of skills and challenge).
  4. A process or series of steps that can be rationally and sequentially followed and which is informed by experience and intellect. The problem-solving process.
  5. A moment of insight, clarity, or inspiration – the “Ah hah!” moment. This usually follows a period of incubation.
  6. Ideation or fluency with generating many new and unique ideas through synthesis and the creation of greater complexity. Brainstorming; conceiving that which does not yet exist or making something from nothing.
  7. Thinking outside the box, open-mindedness, breaking boundaries, originality, divergent or unconventional thinking, mental challenge, and conceptual blockbusting. Seeing things in a new way.
  8. Persistence and resourcefulness in bringing a final useful, socially valuable, or aesthetically pleasing tangible product from conception to fruition; innovation.
  9. Self-expression, artistic expression, individuality; one’s personality or feelings and emotions made manifest which resonates with the emotions of others. An outlet for the soul; self-discovery, empowerment, fun, and play.

These definitions are a work in progress, and I will continue to tweak them until I am satisfied they are good enough to start doing some serious research with. I would like to do a survey through both of my blog sites and of teachers I know. There is still a lot of overlap between some of the categories. I think putting them all together, I am approaching a fairly comprehensive definition of such a complex human characteristic, but I haven’t quite arrived yet.

After tallying the categories, the results are shown in the table below:

Screen capture from a spreadsheet used to tally definitions of creativity.

The most commonly held definition of creativity by the college students in the Psych 344/444 class was that creativity is self-expression or artistry, an outlet for feelings, emotions, and personality. It is individuality, self-discovery, empowerment, fun, and play. 28.07% of the students wrote some variation on this definition. It may be too broad of a category and in need of subdividing; it is too tempting to use it as a “grab bag” for all definitions that don’t fit elsewhere. The next most common definition was that creativity is open-mindedness, thinking outside the box, unconventionality, and divergent thinking with 19.52%. The third most common definition was that creativity is the act of ideation or the development of new and unique ideas through brainstorming, synthesis, and greater complexity (complexification?) with 15.37%.

A pie chart of the percentages of each category of definitions of creativity used by students in the Psych 344 class at Cal State Northridge from 1997 to 2010.

Other definitions were not as common, with some showing only a low percentage of usage, the lowest being Definition 5, where creativity is the moment of insight, inspiration, or sudden clarity at 2.14%. Although this is the least common category, I included it because there are a number of well-documented cases in the literature of moments of insight following long incubation, such as the famous example of the discovery of the structure of benzene by August Kekule.

There was no demographic information provided other than the students’ names. Cal State Northridge is in an ethnically diverse part of northern San Fernando Valley, and the students’ names suggest that their classes are also ethnically diverse, as do the photographs provided of student projects. I do not know if the Northridge students have provided significantly different definitions than students at other universities would. I tallied the various semester classes in two groups; the first 12 semesters from 1997 through 2003 and the final 11 semesters from 2004 through 2010. For most of the categories the results are not significantly different, but there is a slight increase in defining creativity as self-expression and a decrease in defining it as an act of imagination. I have not tried to calculate standard deviations or do any sophisticated Chi-squared or other tests. The subjective nature of my categories is not scientific enough to warrant that kind of analysis. I simply wanted to develop definitions that could be used for further studies that will be more statistically valid. I am thinking ahead to my dissertation, which will center around the need for and practices of teaching creativity in science classrooms.

I will try to unpack the details of each definition and give some backup literature in my next post. Eventually, the core of what I am writing and speculating on here will find its way into Chapter 2 of my dissertation. I still have a long way to go, but this is a necessary first step. I hope you don’t mind my taking you along with me.

Ranch painting-Lifebook cover

A painting I did of the old homesteader’s cabin at our ranch in Tooele County. It was built at the lower spring by the lowest of three irrigation ponds. My grandfather remodeled an old post office building that he had hauled out to the ranch from the Dugway Prooving Grounds which was placed at the highest pond near the upper spring.

As I began my doctoral program in Innovation and Education Reform at the University of Northern Colorado in the fall of 2019, I knew that this would be a challenge, especially at my age. I did not want to waste any time getting through this program, which meant keeping a sharp focus on my reasons for getting this degree. I knew that to move forward toward an EdD now could only be done if I had a passion for understanding the questions I have uncovered as a science and technology teacher over 30 years, questions that can only be answered through sustained and deep research.

I know that I am not doing this for the money. With only ten years or less left of my teaching career, I will never make up the cost of this program in higher salaries. I am not doing it to change jobs (although higher pay would be nice) or because I’m bored with what I am doing. I like teaching high school science; that’s why I’ve done it for 30 years. Getting this degree has to be because I have compelling questions that can be answered in no other way; this is a passion project.

Before even applying to various graduate school programs, I sat down and identified six areas that I wanted to learn more about and where I could contribute my own experiences. I’ve mentioned them before, but here is a quick summary:
1. The nature of creativity and innovation: their importance to society and students, and how to teach them.
2. Project and problem-based learning: Gold standard PBL, how to implement it in a classroom and across entire schools, how to engage students in the process, and how to achieve quality results.
3. Using authentic data in science classrooms: What are the tools, theory, and pedagogy for using big data and conducting field studies?
4. Global awareness: why this is important and how to teach it through global problem-solving projects and best practices for collaborating with other students globally.
5. Students as teachers: Teaching media design skills to students so that they create educational content and become teachers. What is the theory, evidence, and pedagogy for this? This is one area of a greater concept of students as innovators.
6. Gamification of education: How can games, both traditional and digital, help to enhance student engagement, learning, and retention?

Headgate diagram-s

Official patent illustration of my grandfather’s headgate design. Instead of a canvas dam with dirt thrown on it, which leaked terribly and wasted water, this headgate did not leak because of the folded sheet metal sleeves that it slides up and down in. He built the prototype in the ditch behind our house, and my dad convinced him to add some angle iron across the top and holes in the upright bar so that a crowbar could be used to raise and lower smaller versions instead of a screw and wheel.

Of these six topics, the central one which ties all the others together is the first topic: the nature of creativity and innovation and how to teach them to students. My education and teaching career keeps coming back to this topic ever since I took a course in Creativity as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University in the fall of 1981. Even before that, I grew up living next door to my paternal grandfather, A. T. Black, who had a workshop behind our two houses and taught me how to use various tools to build things. He was always working on some project or other and never met a Popular Science or Popular Mechanics magazine that didn’t give him more ideas. He was only able to achieve an 8th grade education but kept learning all of his life, and I wonder what he could have done with an engineering degree. He invented a new type of headgate for controlling irrigation water, had it patented, and hired a sheet metal company in Salt Lake City build it for him, then marketed it to the various irrigation companies in our farming region. Most of those headgates are still in operation. He built and ran the first telephone system in our town, and built five rotating Christmas tree stands which still allowed the trees to have electric lights. These were used for our town’s annual decoration. Our ranch house in Tooele County was over 20 miles from the nearest town, yet we had electric lights from an alternator hooked to a waterwheel; a solar powered water heater; a butane stove, lights, and refrigerator; and even telephone service for a time with the nearest neighbor over seven miles away long before cell phones or even CB radios were a thing. We were off the grid long before anyone had ever heard of it.

I do not have my grandfather’s knack for building; I cannot cut a straight line through a board with a handsaw to save my life (much to his chagrin). But I hope to have inherited his creativity in other ways. It has always fascinated me how one person, without much education, could be so creative while many of my students don’t believe that they are creative at all. Is creativity something that a person is born with, an innate talent that should be encouraged? Or is it a cognitive skill that anyone can develop? Is it a process with definable steps, or is it a matter of ideation or insight, of recognizing an inner daimon or genius that sends an “Aha!” moment to consciousness after long incubation on a problem? Can this state of insight be extended into a continuous flow of creativity? Can it even be taught? These issues fascinate me and will ultimately drive my doctoral program and eventual dissertation research.

I decided that this topic, the natures of creativity and innovation and how to teach them, would be the first step toward all of my possible dissertation topics. I choose it as the subject for my fall 2019 EDF 670 class, where we were required to build a Literature Review. But before I could do any useful research, I knew that a better analysis of creativity and innovation as concepts was necessary. I took several days to work out a schematic concept diagram or web of ideas surrounding how to teach creativity and innovation. I have continuously refined and expanded this diagram as more research has come my way. I am progressively working my way around it, digging more deeply into each sub-topic. I suspect it will take the rest of my career in education to thoroughly explore it.

Here it is. I have kept the resolution fairly high and the file dimensions large so that it will remain readable.

Creativity and Innovation schematic

Concept web for teaching creativity and innovation, created to help define related concepts in preparation for my literature review class. I have revised it several times since then.

Let’s take a look at the central concepts. In future posts, I will explore each one in more detail. In the next post, I will share my conclusions about definitions of creativity and the literature review that came out of this research. For now, however, let’s conduct an overview of the diagram.

The central hub of this web is Teaching Creativity and Innovation, which must remain the focus since I am studying education, after all. Teaching creativity to students has benefits for society. We live in an innovation economy, yet we do not systematically teach students how to be more creative or innovative. We just somehow expect they will pick it up somewhere. Beyond the good it will do to society, creativity is a skill that will benefit any student by leading them toward greater mastery of concepts, developing originality and self-expression skills, enhancing their curiosity, and ultimately leading to lifelong learning and success. As a means of developing better mastery and competency, I experimented with a different grading system focusing on mastery and creativity in my biology classes this last year, and I will report on these efforts in later posts. Many good things have come from this, and I am revising the program for this fall.

The inner ring of sub-topics establishes the major concepts to consider in teaching creativity and innovation. First, how can we define these terms? Are they actually the same thing, or is creativity merely a subset of the characteristics or process steps required for innovation? As suggested above, there are several competing definitions of creativity. They are: (1) Creativity as innate personality trait; (2) Creativity as a set of cognitive skills which can be practiced; (3) Creativity as insight and ideation, or the development of new and unique ideas; (4) Creativity as a state of creative flow at the intersection between high challenge and high skill; and (5) Creativity as a problem-solving process. More will be said about these in my next post.

Grandpa Black

Averno Thompson Black, my paternal grandfather, one of the most creative people I have known.

Innovation, on the other hand, seems to denote a process (often called problem-solving, engineering design, or design thinking) that includes creativity as divergent ideation and insight but also requires convergent thinking and evaluation of the worth of ideas, along with building and testing a prototype, revision, and final distribution of the solution. It is an iterative process that takes resilience and a tolerance of failure, since testing a prototype until it fails is a common part of the process. I have not yet fully explored this area, but my experience teaching innovation design classes leads me to this conclusion.

Assessing the quality of solutions is a necessary part of creativity and innovation. I have been exploring this part of the diagram over this summer (2020) and there isn’t much out there. Ron Berger, now with Expeditionary Learning, has developed a process of peer review of student work that he calls Critique that has led to good results at High Tech High and other schools, and which I implemented into my astrobiology class this summer as an experiment. It worked fairly well, but I need a more thorough and careful implementation this coming fall. I will report on these experiments in a later post, but you can see more of our project work at my other blog site: http://spacedoutclassroom.com.

I have also developed some materials for teaching quality, such as a diagram illustrating what I call the quality curve: Effort and quality are not linear in relationship. They are exponential. To double the level of quality in a project does not take twice the effort but four times as much effort or more; it takes 80% of the final effort to raise the quality of a project from good to excellent or professional. I deal with students who have high anxiety and many are perfectionists; they will not turn in assignments until they are perfect, which they can never be, because the effort vs. quality curve is assymptotic to perfection. I don’t know how this could be studied in the classroom, but it would be very informative to see how well this holds in real life. The key then is how to get students to recognize and put in the effort to reach excellence or professionalism without holding out for perfection. This takes a degree of self-efficacy that many of my students are lacking. Assessing quality and innovation is an entire large topic of its own.

Ranch house - watercolor class

Another painting I did of the old ranch house for a watercolor class in college. I can’t cut a board straight, but I do enjoy fine and digital art. My creativity comes out in different ways than my grandfather, but I learned how to be creative from him.

At the same time, there are barriers to achieving creativity, innovation, and quality. These include anxiety, as mentioned above, having poor executive functioning skills (which is true for many of my students), or having a fixed mindset where failure is not tolerated and revisions are not considered. Students need the time to recognize where they need to improve and then make revisions until they achieve quality. Teaching this is one key to achieving innovation in students, and an area I am just beginning to study. Not much seems to have been done in this area yet, but it may be that all my searches keep bringing up teacher quality, not students achieving quality and how to teach it. I need to refine my searches and dig deeper. This is where the diagram is proving useful; it is defining potential gaps in the research that could lead to an excellent dissertation.

My own model of a creative classroom moves students from a state of ignorance about a subject through passive to active to creative levels of engagement. I need to determine if an innovative level may be warranted, and to see in what ways students can become innovators. Some avenues could include students becoming inventors, students as programmers or coders including developing their own computer games, students as makers (I am beginning to study makerspaces as part of my EDF 701-200 class this summer), students as teachers, students as education content creators, students as engineers, and students as scientists. Although there have been some studies in each of these areas, I don’t think anyone has put them together in quite the manner I propose nor looked at them together systematically. This could take years to fully explore.

All of these ideas must be part of a student-centered classroom where much of the work is driven by the students themselves through exploring their own interests. This in turn leads to exploring the nature of student engagement – is it often merely compliance, as Schlechty proposes, or does it come as a synergistic intersection between the task, the student, and the teacher? At what point do students change from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and become self-directed learners? How does passion and the meaningfulness of the task effect all of this?

Grandpa Black with headgates

A. T. Black with his patented headgates, installed in a canal near our hometown.

We hear about the need to teach the so-called “soft” skills of design thinking, critical thinking, data analysis, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. All of these are part of students learning how to become successful innovators and are essential for a 21st century economy. Much has been written about some, but not all, of these skill areas. I have experience in authentic data usage, but so much more can be done here that a great dissertation could come out of it.

Over all of this, there are questions of theory, pedagogy, and teacher training. If we are to teach students creativity and innovation (and I think we should), then how do we train the teachers how to teach these concepts successfully? What theory supports these ideas, or do new theories need to be developed? What pedagogies and classroom structures, such as project or problem-based learning, will best lead to students developing creativity? What types of organizational changes in schools will be required to implement these ideas? How do we systematically move schools toward teaching creativity and innovation? How are schools and teachers doing it now? How do we reform schools to make our entire society more creative and innovative?

Big questions. The type that are a passion for me and drive me to complete this EdD program. It has already been a challenging year, but except for that one horrible statistics class, my grades have been good and my projects well-thought of, mostly because I have stayed focused on the ideas of this diagram. So much still needs to be researched, and there are many possible studies I can do that arise from these concepts. I have already conducted one initial study with three teammates this winter semester, which I will report on soon. I will be devoting my remaining years as a educator to defining and refining this diagram. In the end, I hope to write a series of popular books, geared toward practicing teachers, on how to promote creativity and innovation in the classroom and in the world. I have about ten years more before I expect my health will force me to retire (if I ever can), so I’d better get cracking.

 

Me with Neil suit

David Black with Neil Armstrong’s space suit, July 20, 2019.

As I write this blog post, I am in Washington, D.C. attending a Teacher Innovator Institute sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). It is July 21, 2019 and I’m a bit exhausted after helping out as part of the NASM Crew for last night’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

It was quite the party, and NASM has been in the middle of all the planning and organization as the sponsoring institution. They have tents set up along the National Mall in front of the museum with booths by aerospace companies and NASA explaining why we went to the Moon and why we need to return. There are hands-on activities, models, virtual reality tours, simulators, and experts on hand to explain everything and the crowds are thick. On Friday night we were invited to the VIP area to view the Go For The Moon multimedia presentation, which they projected onto the Washington Monument and large screens on either side. They have been setting up large speaker systems around the Mall all week, and the presentation did not disappoint. It was fantastic, and you could really feel the rumble as the Saturn V rocket blasted off as if the Washington Monument itself were being launched into space. It was like being there.

Air and Space 50th

The Air and Space Museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Then, from 8:00 pm until 2:00 am NASM hosted a celebration for tens of thousands of people. As part of the small army of volunteers helping out, my job was to judge some question responses for a series of scavenger hunts throughout the museum on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. There were hundreds of teams racing throughout the museum looking for answers to questions that involved artifacts of the space race and the moon landing. Contestants sent in text responses, photos, and short videos of themselves completing challenges. We awarded bonus points or took points away from the automated scoring system. Other volunteers managed the lines to view Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, count visitors, and be on hand to answer questions.

Capitol July 20

The Capitol Building during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing.

It was an amazingly well coordinated production that has been in planning for over a year. They had to get a Joint Resolution of Congress to be able to project onto the Washington Monument, which took time. They had live bands, showings of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, and even a viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Mall was packed with people watching the multimedia show, and all of this in the most brutal heat and humidity I’ve ever experienced in Washington, D.C. I am proud to have been a small part of this celebration.

Rover rollover

Rover rolling over human subjects on the National Mall during the Apollo 11 celebration.

The Teacher Innovator Institute is in its second year and each year 30 STEM educators are selected for a two-week program at NASM. We have been out at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport and at museums along the Mall. The Hazy Center is an annex of the main museum on the Mall, and houses the Space Shuttle Discovery and an SR-71 Blackbird, among many other historic aircraft. They also have a large curatorial area for restoring donated aircraft, such as the Flak Bait bomber currently being restored. We got to hear a panel discussion with two World War II airmen, including Colonel McGee of the Tuskegee Airmen. We’ve heard presentations from last year’s cohort and practiced STEM education activities, such as building a giant geodesic dome out of PVC behind the space shuttle.

Lego astronaut with girl

A LEGO spacesuit (complete with Buzz’s reflection and a Moon Maid).

The purpose of the Institute is to take teachers who are already innovators and train them in best practices for STEM education through informal education experiences. By informal, we mean educational programs that are not part of the public K-16 education system, such as museums and educational foundations. I’ve been fortunate to work with planetarium directors, museum educators, and NASA Education and Public Outreach personnel on many occasions and this is a great opportunity to finally learn more of how they approach education through objects.

Giant Moon map

A giant map of the moon

Museums are largely about objects, or artifacts. It could be a life-sized model of a giant shark hanging up in the Natural History Museum, the Hope Diamond, Lunar Module 2 in the Air and Space Museum, or Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. These objects are valuable partly because of their intrinsic value (such as the rare blue color of the Hope Diamond) but mostly because of their provenance, or the human lives and events that these objects have touched. What makes Neil Armstrong’s suit more intrinsically valuable than Jim Irwin’s suit, which is in a case at the Udvar-Hazy Center? Neil’s suit had thousands of visitors last night, whereas Jim’s suit is largely unvisited. Both are made of the same materials and have been carefully preserved and displayed. Personally, I am more in awe of the Apollo 15 suits than the Apollo 11 suits, because their owners stayed longer on the Moon, did more science, and made more fundamental discoveries including the Genesis Rock, a piece of lunar anorthosite that Dave Scott and Jim Irwin brought back and which determined the age of the Moon. But Neil’s suit was the first on the Moon, and that gives it a greater significance to most people.

Jim Irwin suit

Jim Irwin’s space suit from Apollo 15

Teaching in informal settings such as a museum is very different. Here, educators do not have a captive audience. People wander around, and some just wander through whereas others will stop and engage with an exhibit. If we want learning to occur, then engagement is crucial, as I have discussed in a previous post. What are the factors that encourage people to linger longer? How should the exhibits be displayed, and what holds people’s interest? How do you draw people in, get them hooked, and activate their curiosity? These are critical questions in informal education.

Mars 2020 sample collector

Mars 2020 rover’s sample collection device, with a model of the rover.

The Air and Space Museum was first opened in the mid 1970s and has not had a major complete overhaul since. Individual areas have been upgraded, but some have not and it shows. One of our tasks has been to visit exhibits and evaluate their effectiveness for engaging middle school students. I helped review the Space Race gallery, where the displays are static with no interactivity and no multimedia unless you count the single video screen playing an eight-minute long movie of talking heads that you couldn’t see because it was angled to perfectly catch the glare of the sun through the afternoon windows. Oh, there was one standalone pylon with instructions for going online to listen to John Grunsfeld describe what it was like to repair the Hubble Telescope (an obvious recent addition), but no one was doing it. The gallery had no flow to it, no sense of a hierarchy of events, no relevance to the students’ lives. A middle school student might walk in because of the Hubble Telescope display, but they will wander out again in under three minutes. The best things here – Dave Scott’s spacesuit, for example – are tucked away into almost hidden corners.

Painting Apollo

Painting Apollo in a tent on the National Mall

The limestone facing of the museum was supposed to be four inches thick when the museum was constructed, but budget cuts reduced that thickness to only one inch and they are beginning to buckle and crack. They must be replaced, so while construction is going on, the museum is re-inventing itself inside as well. So I am thinking of how Air and Space might change to better engage students and the general public.

LM 2

Lunar Module 2, on display in the National Air and Space Museum. This was the LM that was supposed to be first to test in space, but problems with its construction led to slipping the test to LM 3, which became the Apollo 9 mission.

We have received training on how to introduce and extend the learning that artifacts can provide. We have had the chance to examine some rare artifacts indeed, some of which the Smithsonian preserves but do not display because of their priceless scientific value. On Thursday we went to the Natural History Museum and were asked to find an object that represented us. I found some trilobite fossils that were collected in the House Range of western Millard County, Utah. I grew up in that area and my grandfather had a mining claim for collecting trilobites near where these specimens were collected, in the Wheeler Shale formation. He would take me out to his claim when I was a boy and we would dig into the dark gray shale beds and split them open with a chisel and hammer. We had buckets of them. So they represented me through memories of my grandfather whereas they would just be interesting fossils to someone else. The trilobites have a personal connection. Visitors to museums must make personal connections to the artifacts in order to engage with them.

Me holding Mars

David Black holding a piece of Mars. This meteorite was found in Antarctica and was identified by the oxygen isotopes found in small bubbles inside it as matching those on Mars. There is an extra hand helping me (thanks, Marc) because I don’t want to drop it. Like I would do a thing like that . . .

I had been through the meteorite, mineral, and gem galleries there several times in my life, so when they took us back past the meteorites and the moon rock displays, I was wondering if there was anything new for me to learn. Then they opened an almost hidden side door and took us through a security corridor to the meteorite vault, where meteorites from all over the world are kept. Our expert guide, Dr. Cari Corrigan, explained her trips to Antarctica to collect meteorites, and brought out some truly historic finds – valuable because of their rarity and their histories. We got to hold (wearing gloves, of course) pieces of the Allende meteorite, which fell in Mexico in 1969; the Peekskill meteorite, which famously dented a car; the only meteorite to injure a person (it went through a ceiling in Alabama and smacked a lady named Ann Hodges on the hip); and the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in 2013.

Ann Hodges and her meteorite

Ann Hodges of Alabama and a piece of the meteorite that hit her and caused the bruise in this photo.

Then Dr. Corrigan pulled out some other meteorites and let us pass them around and take photos. A lunar meteorite, blasted off the Moon. A martian meteorite (we know it is from Mars because of the oxygen isotope ratio in the small pockets of air trapped in the meteorite). These are valuable because of their rarity and scientific value. And they’re from other planets!

Me with Allende meteorite

David Black holding a piece of the Allende meteorite that fell in Mexico in 1969. This meteorite is the oldest object on Earth at 4.65 billion years old. The white fluffy patches are probably solar system dust bunnies, and there are even pre-solar grains in this rock that are older, perhaps 5 billion years old.

And then, as I was holding the lunar meteorite, it slipped out of my gloved hand and dropped to the floor. Yes, I dropped the Moon. It was unharmed, fortunately, and Dr. Corrigan didn’t see me drop it. Thinking about my klutziness afterward, I realized that this rock was blasted off the surface of the moon, the heat of the impacting object melting and fusing it. It traveled through the vacuum of space for 250,000 miles, then came screaming through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds, heating to incandescence until it slammed into the ice of Antarctica. Then glacial forces ground it up into the margin of a mountain range where a scientist found it. I don’t think a three-foot drop to the floor is going to do much to it. I would not, however, recommend this as a way to have students engage with a meteorite.

Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond in the National Museum of Natural History.

We are learning all the time how to be more effective at informal education; how to engage those middle school students. Take the Hope Diamond. I first saw it in 1982 when I was fulfilling a Congressional Internship here in Washington, D.C. It was rather randomly stuck in a static display case without much signage or anything else in a small gallery of gemstones. The glass on the case was smudgy with fingerprints and it was surrounded by people, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see it. Now, it is in its own space in a rotating stand so that people can see it from all sides for a much better view. But the glass was still smudgy and there were still lines of people when I saw it in the afternoon. On Thursday, we were there at the opening of the museum and few people were around and the glass had been cleaned. There are some signs on the wall, but no interactivity. The gem and mineral collection was redesigned over ten years ago and so there isn’t much interactivity or multimedia throughout. The display is still not very engaging, although improved.

Meteorite group

A group of Teacher Innovators in the meteorite room at the Natural History Museum. Dr. Cari Corrigan is fourth from the right on the back row.

What can be done to improve it still? A good example is the International Spy Museum, which has recently been rebuilt near the L’Enfant Plaza south of the Mall. You are given the name of a real spy encoded on a magnetic card. You start at the top learning about some real spies throughout history, such as Mata Hari, with video pylons and screens playing short videos, with interactive stations that read your card and allow you to progress in your mission to be outfitted with devices, given a disguise, breaking the codes, traveling incognito, etc., with real examples of each aspect on display along the way. The museum is built to flow you through the process in one direction, winding around through but with plenty of choices for things to do and see. After two hours, which was all the time we had to be ahead of the general public (we got in there early), I had only made it through half of the museum. My card is good for a month; if I have time tomorrow, I will return. It is that good.

Big Boot about to drop

A balloon replica of Neil Armstrong’s boot about to be planted on the moon. Or at least in the Air and Space Museum.

The objects in the museum have not changed. Their intrinsic value has not changed. What has changed is the human dimension – the personalization of the experience and making it relevant, the stories behind the objects and how the visitors fit into those stories. At the end of your mission, you find out if your spy was successful at their mission or not and if you made the right choices. You become the spy and immerse yourself in the experience.

How could we do this with the Hope Diamond, or Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit? With the personal history behind these objects, you could take the role of one of the owners of the Hope Diamond and find if the “curse” claims you or not. Or you could become a gem yourself – you must be dug up in the Golconda diamond fields or the Cempaka diamond mine in Borneo (which isn’t even mentioned in the Smithsonian), be smuggled out of the Mogul’s collection, sold to traders, cut and polished, sold and traded, set in a necklace, worn by a ill-fated rich daughter from a famous family, etc. You could become an astronaut and go through training and fitting and a mission and find if you make it back alive. Along the way, you’ll learn the history and the science because you are invested and engaged. It is personal. It has the human dimension that too many museums fail to capture.

NASM Crew

Some of the NASM Crew, a group of volunteers and science teachers who helped with the 50th anniversary Apollo celebration at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Last night, tens of thousands of people engaged with space science and history. They had fun and it was crazy but there was so much learning going on. I saw the GooseChase participants learning as their responses came in. They were actively, creatively engaged.

Engagement, innovation, and creativity must come first in any educational setting be it formal or informal, a museum or a classroom. Then learning will follow.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race Gallery at the Air and Space Museum. When we arrived to begin our volunteer efforts, the museum was closed (it was cool to walk right in through the staff entrance with our badges). There was no one there. Then, when the doors opened at 8:00, there were large crowds of people wanting to engage in space science education.

Green horse-s

This is the infamous green horse that I keep around to remind me that I’m not as great as I think I am.

In my last post, I talked about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and how he resolves the false dichotomy of classic versus romantic ideals through the concept of quality. He also talks about what he calls the “gumption trap,” which has become all too clear to me working with students for over 28 years. We get into this trap of losing motivation and enthusiasm part way through a difficult project or challenge. This can be because of external setbacks or internal hang-ups. Much has been said recently about the importance of “grit” or “resilience” in students, of teaching them how to persist in the face of challenges and how to stay motivated when they hit the halfway slump.

As an example, my family and I have been watching a reality show that involves teams of two people racing across the country, meeting unknown relatives and solving challenges. I’ve noticed a pattern. Some of the teams have been Millennials who seem to have unusual difficulty with challenges. When they fail a few times, they tend to fall apart and give up trying. Of course, the stress factor is greatly increased by having cameras shoved in your face as you fail. Other teams (often older people) have shown persistence and problem-solving skills when faced by the same challenges and have ultimately succeeded even though their basic knowledge and skills were the same going in. Halfway through the 10-day race, the teams’ enthusiasm starts to slip and they have to start reaching for an inner quality of persistence.

Brain hemispheres-s

Most recent research contradicts the idea that our brain hemispheres are completely different, the left hemisphere good for logic and math, the right good for art and holistic viewpoints. Instead, both hemispheres are used for all types of activities and are not as differentiated.

I am at this point in the book project I am writing and illustrating. I made a great initial effort earlier this year and created twelve illustrations. I ran into some issues with mixing ink that I thought was waterproof (but wasn’t) with watercolors, and that stumped me for a while. Then I hurt my right hand playing racquetball and it is still healing; it hurts to hold writing or drawing pens. These setbacks have led to a slowdown of the entire project. I need to rise above the challenges and get going on the project again. At the very least, I can continue to type the text while my hand heals. I need to get motivated again and get over this midpoint slump.

Persistence and resilience are not easy to teach. We need to begin with developing students’ meta-cognitive problem-solving skills as part of their project-based learning education. For example, how to break a difficult task down into manageable daily chunks. If you’re going to drive from Minnesota to California on a motorcycle, you’d better plan your route, figure out where to stop for rests, meals, and sleep, and plan for the inevitable setbacks of bad weather or breakdowns. A certain mindset of flexibility, mindfulness, and growth are needed. People who are too rigid or who view the world in terms of black and white, success and failure (perfectionism, all or nothing, etc.) will be the most likely to give up part way through a project. Success is not immediate and may take several iterations, and it should be a learning process. It’s not about the destination but the journey.

Diagram-fixed vs growth mindset-s

A diagram comparing the types of thought processes and beliefs in people with fixed versus growth mindsets.

Dealing with Failure: The Growth Mindset

I have a goal to apply for one teacher grant or program each month, partly so that I am always sharpening my resume and collecting new letters of recommendation but also because I always need extra funds for projects. I usually fail; my success rate was at about 35% at one point in 2015 but is now down closer to 25%. I don’t know if this is because I’ve become too successful or too old or have merely entered a more rarified level of competition because I’ve already won the easy stuff. It means on average that I need to apply for at least 8-9 opportunities to get the two successes per year that I desire. I have failed more times than I can count, and some of those failures have meant a great deal of effort and wasted time. I collect rejection letters and put them in a Book of Rejection, not to discourage myself, but to remind me of the cost of my successes. Rejection is simply part of the process of eventual success.

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had was to be an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Explorer Schools program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You could only apply once per year, and I was finally selected on my fourth try. Each year I worked to make myself more appealing through volunteer activities and the Solar System Educator Program until I finally reached their criteria for selection (or they got tired of reading my applications).

Green horse on steps-s

I am forced to conclude that no matter how I try to artistically pose the green horse, it is still ugly.

A Green Horse

When I was in middle school I took an art class with a unit on ceramics. I learned how to make different types of pots – a coil pot, a pinch pot, a slab pot. I tried and failed to throw a pot on a potter’s wheel. At the end, I decided to build a sculpture of my grandfather’s horse, which was named Sob (or SOB, which is what my grandfather always called it – only not as an acronym). I tried doing this without actually looking at a photo of a horse. The clay was too wet and slumped a bit in the legs, which were too straight and too thick. The nose looked more like a donkey or some kind of funky mule. Then I tried to find some brown glaze for it and came across an unlabeled pot of a nice reddish-brown color. When it came out of the kiln, the brown glaze had turned to a beautiful translucent green. Talk about a horse of a different color!

A have kept that sorry horse all my life as a reminder that I’m not nearly as great as I think I am. It is a constant reminder to rise above failure. Whenever I get down on myself after many rejections in a row, I look at that horse and say to myself, “I may be a sorry horse of a different color, but I’m still standing just like that green horse. I haven’t been accepted to this program yet, but I probably came close. Maybe next time I’ll do better.”

I have tried for the Einstein Fellowship twice now, and failed both times. But I did make it to the semi-finalist round both times, which meant free trips to Washington D.C. to meet the other semi-finalists (36 of us interviewing for 12 positions). It took a lot of effort to write the essays, get the letters of recommendation, travel to D.C., and do the interviews. And I failed. Twice. Each time we were told to keep our phones with us and they would call us if we were the first choice of the agency, or if we were the second choice and the first choice declined. We had to keep the phone with us for an entire week, but each day the probability of being chosen dropped dramatically and my hope died with it. I tried willing my phone to ring: “Ring, darn you, ring!” Finally, a rejection e-mail was sent to the 24 of us who failed.

Growth mindset self-talk

The types of self-talk carried on by people with growth versus fixed mindsets. My challenge is to provide opportunities for my students to build success and to start changing their self-talk.

But if I look at this with a growth mindset, I see that I made it to a rarified position each time. I was a semi-finalist, one of only 36 out of hundreds who applied. I got a free trip to Washington D.C. and stayed in a hotel just two blocks from the National Air and Space Museum, one of my favorite places. I got the chance to learn more about the Noyce Scholarship program, and I got to meet and talk with 35 amazing teachers. I heard about other programs to apply for from them, and I learned about myself in the process. I did my best, I made it far, and I can always try again.

Some Characteristics of a Growth Mindset

I received an e-mail from another teacher last fall that included a link to an article about the characteristics of a growth mindset. The site included a series of mini-posters that you can print out with various motivational lists, including how to foster creativity, be more optimistic or happy, and reduce stress. I have twelve of them posted in my room now. The site is: https://www.innerdrive.co.uk/resources/

Here is their list of attributes for someone who has a growth mindset:

  1. Effort: Achieving quality on a project takes effort – not infinite effort, but you certainly can’t do a quick or sloppy job and expect quality as a result. Students have to put in the time and thought needed to achieve quality.
  2. Courage: Some students fear success, or have anxiety over ever achieving it. Quality means stretching oneself, and that takes courage and the ability to take risks.
  3. Learning: Quality is a learning process, not a destination or a fixed bar to jump over. It takes time and requires changing one’s mind about things.
  4. Curiosity: You have to have some enthusiasm for the topic to be willing to put in the effort to dig deeply enough to develop a high quality result. If you don’t care, or are apathetic, you won’t achieve quality.
  5. Feedback: Since quality is a process, it requires receiving feedback and frequent formative assessment and re-direction. If you don’t get feedback from reliable experts, you won’t know if you have achieved quality or not. This is why science conferences with poster sessions and concurrent presentations are so important – to receive feedback from knowledgeable peers.
  6. Challenge: Doing something that is easy isn’t going to teach you anything. Projects should stretch students’ abilities, help them develop new skills as well as content knowledge, and be authentic and engaging. I’ve seen high school students do amazingly difficult things, such as presenting a scientific poster at a conference of professional astronomers. If properly engaged, students can achieve quality beyond your wildest expectations.
  7. Persistence: This means resilience in the face of setbacks and failures, grit, being willing to revise and fix problems, and keeping with a project even when you hit that midpoint slump. It means putting in the final 80% to get that 20% of shine on a project.
  8. High Standards: You don’t do students a favor by making the projects too easy or accepting anything less than excellence. As long as they have the opportunity for revisions and the time to do them, you should expect professional quality.

Another poster has five self-talk suggestions to help maintain a growth mindset:

  1. Don’t say, “I can’t do it” because with the proper resources, time, and motivation, everyone can.
  2. The Power of Yet: If you fail, look at it as temporary and part of the road to eventual success by saying, “I didn’t succeed – yet!”
  3. Ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Don’t just accept the failure and forget about it. Learn from it. Decide how you could have done it better. But don’t dwell on it overmuch. Resolve to do differently, then try again.
  4. Failing better or failing up: Sometimes setbacks are not really failures but opportunities for course corrections and better eventual success. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts was a terrible failure for NASA and almost destroyed the Moon program. Fortunately, instead of giving up, NASA resolved to learn from the accident. They fixed the problems and built a much better Apollo capsule as a result. This redesign probably saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew.
  5. Try new things: If you fail doing things a certain way, try a different way or approach. If you keep failing at the same task, try a different task. If you continue to do the same thing the same way but expect different results, then you’re not accepting reality (this is a clinical definition of insanity).

Einstein quote

Persistence is a better predictor of success than intelligence.

Out of the Slump

As to my own persistence and resilience, I applied for nine awards or programs this year. One was an award from the Space Club that went to a teacher whom I am familiar with who is much more qualified than I, so I can’t feel badly. Others were outright rejections without explanations other than “We had many qualified teachers apply.” But out of the nine, four were successes. I applied to present at a chemistry teacher’s conference in Naperville, IL and was accepted. I applied to present at the STEM Forum and Expo of NSTA in San Francisco and was accepted. I applied for the EdD program in Innovation and School Reform through the University of Northern Colorado and was accepted. And I applied for a second time for the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum, revising my video application, and this time got accepted. I will be flying to Washington, D.C. a week from tomorrow and will be there during the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing, and will possibly get to meet some Apollo astronauts and work with museum personnel through a generous grant.

Unfortunately, all four of these opportunities are happening on the same day: July 25th. I had to turn down the presentations in Naperville and San Francisco (I would have had to pay my own way, anyway) and will have to fly directly from Washington, D.C. to Denver to make the mandatory orientation class for my doctorate program, then drive home in a rental car from there.

These successes have come after about 18 months of no success at all, one of the worst slumps of my career that included an unanticipated change in jobs. But I kept trying, even though it was very discouraging. If my career can teach anything, it is that persistence pays off. I try to be open with my students about the programs I am applying for, as well as my successes and failures (or not-yet-successes). I hope they can learn from it, and see that if I can do it, so can they. I may be getting old, but I’ve got some life left in me and a long buckle list of future successes to tackle.

Zen and the Art cover

The cover to my edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, which I first read as a freshman at BYU in an Honors Colloquium class.

As a freshman at Brigham Young University forty years ago I had the privilege of taking an interdisciplinary class called Honors Colloquium. It was taught by three professors and a graduate student, including Dr. Eugene England (literature and writing), Dr. Larry Knight (physics), and Pro. Omar Kadar (political science). Our theme for the two-semester class was the intersection between Classical and Romantic modes of thought in various disciplines. We had frequent guest professors teach units on everything from international politics to science fiction to Russian literature.

Alto Computer

An Alto computer, the first to truly be a personal computer with the capability for digital drawing, music, and other forms of art. It was developed by the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox Corporation but was never sold commercially. An article on this system written by Alan Kay titled “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer” was in the back of the Sept. 1977 edition of Scientific American, but I never found it for my paper because there was no Internet back then to do a comprehensive search by keyword. There was only the old printed periodical index . . . I do not miss those days. The article would have proven my point that computers were already beginning to become a tool for artistic expression.

One of the most influential papers I ever wrote was for this class, where I reported on how computers (the ultimate expression of Classical thought) might someday be used to create art or literature or music. When I presented my paper to the class, the professors almost laughed me to scorn. “How could a computer ever be used to do art or write great literature?” they asked. They were wrong; that paper predicted a major part of what I teach now: digital media. I am using a computer to write and distribute this very essay.

The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

Despite the poor reception of my prophetic paper, I did learn some useful things from that class that have defined my life as an educator. One of our first reading assignments was the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book sets out the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic ideals through a motorcycle trip across the American northwest, a kind of mobile philosophical Chautauqua. Pirsig defines the Romantic mode of thought through his friend John Sutherland’s approach to his Honda motorcycle: John is after the gestalt feeling of the open road, the experience of riding the motorcycle and living in the moment, and doesn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of keeping the bike maintained. If something goes wrong, he’ll hire a mechanic to solve it.

No Zen on a mountain top

Pirsig’s narrator, calling himself Phaedrus, was searching for the answers on his road trip through the Rocky Mountains. But the book concludes that there is no answer, no Zen to be found at the top of the mountain (the destination) but instead is found on the journey. It is the sides of the mountain as you climb, not the top, that sustain life. 

The Narrator, on the other hand, exemplifies the Classical mode. He drives an older Harley that he knows well and can troubleshoot. During the trip, while driving through Montana, he recognizes that his engine is running a bit rough, analyzes his spark plugs (which are sooty), and realizes that the high altitude is making the engine run too rich, which he easily corrects. The classical mode, therefore, gets into the nuts and bolts and mechanics of a process instead of appreciating the gestalt of the moment.

As we discussed this book in Colloquium, I came to see that it explained the two warring sides of my own personality. I had always considered myself a logical, rational, scientific kind of person (I identified the most with Spock on Star Trek) and had discounted my emotional side, yet I was continually drawn to art and music and theater, which are all romantic modes of expression. Later in the year I got myself into an embarrassing situation by not seeing the irrationality of questionable actions, which were brought on by sleep deprivation. I was a bit surprised to find out I had strong emotions after all.

Pattern of life

I have always been pulled in two directions: towards the logic and reason of science and toward the creativity and self-expression inherent in the arts. I can see these two forces clearly as I look back on my life.

I am still pulled in both directions, and this is why computer art appeals to me – both classical and romantic at the same time. I can tell you how the Color Picker in Adobe Photoshop uses 24 bit graphics, meaning each primary additive color (red, green, or blue) can have 2^8 or 256 colors, or 2^24 total colors in an image. It is all very logical, digital, rational. But I can also tell you how to blend photos seamlessly, create any image desired as a form of self-expression, and visualize what has never been conceived before. This is all very romantic and artistic. Whenever I go for too long focusing on science, I start longing to work on a nice hand-drawn art project. I’m working on a mixed media painting of Utah’s Delicate Arch right now as an illustration for a book I’m writing.

Delicate Arch-s

This is a preliminary scan of my Delicate Arch illustration for a book series I am working on. It turned out fairly well, but I need to get myself re-motivated on this project.

Another way of looking at this that is more relevant to my career: the Romantics are the Apple Macintosh people – they are after the experience and the creativity and what they can do with the computer. I am very much this way, and love my Mac. The Classicists are the Windows people that custom build their own computers and know all the components and technical details such as how to overclock the CPU, etc. This is my oldest son, who is a technical expert on video cameras and audio systems for a camera rental house in California.

Now, after more years than I care to think about, I realize that the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic is false. I find that I can both love the technical/classical aspects of a subject (such as the process of doing science, analyzing data, working with numbers, and rational reasoning) and the artistic or romantic side of education, the satisfaction of a well-taught lesson where students are moved. This is why I am a major proponent of STEAM education – to bring the arts, history, and humanities into STEM fields to ignite the creative spark and provide the context or gestalt viewpoint necessary for STEM. It is possible to be both classical and romantic at the same time; therefore, it is not really a dichotomy.

The Resolution: Quality

The Narrator of Zen and the Art, calling himself Phaedrus, tried to reconcile the two sides of this dichotomy through the concept of Quality. I never understood, at that time, exactly what he meant by Quality. I realize now that he deliberately left it undefined, except to compare it with the ancient Greek concept of arête (the Good or the Truth). The needs of the situation define what Quality must be and how to measure it. However, it must blend the technical requirements of a project (the mechanics or nuts and bolts emplaced by the grading rubric or teacher expectations) and the romantic aspects: What did the students learn, how deeply, and how have they applied their knowledge or skills? What are their overall feelings about the project, including their enthusiasm for it? What level of professionalism was achieved? These aspects are not measurable and can’t be tested at the end of the school year, but are every bit as important as the technical knowledge component. As teachers, we tend to do well at teaching the mechanics but not well at the gestalt, or overall quality of a project.

Blue-orange Jupiter-s

A sample from my current STEAM class. My students have marbled paper using oil paints diluted with mineral spirits and floated on water. These colors are swirled, then lifted off the water on paper and dried.

An Example

Let’s look at the idea of quality through an example that my STEAM students are currently completing. I will describe this course in more detail in my next post and the types of art-infused science we are attempting, but for now I will describe the central project. Each student has chosen a topic related to the history of science and the science of art, including dyes and pigments, the iron age, weaving, Native American petroglyphs, Chinese pottery, iatrochemistry (alchemical medicine), and more. It is a five-week course during this summer, and they are writing a 1500-2000 word essay on their chosen topic. This essay will become a chapter for a book we are putting together and will add to in subsequent years and perhaps even publish through an online print-on-demand service. I will publish the essays on this blogsite.

In addition to the basic essays, they are creating illustrations on their topics using a variety of art forms including pen and ink drawings using homemade iron-tannate ink, watercolors using pigments we created ourselves (we finally managed to made good red out of cochineal), copper etchings, marbled paper, tie dye, and batik. I will pick each student’s three best illustrations for the final book. They are also writing at least three sidebar articles.

Katie weaving illustration-s

This is a student’s illustration of a Navajo lady weaving a blanket, drawn using homemade iron-tannate inks. The brown ink was made using normal brown tea for the source of tannins and the black ink was made using green tea. This is a good example of the type of quality these students are achieving.

This is a high expectation for a five-week class, and to turn these essays into a professional quality book that we can publish is by no means an easy task. Many of my students have never written an essay of this length before. To ensure quality, I have set up a series of strict deadlines and checkpoints with frequent feedback and revisions. Most of the students have just turned in their rough drafts. Some will lose points for being late. These drafts were copied for two peers to go through this weekend and proofread (I’ve taught them how to use proofreading symbols) and assess for interest level and readability. Our history teacher and I are also going through the rough drafts looking for scientific and historic accuracy. The students will receive the rough drafts back next week and will make revisions. Ideally they will then be reviewed by other students who are not in our class and final revisions will be written, but that will have to happen during our second summer term when we have English classes. By the time I include the final essays in the book, they will have been reviewed by three or more people and revised twice.

This process of formative assessment and revision is essential for any quality work, be it in school or in professional life. Engineers create prototypes and test and revise them until design specifications are exceeded. School work should follow the same process. Instead of school assignments that are done once, given a final grade, and forgotten, student work should go through formative assessments, revisions, and reworking until a desired outcome of quality is reached. Perhaps not every assignment, but at least one major project per unit or at least per term should require this level of quality. This means fewer assignments but deeper learning. There should also be a public outcome – a blog post, a book, a performance or presentation before parents and peers, etc. that emphasizes the level of professionalism required.

Jazmine Canopic Jar painting-s

A painting of an Egyptian canopic jar using homemade watercolor pigments. The gray is made from soot, the red-brown from cochineal and gray mixed, the blue is Prussian blue, and the purple is a cobalt compound.

To gain professional excellence in student work, they must understand that the amount of effort needed to gain excellent quality is not a linear function.

The Quality Curve

As my diagram shows, the relationship between quality and effort is not linear. It’s exponential. Doubling the effort does not double the quality – it takes twice as much effort to get a project from good quality to excellence as it does to get it to good in the first place, but excellence is not twice as much quality as good. Achieving excellence may require a quadrupling of effort. There is a rule in business called the 80-20 Rule: it takes 80% of the effort to achieve the last 20% of quality, to get a project from good to excellent. In the real world, good isn’t good enough, only professionalism and excellence are acceptable and get your ideas noticed. But that extra bit of polish comes at a high cost in effort and time.

Quality Curve-s

This diagram represents that the relationship between effort and quality is not linear. It takes twice as much effort to get from good to excellent quality than it does to get to good quality in the first place, and perfection takes infinite effort.

At the same time, some people can be perfectionists and not know when to let go of a project and say, “It is done!” As my diagram shows, put into mathematical terms, effort is asymptotic to perfection; perfection can only be reached through infinite effort (meaning never in this mortal world). As teachers we should expect excellence, but not perfection.

I’ve seen too much of the negative side of perfectionism. In fact, is there even a positive side? I’ve seen students who show high levels of stress and anxiety because they expect (or their parents expect) too much of them; students who refuse to try anything hard because they fear to fail, or who give up after even a small setback. People who can’t let go of any mistakes but have to relive them over and over instead of moving on and learning.

As teachers, we need to build revisions into our projects, or, in other words, embrace and plan for the probability of initial failure (although failure is too strong of a word – I prefer to refer to it as “partial success” or “emerging excellence”). We should encourage students to make every project an iterative learning experience through frequent formative feedback with plenty of time for fixing mistakes. We need to help them build, test, and revise prototypes of their projects, always returning to the specifications/rubric until all expectations are met.

Mucker illustration color-s

An illustration of a mucker, a machine used to “muck” or dig up shattered rock after the face of the mine has been blasted. I started this illustration using what I thought was waterproof ink for the lines, then adding watercolor washes over the top, but the dark lines bled all over the place. I had scanned the non-colored version, so I layered the clean lines over the color image, set the blending mode to darken, and used the Clone tool to clean up the mess. I also fixed a few crooked lines. Hopefully it doesn’t look too digitized.

There is more that can be said about teaching quality, but this post is already overlong. This will be a major part of my doctoral program, which I am starting in three weeks. I will come back to this idea in future posts. In the meantime, I think its time to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m old enough and have enough experience now that I can finally understand what Phaedrus was trying to say.

Education as Pollock painting

I found this quote on a TeachThought website. It captures the spontaneity, engagement, and creativity of extraordinary education.

Several years ago I attended the closing banquet of our state science teacher conference and overheard two teachers comparing notes in a friendly competition. They had apparently gone through the same teacher development program together. One bragged that 86% of his students had passed the state science standards test at the end of the year. The other claimed that his students had a 93% pass rate, with the implication that having more students pass the test meant that he was the better teacher.

They were both new teachers and I can forgive them their misunderstanding. I felt like jumping into the conversation to remind them that having most of their students pass the standards aligned test only proved that they were standard teachers, when what our children deserve is extraordinary teachers. Unfortunately, there is no state test for extraordinary education.

school nurse

Is our public education system ailing and in need of reform? Yes, in that it insists on treating each child like a cookie-cutter clone using a one-size-fits-all set of standards.

Would any of us recognize extraordinary education if we saw it? Can we even agree on the characteristics of extraordinary education? For my own definition, I say that students must be deeply engaged in the learning process, with memorable learning opportunities that invite active participation and critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication. In the end, education should have a lasting impact on their lives. And it should be fun, meaningful, and inherently interesting for them!

I learned during my third year of teaching that Project-Based Learning (PBL) can be a powerful route to extraordinary education. I’m not trying to say that I am an extraordinary educator, but I have tried with some success to bring meaningful opportunities to my students. To do this, I have had to look at my course standards in a different way.

Ed guidelines

There is a great need to change how we do education, but the forces that resist changes are the teachers and administrators and communities that need them the most. The bureaucracy of our school system is the very thing that holds us back. As one individual teacher, I have to accept that I may not be able to change everything, but I can at least change the way I do things.

The push for standards in education is simple to understand. We don’t want students with gaps in their understanding of the world, nor do we want teachers who are incapable of bridging those gaps. Society needs well-educated people in order for them to make informed decisions. Educational standards were developed to achieve a minimum level of essential literacy and knowledge across all students.

This brings up a deeper question: what constitutes essential knowledge? As one of my college professors put it, is there any knowledge (or skills) that a person must have? Every subject expert has a list of what he or she considers to be the essential concepts of the subject, and the list tends to multiply in any committee put together to consider new educational standards. Heaven forbid that even one math student would not understand the quadratic equation. The world might very well collapse if that happened! So we have to create a standard to address that concern, even if only a minority of teachers hold this opinion.

As a result of this drive toward comprehensiveness, all states have far too many educational standards than are truly necessary for each discipline. In chemistry, is it critically important for students to understand Le Chatelier’s Principle of Reaction Equilibrium? You’ll find it in all the state standards. But is this really necessary for what the student and society need? If taught well, it might help them understand some aspects of everyday chemistry, such as why the Haber process works to produce ammonia or why shaking a warm soda bottle causes the carbon dioxide to spray out. But can they become productive citizens without knowing this? Probably. Why force them to learn what they can easily live without? This has bothered me for years.

do what I say

All the shareholders in the education system (parents, children, teachers, administrators, state officials, communities) point the fingers of blame at the others and expect them to be innovative, but are unwilling to change their own viewpoint of what education should be.

What I finally recognized is that standards are meant as a guide to the lowest acceptable level of understanding in a class, not as the final target. Anyone who teaches to the standards alone (especially to the end of year test) will succeed in creating a standard class, an average class, but not an extraordinary one. If we want all of our students to graduate as identical cookie-cutter clones of some “standard” citizen, then standards-based education and the factory model of education will suffice. But if I want students who are strong individuals, creative problem solvers, and innovators, I must go beyond the standards and teach for excellence and quality, not mediocrity. The standards are supposed to be a means to that end, not an end in themselves.

Deeper into Theory

Many of our vaunted education theories support this reductionist view of a subject. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely used and quoted in educational circles. It poses that there is a hierarchy of understanding and learning; that remembering facts and content details comes first as the foundation of all learning and then leads to understanding, then to application, then analysis, then evaluation, and finally to creativity. The implication is that we need to move our educational activities toward creativity and higher-order thinking skills. The problem with this pedagogical model is that too many teachers never get to the higher-order levels; they get stuck on remembering and regurgitating facts with little real understanding and even less application, analysis, evaluation, or creativity.

Flipping Bloom

Bloom’s Taxonomy, often quoted but poorly understood. Instead of starting at the lowest level (remembering facts) and working our way up, we should start with creativity and work down to facts. Think of this pyramid as flipped upside down, or of creativity being the ground level but the other levels being roots underneath, reaching down to the facts. Students will learn the facts they need if they start with the requirement to create.

So many educational theorists are beginning to propose that Bloom’s Taxonomy should be stood on its head. Creativity should come first, not last. As students create, they can be taught to evaluate the effectiveness and even the aesthetics of their work (more on this in my next post). To do this, they will need to learn to analyze their work in the same way that engineers analyze the effectiveness of their prototypes and models. To analyze the prototype, they have to build it first, which involves the application and understanding of scientific theory. To gain that understanding, students will have to look up and remember the scientific facts and theories involved. In other words, teaching creativity first and insisting on quality work provides the impetus and motivation for students to find the information they need, understand and apply that information well enough to build prototypes, then analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of that prototype against specifications. Students will look up what they need to know because it is necessary for them to solve the problems that occur as they create, build, test, and analyze prototypes. We call this the engineering or design process.

This is where Project-Based Learning (PBL) comes in. Only through extended projects can students have the time, independence, and creativity to deeply explore and understand a subject by following their own curiosity. Projects are the only way to ensure that the intent for having standards is met and that we reach extraordinary education. This happens through what I call “standards overreach.”

Shorten the pole vault

It doesn’t make sense to raise standards while lowering the resources available to schools to reach those standards. There’s nothing quite like an unfunded mandate.

Standards Overreach:

Let me start with an example. During the first week in my first year biology classes, I introduced the concept of the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors necessary to sustain it. This is a common biology standard in most states. Now if I were a standards-obsessed teacher, I would teach to this point as my target for student understanding. I might put up a list of terms and have students write down definitions in the hope that they will understand them. This is a low-level activity without much student mental engagement. They’ll forget these definitions as soon as the test is over, if they retain them even that long. I might write the terms on a worksheet and have them look up definitions. Slightly better but still boring for everyone concerned, although it does meet the standard. I could show them a video about it and have them take notes. A bit better but still teacher-centered and passive for students. I could have students brainstorm the characteristics of life, then ask them to provide examples, or do a lab activity, etc. Getting better but still not entirely effective.

What all of these activities have in common is that they are targeted specifically to this one standard alone, and on the end of unit test, only some of the students will show understanding (or at least regurgitation). I have only partially succeeded.

Exoplanets

What kind of life forms could exist on an exoplanet or exomoon, such as shown here? As students ask and answer such questions, they come to understand the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors that support it.

Or I could do this in a completely different way through a student-centered, engaging project. I could have them go beyond the standard (overreach it) knowing that at minimum they will understand the standard and possibly much more. So I use my passion for astrobiology and experience conducting field research studies of extremophiles in the Mojave Desert to create a project for my students. We’ll collect halophilic bacteria from the Great Salt Lake and let them grow in a Winogradsky column then analyze the pink floaters under a microscope. We’ll extend this to research on other extremophiles and use real examples of how they are adapted to their environments, with students developing posters or presentations or other summary products of their choice. Do all forms of life on Earth need oxygen, or even air? No – there are lithoautotrophs that live in rocks and get carbon dioxide from minerals, not air. Does all life require light and plants at the bottom of the food chain? No. Look at the chemosynthetic bacteria that are at the bottom of the food chain near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.

Square test in round head

How can one test measure the quality or extent of knowledge for every student, even if the tests are adaptive? How can a single measure determine the effectiveness of every teacher?

Then they’ll look at potentially habitable exoplanets (and learn a bit of astronomy and physics on the way) and choose an actual planet, then develop a drawing or clay model of an alien life form they envision, complete with descriptions of how it is able to survive in that environment, the abiotic factors that exist there, and the ecosystem it is part of. How does it eat or get energy? How does it move around, reproduce, adapt to changes, grow and develop, etc.? How would we detect it and know that it is alive?

As a capstone event or product, they produce posters or other products on their research into and present them at a science showcase night, just as if they were professional scientists at a conference. At the end of the evening we can watch and analyze the realism of the movie “The Andromeda Strain.” In the process of thinking all of this through, the students will deeply understand the characteristics and factors necessary for life. They will all easily meet the standard because we shot way beyond the standard.

Relax and take the test

With high stakes testing supposedly measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools based on how students take the test, its no wonder teachers are teaching to the test. Their jobs are on the line. Yeah. No pressure . . .

You will argue that this type of project will take days to complete, when you can cover that standard in just one day. Maybe so, but we haven’t just covered that one standard. Without my having to lecture them, my students have learned about evolution and classification, microbiology and using a microscope, physics and astronomy, and even developed artistic skills. They have learned about scientific communication, which is part of one dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards. We have therefore touched on about ten other standards from multiple disciplines in the five days of this project. If I tried to teach each one of those standards one at a time, it would take far longer than our project did. My students’ understanding will be deeper and more permanent than any lower-level unengaging assignments can achieve.

The test to test us for the test

No Child Left Untested . . . How can teachers possibly meet education standards when they have to spend all of their teaching time administrating tests to measure how well they are meeting education standards?

Meeting Standards through PBL:

Here is another example that we completed just two weeks ago. We had moved into our units on human anatomy in my biology classes. I wanted students to learn the function of muscles and bones and how they provide support and movement. Now the “standard” way of doing this would be to provide diagrams of the skeleton and muscles and have students label all the names of all the part. Tibia. Fibula. Patella. Femur. Pelvis. Clavicle. Sternum. Latisimus Dorsi, Deltoid, etc, etc, ad nauseum. And many teachers leave it at that, with no understanding of how it all works together. Some will go on to teach (or more likely have the students read in the textbook) how flexor and extensor muscles must be paired, how they are anchored to the fixed bone with tendons reaching across the joint to the mobile bone. But only a few teachers will have students apply this knowledge, or design experiments to collect data that can be analyzed, or have students think critically to evaluate the quality of their knowledge, or do something creative with it.

So I turned the process on its head. I did draw a diagram of the elbow joint on my whiteboard as an example, showing and labeling the parts of everything. I explained how the bicep and tricep work in tandem to flex and extend the joint, and how ligaments, cartilage, and all the other parts hold it all together and allow it to move. That was all I did, and I didn’t really need to do that. It was just a quick 15-minute introduction. Then I gave them a challenge: using the materials I provided, they had to build a mechanical arm that would duplicate the movement of the elbow joint. As teams, they would need to use my diagram as a guide, look up whatever other information they needed, then design and build their own arm. It had to meet certain specifications: It had to have the same range of motion as a regular arm, not bending too far or extending too far (it could not be double-jointed). It had to have a way of both flexing and extending the forearm. And that was it.

I provided lots of cardboard, wooden skewers, beads, string, hot glue guns and glue sticks, etc. I divided the students into three-person teams, and required them to show me a sketch of their plan before they were allowed to collect materials. Then they set to work. In every case, their first attempts didn’t work very well. Some of the students wanted to quit at that point, saying that this task was “impossible,” but I provided encouragement and hinted that they should look more closely at how the actual human arm does this; obviously, it isn’t impossible if our arms can do this. They tore parts off their models, reglued, tried again, and eventually all the teams succeeded. They were all different, but all mimicked the construction of the human arm in important ways.

Round head in square hole

Standards imply that every student is the same, and that one size fits all in education.

With that project done, the same teams went on to create working models of the human hand. These models had to be able to create several gestures of my choice to show control of individual fingers, be able to pick up and move small objects to show dexterity, and be able to grasp and lift a cup full of water (added slowly) to demonstrate strength. This was a much harder task, and the same students again tried to give up. They wanted me to provide step-by-step instructions, but I refused. I repeated that there were no right answers, no one right way to do this. Some had to redesign from scratch, which was frustrating, but they overcame this frustration and eventually all succeeded.

It took seven class periods to accomplish these two projects. I could have easily taught the basic concepts about the arm and hand in a day using traditional activities, and they might have remembered the details long enough to pass the unit test (with some repetition and review). This would have sufficed for the requirements of the state standards. But it doesn’t meet my own standards, which are much higher. And it meets those other two pesky dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards: Scientific and Engineering Practices (engineering design process) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (modeling). We’ll look at teaching through building models in a future post.

So how did they do upon assessment? On the unit test, the students who completed these models showed a thorough understanding of how the arm and the hand work; not just the parts, but how they are shaped, how they operate and fit together, and even the importance of having opposable thumbs. Those teams that didn’t have effective thumbs had great difficulty lifting their cup of water.

All students received 100% on the essay questions related to these projects and all passed the test. They could repeat the facts, and they thoroughly understood the concepts. They will remember their learning far longer than traditional methods because they have applied their knowledge. They have analyzed problems that occurred with their models and evaluated their effectiveness against the specifications. They have revised, fixed, redesigned, and in short, they have created. They fulfilled all of the requirements for the state and the three dimensions of the NGSS, as well as all of Bloom’s levels. In addition, they learned resilience, teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills. Not all of the teams got along perfectly, and I had to work with them on how to communicate effectively to listen to all ideas and make a solid group decision instead of one person trying to run the show. Was it worth the extra time? Absolutely!

Tower of Education Babel

There are a lot of education buzzwords out there, a veritable Tower of Educational Babel that obscures instead of clarifying the problems of education and the need for reform.

Conclusions:

When administrators and parents and everyone else gets bent out of shape about standards and you feel a pressure to “teach to the test,” just remember that state education standards are the minimum expectation, and we should hope that you are a better teacher than that. Yes, you must meet the standards. You can get fired if you don’t. But state standards are not the end we are after, only one means to the better end of extraordinary education. So overreach the expectations forced upon you by your state, principle, or community and dare to teach to a higher standard. Mentor your students to deeper understanding, higher engagement, and further creativity. Dare to be extraordinary!