Learning in makerspaces: on the way to new essential skills?

The CompeTI.CA Network (Atlantic ICT Skills) team has been working since 2016 on study of students learning in provincial Brilliant Labs. Joining worldwide movement on establishing new technology-rich learning spaces also known as Makerspaces, Fab Labs (Digital fabrication laboratories) or Brilliant Labs where young people work with a variety of technological tools. In this environment, young people seem more engaged as they work on various projects in line with their personal interests, with the help of their peers, Brilliant Lab experts, and cutting-edge technologies (Brilliant Labs, 2016).

According to Sheridan, Halverson, Litts, Brahms, and Jacobs-Priebe (2014), creative labs empower young people to develop autonomy, collaboration, and creativity skills while enabling them to be active learners. Peppler, Maltese, Keune, Chang and Regalla (2015), for their part, say that brilliant labs allow the use of systematic thinking, problem solving, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, clear communication, creative thinking, and collaboration.

While researching several labs in different parts of New Brunswick, we ask about what form should the maker movement take in schools? How does it fit into the M-12 educational system? What skills are targeted? What do students learn and how do they learn it? These questions have captivated researchers and practitioners who see the potential of introducing innovative practices that include, among other things, robotics and coding (programming) activities.

In this article, we will share the preliminary results of four case studies that focus on (1) the process of implementing, in general, new technology-rich spaces and the learning that emerges from them; (2) their relation to STEM disciplines, and more specifically, mathematics; (3) creativity and (4) the role of so-called “non-technical” skills (soft skills or 21st century skills).

Our first observations of six brilliant labs, conducted in May-June 2016, have shown that they offer students a hands-on, flexible, rich in digital technologies (robotics kits, iPads, 3-D printers, among others), varied in its materials, interdisciplinary environment. This environment engages students in a variety of design and creative activities, according to their choice and interest, through open pedagogies that emphasize the achievement of complex tasks, offering significant challenges, allowing for flexible assessment, focused on the process, the showcasing of the acquired knowledge, with the goal of continuous improvement.

These pedagogical approaches seem to foster context-based learning, based on interest, problem-solving, realizing real-life projects, which allow students to learn to learn and to understand, to work in collaboration with peers, in addition to promoting sharing, the development of soft skills, as well as the productive, efficient, thoughtful, responsible and ethical use of digital tools and social networks.

A second, more detailed study conducted during the 2016-2017 school year in four schools revealed several links between the STEM activities carried out in brilliant labs and the learning of mathematics (one of the STEM disciplines). This is how we see the important role that the brilliant lab can play as a place where students can use a variety of materials to discover, invent, explore and create in an environment that encourages the construction of their own learning (Rendina, 2015).

Thus, by analyzing the videos showing the students doing their projects that we were able to highlight several concepts and mathematical procedures that are part of the contents of any curriculum, namely measurement (dimensions, units), comparison of quantities, estimations, proportions, fractions, basic operations, and the capacity to locate objects in the space (spatial reasoning). In addition, mathematics educators particularly appreciate the following elements that were also observed: the PIE (Prediction - Investigation - Explication) strategy (Gauthier, 2014), solving complex problems (during a "long" period), validation (often by trial and error strategies), inductive reasoning and logical relationships (LeBlanc et al, 2018).

As a third study (done in 2016-2017 in one of the four creative labs visited), we looked at the possible emergence of creative thinking, identified by Media Smarts (2016) as a high-level digital competence. Thus, we examined the impact of brilliant lab work on creative thinking among 20 high school students (COOP course, grades 10-12). In administering Torrance's for Creative Thinking Test (1998), we found that the creativity index in the experimental group is significantly higher than that in the control group. This study, presented at the AERA (The American Educational Research Association) annual meeting in 2018, highlighted the potential of technology-rich environments (creative labs) for 21st century skills development in educational settings (Léger & Freiman, 2018).

Continuing our analysis in the direction of studying 21st century (non-technical) skills, we analyzed 23 excerpts of videos presenting the work of students from four schools (three middle schools and one high school). Furlong et al. (2018) found several elements of critical thinking (Student 1: “we want it to say one, one, one. It means we didn’t put it in the right place”), creativity (Student 2: “It is to warm the handlebars like on your bike so in the winter, you don’t get frostbite”), collaboration, communication and problem solving (“Student 3: “we have a hard time making it work. We have not succeeded yet, but we are really close”) which are developed in creative labs; just as specified in Peppler's study (2015). In terms of technical skills, the most frequent use of ICT is related to the students' capacity to organize information and to perform a task as they use a variety of programming software for their projects.

*In collaboration with Viktor Freiman, Michel Léger, Manon LeBlanc, Xavier Robichaud, Takam Djambong, Université de Moncton


Brilliant Labs (2016). Maker Education. Retrieved from https://www.brilliantlabs.ca/makerspaces

Furlong, C, Léger, M., & Freiman, V. (2018) Compétences numériques dans des environnements d'apprentissage riches en technologies. Congrès de l’ACFAS, Chicoutimi, Québec, 7 mai.

Gauthier, M. (2014). Perceptions des élèves du secondaire par rapport à la résolution de problèmes en algèbre à l’aide d’un logiciel dynamique et la stratégie Prédire – investiguer – expliquer. Éducation et francophonie, XLII(2), Retrieved from http://www.acelf.ca/c/revue/sommaire.php?id=43#.Wl32VUxFyM8.

Léger, M. T. & Freiman, V. (in press). Learning to be creative: A causal-comparative study of digital skill development in a technology-rich classroom. Proceedings of the American Educational research Association (AERA) annual meeting. New York, NY.

Media Smarts (2016). Utiliser, comprendre et créer : Un cadre de littératie numérique pour les écoles canadiennes. Le Centre Canadien D’Éducation aux Médias et de Littératie Numérique: Ottawa.

Peppler, K., Maltese, A., Keune, A., Chang, S., & Regalla, L. (2015). The maker ed open portfolio project: Survey of Makerspaces, Part II. Open Portfolios

Rendina, D. (2015). Defining makerspaces: What research says? Retrieved from http://renovatedlearning.com/2015/04/02/defining-makerspaces-part-1/

Sheridan, K., Rosenfeld Halverson, E., Litts, B., Brahms, L, Jacobs-Priebe, L., & Owens, T. (2014) Learning in the Making: A Comparative Case Study of Three Makerspaces. Harvard Educational Review 84(4), 505-531.

#CompeTICAresearch #learninginmakerspacces #essentialskills #ViktorFreiman #MichelLéger #ManonLeBlanc #XavierRobichaud #TakamDjambong #UniversitédeMoncton

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