Launching Boats


by Erin Riley -

I once heard teaching compared to the act of launching boats.  I love the visual evoked by that metaphor. Could we think of the work we do in our makerspaces a similar process to preparing for, and ultimately taking off on a self-guided journey? Students captain the ship and teachers watch from the shore.

Learning through Play

Children learn through play and exploration. From floating sticks downstream to ducks in the tub, early lessons in how the world works come from play.  Could this be the first step in the progression towards mastery? In an earlier post I wrote about sequencing activities to support discovery. By building upon play, a mode of learning that is rooted in curiosity and joy, we can engage our students in a truly authentic way. For instance, a project involving electronics can be launched with a session with circuit boards, or wood working with a one-block challenge. Both of these activities originate from two of my favorite resources for exploration-based maker activities: the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, and the Makerspace at the New York Hall of Science. 

Mastery: Learning the Ropes

Play sparks interest. Interest drives the desire for mastery. Practicing and gaining mastery build confidence. The teacher strives to find the balance between guidance and autonomy. Excitement over making connections, getting better at making things, completing projects, and overcoming obstacles is the process that builds confidence as students move towards full independence.

At Greenwich Academy, one student documented in her maker portfolio, her process for building a paper circuit project including challenges and breakthroughs along the way.  She wrote:

“A great maker is not only one who is willing to make mistakes but one who is willing to still think big in spite of the threat of mistakes. In keeping with that theme I decided to create an Easy Button… 

…I even left a little room for myself to think big during the project. While pasting copper wires down I realized I was missing an essential element to my Think Big Buttona noise component. I remember my favorite part of the Staples Easy button was the little phrase it spit out each time you pressed it…

…So I went to CVS, bought a singing card and removed the sound circuit. The circuit contained a circuit board with and an attached speaker. Probably the hardest part of the whole project was trying to figure out how to get the sound to go off…

…After much trial and error, I found the happy medium that required me to extend the length of the copper switch so it nestled in the center of the battery and placed the clip for the sound right next to the copper...

…This process has not only yielded a successful project but a successful [me]. It shows that I am one step closer to achieving my goal as a confident maker. “

“Think Big” Button design 

The launch and the teacher at the shore

On her journey towards understanding her circuit, this student recognized an increase in her confidence.  She was well on her way towards steering the ship. The teacher steps back and the student takes the lead.    

Another student’s paper circuit project evolved into artistic handmade paper circuit cards. Accomplished in the art studio, she found her voice through the fusion of media to express her ideas. In this case, this student built upon a strong knowledge of art and craft process, and incorporated an emerging skill base in electronics. The next object she made, a word clock, built around Dougs Word Clock board, included handmade marbled paper in the enclosure and her documentation revealed the carefully considered aesthetic and design decisions she made, while demonstrating confidence and independence with electronics.

Hand embossed card with an LED circuit

Transparent word clock enclosure design with marbled paper

Her reflection about learning in the lab, underscored the importance of building skills on her way to becoming an independent maker. She wrote:

“By the end of this course, I would like to be a maker that thinks beyond ‘outside of the box.’ To me this means, challenging the norms, breaking patterns, and figuring out new ways. The maker I want to be is one that never stops thinking. Even outside of the lab, I want to be thinking about how to take my projects one step further than my mental capacity. Furthermore, I also believe it is important to first build a strong platform on which to build from. I also think it is important to keep an open mind as anything is truly possible. Inside the lab with limitless resources, I believe with enough drive, passion, and learning I will become just that.”