Sequencing activities to support discovery


by Erin Riley -

In the quest to create an authentic student-driven learning experience I find myself thinking a lot about the role of a maker educator as facilitator.  If I were to distill what that ideal is for me, it would be to provide an environment where students could find their own way creatively, all the while gaining skills they could take into the world to make new things.

Student-centered and skill-building?

Yet, I get stuck.  These stalls tend to happen at junctions in a project where things have to be learned in a certain way or produce something lacking a personal stamp. Exploration pauses and gives way to more direct instruction or jumps ahead to focus on a product that neatly packages all of the learning objectives we hope to achieve with our students.  A co-teacher colleague and I have been trying to balance this in our  Engineering and Design class through the sequencing of activities and maintaining maker portfolios that put students at the center of their learning.

This past year we set out to design our course and the big question we asked ourselves was, “Where do we want our students by the end of the year?”  We wanted them to identify and design solutions to problems that have personal meaning to them.  The next question was, “How do they get there?”  This was the harder question, mainly because we have a makerspace full of digital fabrication machines and tools and wanted our students to gain the literacy necessary to maximize their making capabilities in our space.  What we settled on was dedicating the first the half of the course to developing a base knowledge of circuits, microcontrollers, and 2D-3D design for fabrication, while the second half of the course was reserved for student-driven projects.  A new question emerged: “How can we create opportunities in skill-building projects that put students in charge of their learning?” We set out to address this through activity sequencing and reflection in maker portfolios.

Activities from student maker portfolios leading up to a synthesizer build in the Engineering and Design Lab. Project notes here.

The exploratory lead up to the culminating project

When developing our units we looked for ways to incorporate exploration, play and self-expression while ordering the activities to maximize opportunities for discovery.  The culminating project was to build a simple synthesizer that brought together some working knowledge of circuits and covered techniques and a wide range of skills for making.  These included reading schematics, debugging with a multimeter, breadboarding, soldering, measuring with calipers, 3D modeling and 3D printing.  This was a project with a product. Everyone made a synthesizer.  It was less of an exercise in creating something uniquely theirs and more of an exercise in bringing together a huge amount of techniques and skills that they can work out in a challenging hand’s on way.  However, the activities leading up to the synthesizer were more process-oriented and exploratory in nature.  Students were able to approach learning about circuits by asking questions, tinkering and finding their answers through their peer network in class and resources on the web.  Furthermore, students were asked to reflect on their learning.  The following projects preceded the synthesizer build:

Circuit boards- project from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium

What they did:

Explored circuits including: parallel, series, switches, potentiometers, motors, plus unique items from teardowns, like alarms and music boxes.

Skills they picked up along the way:

How a basic circuit works from simple to more complex.  Safety--avoiding short circuits.


Design a circuit tutorial or “How To” using the circuit blocks as a teaching tool.  Post in maker portfolio.


What they did:

Students brought in expired electronics as objects to teardown.  They were charged with breaking them down to their smallest parts.  Document the teardown in an artistic way.  Inspiration: Tom Sachs “knolling,” and Todd McLellan

Skills they picked up along the way:

Research skills, learning how to identify electronic components.  Safety--discharging capacitors.

Reflection: Identify five components in your teardown to research.  Share your research in your maker portfolio.

Paper Circuits- from High-Low Tech Group

What they did:

Create a prototype and a final paper circuit with at least three lights in parallel and switch.

Skills they picked up along the way:

soldering, multimeter

Reflection: Write a blog post documenting and reflecting on the process.

The culminating project: The synthesizer

Our class progressed through their synthesizer build as outlined in these project notes: Atari Punk Synthesizer.



As we were planning the final build we were faced with another compromise.  Wanting to introduce 3D design for fabrication but knowing that custom designed enclosures would be too time consuming to print and wouldn’t be an ideal first experience with 3D modeling, we charged students with the task of designing knobs and amplifiers for their synthesizers.  These parts are small and would allow students to go through several design iterations.  We provided basic box enclosures (wood or 3D printed) that they could customize.

Project as prototype

Overall the project was a success but with all work we do with students, we look for ways it can be improved. If we end up recreating this build, or modifying it in the future, we undoubtedly tweak it and make it more aligned with the skill-set of our incoming students.  The beauty of building a program is that as it grows so does student knowledge.  The next crop of students will have more experience in the lab than the students before them.    




Christa Flores's picture

Erin, this last line is so relevant "The beauty of building a program is that as it grows so does student knowledge. The next crop of students will have more experience in the lab than the students before them."  I find that there is a special connection between students that have "survived" problem based science at Hillbrook iteration 1 vs. 2. vs. 3. They ask what the spring hard problem will be for the next class and get really see themselves as veterans of this new learning style. NOT to mention the potential for mentoring that comes from having next generation learners come through the same space.  Thanks for sharing. 

Mark Schreiber's picture

Great stuff Erin.  I love the "Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living" book.  It's been one of my favorite books that I found this year.  I haven't done it as a student project yet but I love the idea of integrating it into the bigger unit.  Is this going to be one of your ideas for a Constructable project when we get them going?

Keep up the good work.