"Making" in California K-12 Education


by David Malpica -

A brief state of affairs

In schools, “maker” education has been typically known for many years as hands-on project based learning (PBL). While “maker” education continues to deepen its roots in small pockets of the nation’s private education, the introduction and implementation of “making” into California public education still has a long road to go. Efforts are underway to provide access to “making” opportunities to more and more students.

Some of these efforts are underway in the bubbling California charter school movement, with the most well known and established programs running in the High Tech High network of San Diego, the LightHouse Community Charter School of Oakland, and a few of other public schools (including my employer, Bullis Charter School) spread throughout the state. In district managed schools, Fab Lab Richmond (to open in March of 2015) will be the first full blown digital fabrication space to serve a large public school community: the entire PreK-12 population of West Contra Costa Unified School District. Also funded by Chevron and designed in cooperation with the FabLab foundation, another FabLab of similar magnitude is planned for Bakersfield. Castlemont High in Oakland has opened a FabLab this year. Ravenswood City School District in the Bay Area peninsula has an ambitious plan to set up seven MakerSpaces. All these bits of information account for clustered efforts undergoing in a handful of school districts out of over a thousand in CA. The construction or setup of dedicated project based learning spaces is by no means a perfect metric for this daunting task as many other programs subsist without them. However, at the current rate, and with a growing K-12 student population of over 6.5 million, MakerEd’s inspirational motif “Every child a maker” will take an indefinite amount of time to achieve in California.


Speaking of MakerEd -the two year old non-profit running out of its headquarters in Oakland-, it is the biggest player in efforts of supporting maker education in and out of state. MakerEd has released information claiming to impact more than “140,000 youth and families” through a diverse set of “youth serving organizations” across 24 states. When asked about their impact in the CA public school arena, Steve Davee, Director fo Education at MakerEd had the following to say: "The best number based on events, our PD, and Maker Ed direct relationships is at least 64 public schools, with easily hundreds more schools benefiting in other ways..." It is clear there is growing interest in the adoption of "maker" education practices by teachers representing many schools in California.


Teacher preparation and pedagogy

Meanwhile, it seems that California is behind in offering credentialed teacher preparation dealing with innovative hands-on subject matter and curriculum. It is unclear how many graduates out of California undergraduate STEM and graduate education programs head into the field of project based teaching and learning as opposed to educational app entrepreneurship, moocs, or even traditional textbook classrooms. Another concern has to do with the focus on STEM, which alone may be too narrow to solve the challenges of engaging diverse populations in the state. The first experience of making most children live is art; why is it being left out later in life? Some of the most astounding contemporary art is enabled by STE(A)M. Furthermore, curriculum designed largely by a homogenous population cannot truly serve a heterogenous one.


The researchers, ideological parents and advocates of PBL have stated that while introducing any kind of “making” into education is a positive move forward, said move would be better served by being accompanied by a shift in pedagogy. The typical practices of textbook and worksheet instruction, student grading and testing are known to contribute to the development of fixed mindsets, the opposite desired outcome of “maker” education in youth. A welcome development in teacher training is being spearheaded at Sonoma State University with its Maker Certificate Program. With a clear and sound set of educational values, it stands apart from the sea of typical Math and Science education and teacher preparation designed to be instructed, graded and tested.


Another pedagogical challenge is that of finding the right balances. Any kind of truly deep project based learning takes significant time and multidisciplinary facilitation. This means teachers of different subject areas need to collaborate on unit integration. A true innovation in education would be to acknowledge the need for time and expertise brought in by teachers with a growth mindset, which goes beyond the standard fragmented curriculum of Math, Science and ELA. Making in the classroom will not get the time and attention it deserves while Math and ELA still occupy most of the curriculum time. This is unfortunately still an effect left behind, almost ironically, by “No Child Left Behind” practices, which emphasized math and english.


Standards and assessment

Another push that opens up “making” opportunities in the California public school system has to do with the newly adopted NextGen Science Standards, part of the Common Core Standards. While pedagogically, standards are a divisive issue, the NextGen standards actually do a good job of adding engineering practices into the mix of science while leaving the field very open for content development. Currently, there seem to be no plans to add specific engineering content into the CST examinations (and these won’t be dramatically changed in four or five years). We can only be pro-active in addressing California education leadership to see the benefits of keeping it grade and test free, allowing opportunities for different kinds of making and engineering to be taught and in order to meet and make use of local needs and expertise. A very worthwhile effort of developing alternative assessment in the shape of open portfolios is being conducted by MakerEd in partnership with Indiana University. Friend and FabLearn fellow Christa Flores, has compiled and constructed important recommendations in this area. Another alternative method of assessment comes from Stanford University: choice based assessment. When confronted with problems, do students persevere or find creative solutions instead of giving up? A new framework of assessment is important, as research and data from longitudinal career paths has shown interest to be a more powerful and enduring driving force than concrete skillset building


Conclusion and some suggested next steps?

Only through a concerted effort of state and federal government, non-profits, institutions and industry, redesigned pedagogy and assessment methods, and teacher collaboration, curriculum integration and compromise, will it be possible to reach the California student population in the short amount of time needed to build a homebrewed generation of empowered and innovative makers, engineers, artists and designers. With the current momentum and excitement around “maker” education and with the state of California carefully recovering from years of deficit, there are opportunities to regain funding for education. Said funding would be well used to propose and execute student centered programs designed to build agency, interest and growth mindsets as core 21st century skills. Colleges and universities would do schools and families a big favor by accepting portfolios (in addition to essays and perhaps in place of grades and test scores) and looking out for students demonstrating strong interests and good choice making. If this was a statewide (and why not nation wide?) policy, schools and government policymakers would adapt and teach what matters most instead of falling into the grade and test score games. Ultimately, it is the stakeholders who would benefit the most from becoming active in recognizing and demanding an education centered around what matters most.




Christa Flores's picture

David, Thank you for this post. I especially thank you for the simple and hopeful message you leave us with. What do you suppose we as educators can be doing more of? Can we be writing letters? 

Anonymous's picture

Hey Christa, that is a great question and one I struggle with. As an educator, I really don't know how we could navigate the political space better. The idea of running for office is frightening. I suppose one thing we could try would be more concerted web activism.  I imagine we could gather people on the k-12 fablabs and makerspaces group and plan for our own version of "earth hour" ~ "make hour". During that hour we could barrage key leaders with stories or articles around themes and use hashtags. I imagine something like picking an endearing story about 3D printing for animals with disabilites and asking key figures something like "When is this going to be on the test? #moremaking #lesstesting".

David Malpica's picture

Hey Christa, that is a great question and on I struggle with. As an educator, I am not sure how we could navigate the political space better. The idea of running certainly doesn't sound appealing, at least to me. I suppose on thing we could do would be to try more concerted and targeted web activism. I imagine we could plan our own version of "earth hour", and during that hour we could tweet to entities and key figures. We could tweet about themes or positive stoiries around making. For example we could look for positive stories about 3D printing for animal with disabilites and  tweet something like "When is this going to be on the test? #moremaking #lesstesting" at Pearson and others. 

David Malpica's picture


Christa Flores's picture


It seems like you have been thinking about this. Can we put this on the agenda for the next MEM. I think its time to start using our global numbers to do something. Sounds like social networking might be our fasest route. Lets discuss at todays meeting as well if there is time.  

Your fan, 




Tracy Rudzitis's picture

A quick comment: it is so interesting that the Charter school movement in NYC has such different aspirations than the one in California. The original idea behind charter schools was to create a space for something different to happen outside the rigid framework of the public school system. In NYC it has become a space for very militarized and regimented instructional practices with an emphasis on controlling and modifying behaviour using techniques such as tracking, repetition (reciting back what the teacher says as a group), rehearsed phrases and gestures, and more.

I was very impressed by the work that your students showed at the Fablearn Conference in October. Now back to the rest of your post....

David Malpica's picture

Thanks Tracy! Pedagogically, there is quite a wide variety of charter schools around here as well. Sadly, I can't say that BCS represents the majority.

Heather Pang's picture

David, this is a great topic to think about, and I like the idea of some concerted social media publicity. I also wonder if there is a state politician or two who are already big fans of the maker ed movement, and if we could get some publicity and action by connecting with the people who are already behind the sort of change we would like.


David Malpica's picture

Thanks Heather, those are great suggestions! I suppose we could write to the different parties seeking information. Or maybe we could scour the public records for voting records on education.

Christa Flores's picture

Maybe we can combine our efforts with the Bay Area MEM people (Angi and Aaron) to get a meetup dedicated to this. Happy to help organize. 

David Malpica's picture

I like this idea a lot.

David Malpica's picture

I've added a link to an article about new funding policy.


Mary Morgan Ryan's picture

Hi David, thanks for this post.  I teach in a public elementary school in Illinois and am very interested in how to embed maker activities and maker thinking into a standards-based curriculum. I know you are correct that what we really need is a shift in pedagogy, but there have to be teachers out there who have figured out to work within our current system. I want to find them and connect. Any advice or connections welcome!  Mary

Christa Flores's picture

Look at the work of Aaron Vanderwerff at Lighthouse Community Charter school in Oakland and the Opal School in Portland Oregon for examples of standards based settings with very strong maker programs. 

David Malpica's picture

Hi Mary, thank you for your questions. I definitely echo Christa's suggestions. I also suggest to look at High Tech High's k-5 programs and their PD. 

More ideas: 

1) start a thread on the k-12 fablabs/makerspaces group asking for peeps in the public space to identify themselves. I see you're part of it, but after searching, I don't think anyone has asked this question there.

2) reach out to the Buck Institute and see if they have more information on public schools making use of their resources. I found this which showcases a few schools. According to this KQED article, there are around 5000 schools (public and private) in the country running PBL programs. Some of those must be public.

I hope that helps!