Technology for Good is Inspiring Kids Across Maker Education

Technology for Good is Inspiring Kids Across Maker Education

By Michael Hurley

This past December in a packed auditorium at Peck Elementary School on Chicago’s southwest side, a caped crusader stood before several hundred 3rd and 4th grade students and asked, “What is your superpower?” She said that hers was the ability to create a hand for a person with a limb difference using her 3D printer. Shortly after, an excited 9-year-old girl stood up and asked, “Can I help make a difference in someone’s life too?” 

Peck Elementary School recently became one of only a few dozen certified STEM schools in the Chicago Public School system (CPS). The school has a supportive administration who created two full-time STEM teacher positions, they invested in tools and technology, and they built two makerspaces where all their students spend at least a few hours per week. To kick off Computer Science Week this year, they planned an event with the help of my company, BitSpace, a Chicago-based company specializing in Maker Education programs for students and educators, and e-NABLE, a non-profit organization of volunteers who use their 3D printers to make free and low-cost prosthetic devices. The superhero presenter was Jen Owens, the co-founder of e-NABLE and owner and creator of enablingthefuture.org , a website dedicated to sharing the open-source designs and stories from a global community of e-NABLE volunteers. That day, the students at Peck learned about e-NABLE, what a limb difference is, and how to assemble their own 3D printed prosthetic hand devices in a series of workshops. 

There are countless stories from e-NABLE, as well as other organizations, companies, and individuals who are using technology for good–to change someone’s life for the better or to contribute to society as a whole. So how do we inspire kids to make connections from what they’re learning in school to solving real-world problems? 

First, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the growth of the Maker Movement over the last 20 years. According to Make magazine, in 2006, about 22,000 people attended Maker Faires around the world, and in 2017, that number increased to 1.6 million. The Internet has made information accessible to hundreds of millions of people. In the U.S., around 90% of households own a computer, and more than 80% have Internet access. MakerBot introduced a desktop 3D printer in 2009, and the market for 3D printing globally is now over $11 billion. More than 30 million units of the Raspberry Pi have been sold since its introduction in 2012. Companies such as Etsy (launched in 2005), Kickstarter, and Square (both launched in 2009) have allowed makers to create their own business. The Maker Movement has led recent efforts to make lightning fast innovations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

The Maker Movement has also made its way to schools. Students are exposed to new technology, and they are encouraged to take on projects that allow them to explore the world around them. In Chicago, there are some compelling stories of teachers taking innovation, design, and making to new heights. For the past three years, BitSpace has worked with Sarah O’Dowd, a middle school science teacher at Audubon Elementary School, to transform her students’ yearly science fair into a “design fair.” Her 7th-grade students are given the prompt to design something that will make life better for a person with a disability. The students come to BitSpace’s makerspace to learn how to use hand tools and power tools, electronics, laser cutters, 3D printers, and more to create their prototypes. They’ve designed magnetic gloves to help grip silverware, shampoo dispensers that don’t require having to manipulate and squeeze a bottle, electronics sensors for people with sight impairments, and much more. But the biggest takeaway for these students is learning about empathy; practicing how to research a problem; using a design thinking framework to brainstorm, iterate, and prototype solutions; and learning new tech skills they can keep in their toolbelt to use when another problem comes along. 

Jeff Solin, a computer science teacher at CPS’s Lane Tech High School, has established one of the premier makerlabs in the city. Through his curriculum dubbed The Lane of Things (a play on the phrase Array of Things), he’s allowed students not only to learn new skills and experiment with technology but also to partner with community organizations and companies to come up with solutions to problems. In the third year of his program, his classes partnered with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs wanted to get feedback from their fans in the upper deck, and students went to work to design sensors to put in at Wrigley Field to get feedback and test environmental conditions and sound levels from the stadium. The great thing about teachers like Mr. Solin is that they inspire students by what they do, not just by what they lecture about in class. For example, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Solin designed a new face shield, but instead of using a 3D printer, his design was made on a laser cutter out of a single sheet of plastic, thus cutting down on production time, and it can be shipped flat in a small box. He calls it the Solin Flatpack

The news has been sharing stories of large companies jumping in to use their technology to help with the COVID-19 epidemic:

  • A group of scientists and billionaires are coming together to form a Manhattan Project for COVID-19 .
  • Companies like Ford and GM are retrofitting their factories to manufacture ventilators and other needed medical equipment.
  • Fashion companies from Gucci to Wrangler are making masks and gowns for medical workers.

Using technology for good isn’t a new concept that we just stumbled upon during this recent pandemic. Individuals and organizations have been doing this for a long time. Environmental sustainability efforts, healthcare advances, and equal opportunity and access are all areas in which technology has helped transform our lives for the better. So while the rapid transfer of information can bring people and ideas together from around the globe, and lower prices can allow technology to be accessible to a new world of makers, we need to continue to inspire our young people to ask questions and learn to solve new problems that arise. Our schools need to be these incubators. Making technology available to students, getting teachers trained to deliver this content, and designing makers spaces in schools where this learning can happen will help usher in a new generation of innovators and problem solvers–kids who will put on their own cape, raise their hand, and say, “I know I can make a difference in someone’s life!

Thinking about designing a makerspace in your school? Download the MiEN makerspace brochure or visit our Pinterest board

Curious about additional reasons Makerspaces are very relevant in education? Check out this blog post. 

Michael Hurley is president at BitSpace, a Chicago-based company that is a leader in maker education. BitSpace has worked with more than 6,000 students in their makerspaces and in partner schools, and have worked with over 100 schools to train teachers and bring maker education programs to the classroom. www.bitspacechicago.com mike@bitspacechicago.com