Building a Nation of Makers

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from U.S. News and World Report

By John B. King Jr.

Congress needs to pass the budget to support the next generation of innovators.

From June 17 through 23, our nation celebrates the National Week of Making. This week recognizes that makers, builders and doers – of all ages and backgrounds – always have had a vital role in pushing our country to develop creative solutions to some of our most pressing challenges.

As President Barack Obama has noted, during this week, “We celebrate the tinkerers and dreamers whose talent and drive have brought new ideas to life, and we recommit to cultivating the next generation of problem solvers.”

The term “making” refers to both traditional outlets for creativity such as metalworking, woodworking and drawing, as well as to digital fabrication made possible by computer design tools, robotics, laser cutters, 3D printers and other tools. When the president hosted the first-ever Maker Faire in 2014 to launch the Nation of Makers initiative, he set our country on a path toward ensuring that more students, entrepreneurs and all Americans have access to these new technologies that are enabling our people to design, build and manufacture just about anything.

“Making” can play an important role in ensuring that school is a relevant and engaging experience for our children – one that inspires them to become life-long learners. Making can:

  • Empower students to solve real-world problems;
  • Motivate and inspire young people to excel in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and the arts, and prepare students for careers in design, advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship;
  • Foster a “maker mindset” – dispositions and skills such as curiosity, collaborative problem-solving and confidence that are vital to the modern innovation economy; and
  • Increase student engagement, which is critical for academic success. The High School Survey of Student Engagement found that two-thirds of students surveyed said they were bored in school every day. Researchers over many years have found that when students learn through doing, they are more likely to be excited about school.

In 2011, a team of 15 teens from a low-income school in West Philadelphia showed what’s possible when our young people are challenged to solve real-world problems. The team built a 160 mpg hybrid vehicle that has outperformed fuel-efficient cars created by professional engineers and Ivy League graduate students and entered it in the $10 million Automotive X Prize.

We have to make sure that all our students have access to these kinds of challenging and hands-on activities. Although much of the focus has been on the new technology that is fueling the maker movement, even more important are the values, dispositions and skills that it fosters, such as creativity, imagination, problem-solving, perseverance, self-efficacy, teamwork and “hard fun.”

That’s why, today, the Department of Education is issuing a call to action to give every student opportunities to use these advanced tools and leverage the act of making for real learning. Achieving this goal will require creating “makerspaces” in schools and after-school programs and recruiting talented mentors for our students. We need everyone’s help to make this possible.

The Department of Education is committed to doing its part. In March, I traveled to a makerspace in Baltimore run by the Digital Harbor Foundation to announce the Career Technical Education Makeover Challenge. This competition will provide awards for up to 10 schools that transform high school classrooms into makerspaces. Last year, the Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Center program teamed up with the Institute for Museum and Library Services to create such spaces in 20 schools and organizations in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

President Obama’s proposed budget includes $500 million that can be used to provide students with more opportunities to have a well-rounded education, which includes the STEM field. That is twice the amount available for those programs the previous year, so Congress could help by passing the budget.

Congress could also help by reauthorizing the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which is several years overdue. The president wants to strengthen that program by aligning career training programs more closely with the local job market and increasing collaboration between high schools, colleges and industry partners. This will ensure that every student, in every community has access to rigorous, relevant and results-driven CTE programs.

As President Obama has said, we need an “all-hands-on-deck” effort that involves companies, school leaders, teachers, philanthropists, parents, researchers and STEM professionals, and there are lots of ways to get involved. For example:

  • Companies could sponsor one or more makerspaces, and encourage their employees to serve as mentors for young people by participating in programs such as US2020.
  • School superintendents or principals could sign the Maker Promise, a pledge to dedicate a space for making, designate a “champion” for maker education and display student projects to the community.
  • Teachers, education researchers and makers could collaborate to develop hands-on projects that motivate students to master challenging academic content, electronic portfolios that allow students to share their work, and “badges” that are recognized by employers and college admission officers.
  • A philanthropist or foundation could play the same role that Andrew Carnegie played in supporting the construction of over 1,600 libraries in the United States, with a focus on schools and after-school programs in low-income communities.
  • Researchers and entrepreneurs could develop affordable tools and kits that provide on-ramps to making, such as the $250 computer-controlled machine tool that allows students to make intricate prototypes out of cardboard.
Now we need to support the next generation of innovators and work to ensure that all have opportunities to learn how to design, invent and fabricate just about anything.

Today, I am excited to announce that the Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education are launching Future Ready Librarians, an expansion of the Future Ready initiative aimed at positioning librarians as leaders in the digital transformation of learning. Among other critical roles, Future Ready Librarians design collaborative library spaces that enable open-ended exploration, tinkering and making that empower students as creators while serving as digital learning coaches who work side by side with teachers.

If you have ideas for additional steps that the Education Department can take to promote making, please drop us a note at [email protected].