Readers of this blog know how quickly the maker movement has picked up STEAM in recent years. Yet as more schools and organizations recognize the importance of letting kids tinker and create, educators need the resources and time to work making into their programs and figure out their roles as mentors.

One national initiative is bringing maker education to as many kids as possible. A partnership between the nonprofit Maker Ed and AmeriCorps VISTA places volunteers at sites that provide maker opportunities for young learners.

Pittsburgh, no stranger to the maker movement, is the site of one of nine organizations playing host to VISTA workers this year. The two volunteers work at Assemble, a creative community space where artists and technologists of all ages are always busy building and crafting. Located in the Garfield neighborhood, the organization strives to be accessible to local kids and anyone else who wants to take part in its programs or simply drop in—so the emphasis VISTA puts on capacity-building is appreciated.

Not only has it “been really great” to have two new staff members expanding Assemble’s reach, said its director, Nina Marie Barbuto, but it has been invigorating to strengthen ties with others in the maker scene.

“It’s been great to work with other organizations on a national level and to see how we’re not alone,” Barbuto said. “It’s nice to see it’s not only in Pittsburgh. It’s really a national movement.”

No question. A recent white paper from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero details the sheer momentum of the movement. Supported by a three-year grant from the Abundance Foundation, researchers with Project Zero’s Agency by Design visited numerous maker education sites.

“This is an important moment for policymakers, funders, and others interested in supporting an alternative narrative for education that focuses on deep and prolonged experiences of learning through making, and results in students developing a sense of agency, self-efficacy, and community,” the researchers write.

Pittsburgh itself is home to renowned makerspaces and, increasingly, infrastructure and opportunities for educators and organizations interested in joining the movement. In October, educators who want to integrate making into their curricula can attend workshops co-hosted by Maker Ed and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Shortly after, Pittsburgh gets its first full-size Maker Faire.

“When kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of.”
One of Assemble’s Maker Ed VISTA volunteers, Sienna Cittadino, got her degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. She enjoyed activities in library-based maker spaces and, she said, grew “cautiously optimistic” about the larger movement. She said she was a bit skeptical that the associated jargon was just that—jargon. But, particularly at Assemble, she has come to see maker education as a jumping-off point for some kids and an invitation to others to dive into existing interests.

“I think that when kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of,” Cittadino said. “They’re able to trust themselves.”

There is a valuable emphasis on exploration, self-direction, and tinkering in maker rhetoric. But whether their roles are more administrative or instructive, mentors like the VISTAs and the Assemble staff figure prominently in successful maker education. In a recent newsletter, writer Annie Murphy Paul pointed out that completely unstructured maker projects can be overwhelming or too mentally demanding for young kids. Adults can provide foundational guidance.

“Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supports accurate and effective learning,” she wrote. “The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement: the student learns to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as his skills and confidence grow.”

Giving young learners both freedom and guidance is a careful balancing act, Cittadino said.

Sometimes the educator’s role is “figuring out when to let them shoot for something that isn’t going to work,” she said. “And letting go of that control.”

For example? Cittadino recalled students who wanted to make a full-scale, complete version of Minecraft in the children’s coding program Scratch.

“Sometime, they secretly always knew a project wouldn’t work,” but were curious about the outcome anyway, she said. “Or maybe it will work! They’re really smart.”