I’ve always been interested in how things worked. I was that boy who pressed the un-pressable buttons and dismantled gadgets to harvest the magnets. At the age of six, I spent a week carefully invalidating the warranty of my Amstrad PC 464 by taking it apart piece by piece, before adding a new circuit board to increase the speed, which it did!
Yet, at primary school, the closest I got to any kind of engineering was building with Lego. Even at secondary school in the 1990s, I was sad to find that my ‘tech’ lessons hardly deserved the name, and I was lucky to be allowed to make a simple buzzer or light-bulb circuit.
However, things are beginning to shift. On the national level, STEM skills have been recognised as vital to the economy, useful and worthwhile skills to teach to our students no matter what career path they eventually choose.
Many of our modern devices, with their microelectronics, seem far beyond the understanding of the average person on the street. There is a movement of people who have taken up their soldering irons and have begun tinkering, fixing and re-purposing gadgets and electronics to learn, play… and yes… break devices to find out how they work. This has been labelled the ‘maker culture’ and it is no longer exclusive to suburban sheds. Maker fairs and clubs are growing in popularity, with a growing number being held in schools.
There is naturally a lot of cross over from a regular DT and computing lessons – maker clubs in schools are often supported by these departments. However, the difference for me is that a maker project is usually driven by the curiosity of the creator, and may or may not result in an end product.
Consumer electronics have nose-dived in price and reliability, but defunct devices are readily available for raw materials. Even buying new electronic components is relativity cheap these days, with complex items like an Arduino board or a Raspberry Pi can be used, played with and possibly sacrificed in the pursuit of knowledge.
Another source of electronic fodder can be acquired with the help of the school community. I’m sure, like me, you have at least 17 old mobile phones in a drawer somewhere. As a teacher, it is your moral duty to never throw anything away which has the remotest possibility of being useful at some point and to hoard things without the slightest nagging doubt in your convictions. It turns out that this is not unique to the teaching profession, and by using people’s hard-earned clutter you will be doing the duel service of confirming the collectors strongly held beliefs, but also clearing some space so they can acquire more.
Local businesses and engineering companies may also be a good source of material and advice, with many of the big manufacturers having educational STEM outreach projects and staff.
Naturally, a very important thing to consider is the safety of yourself and your young makers. Electricity must be disconnected, and nasty materials must be avoided. Just as with all teaching activities, risk must be managed and mitigated. It goes without saying that your pupils should not be taking a screwdriver to devices at home, but it is also a good idea to ensure that your pupils also think this is obvious too.
As you and your pupils begin, the projects are likely to be small incursions into the engineering world. Like many aspects of life and learning, you need to be shown some of the things that are possible and research into what can be achieved. A site like howstuffworks.com, makerfaire.com and makezine.com all have useful information to help you get started.
The possibilities are endless. So, provide a stimulating and encouraging environment to help your students’ innovations and creativity flourish.
The full version of this article was originally published in the November 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine
Featured Image Source: Via Gijsbert Peijs on Flickr under (CC BY 2.0)
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