October 2019

Tinkering and Making as Play-Potential for Inclusionary STEM Teaching and Learning

This week’s blog post was contributed by Helen Douglass, OCH Fellow and Assistant Professor of Education at TU. Here, Professor Douglass delves into the topic of makerspaces in primary education and the potential benefits of “playing and doing” on young minds.

As I finished my dissertation study working with women physicists and engineers, one particular theme has remained with me long after the defense, the presentations and the publications.  When I asked my case-study participants to take images of meaningful experiences in their lives and describe them, one key idea emerged: a theme I called “Playing and Doing.”  Each participant related vividly these kinds of activities, which we do not often associate with traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.  They talked about playing board games, about tinkering with electronic components their parents ordered through the mail, and about doing logic puzzles in elementary school. One even described her wish for a building set that her mother would not allow.  Each of these women described a fascination with the materials, the building, the problem solving or the collaboration associated with Playing and Doing.  Although each woman’s words and images varied, they all linked these kinds of activities to their own identities, agency and experiences as scientists and engineers. 

I am fascinated with the potential opportunities that the Playing and Doing data open within the current maker education movement. Makerspaces are being incorporated into public schools and public places with a variety of purposes and provisions. My interest is in the spaces that are being developed for STEM teaching and learning. I believe these spaces provide a rich opportunity for more equitable teaching and learning. However, teachers must know how to use these spaces fully and effectively.

There are multiple types of making and maker programs.  Some focus on entrepreneurship (where participants make products to take to real or mock up markets), others on workforce development (experiences that primarily support engineering/design sills), and  others still on more broadly educative activities.  Bevan et al. (2016) organize makerspace experiences into three categories: assembly, creative construction and open-ended inquiry.  Assembly projects are done in a step-by-step fashion with learners having all the materials they need and proceeding through the instructions.  The end product is a set of identical or near-identical objects. In creative construction spaces, learners are given a challenge to address or a model to replicate and have some choice in the look and scale of what they make. The results of making in these spaces are personalized versions of the same type of object.  In open-ended inquiry, students develop an individual idea or goal for making an object and figure out how to accomplish it. Creative, improvisational problem solving is associated with this type of educative making, also called “tinkering.” This results in a wide range of objects designed to address unique purposes and individual goals.  Inquiry-based teaching has driven the reform of science teaching (Lead States, 2013) and is situated well within makerspace experiences.

Despite the excitement around such makerspaces, it is still not clear how one teaches equitably and inclusively in these spaces. People of all backgrounds have been making and creating to address needs and problems in their communities, especially if formal spaces of STEM learning have not included their experiences or related to their current situations and realities (Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson & Ellenbogen, 2003).  I think that makerspaces being created in public schools and used for STEM learning are an intersection of formal spaces and informal spaces. They are informal insofar as they fall outside the bounds of structured time and learning standards, and include a large amount of student choice and agency. They become more formal spaces when they are inserted into the regular time and space structures in public schools, and may be bound by time and at least partially by curricular and assessment constraints.   As such, we need to support and prepare teachers to teach in theses spaces, especially in light of the potential for inclusive and equitable STEM teaching and learning.

Currently, I am investigating how a framework called Acts of Authentication (Verma, Puvirajah & Webb, 2015)  may be helpful in preparing teachers to work in these combined formal and informal spaces. Briefly, Acts of Authentication includes students talking about the content they are doing, in both their everyday language and the language of the STEM disciplines. It also offers students a way to engage meaningfully with the practices of STEM disciplines by doing more than reading about them or following a set of instructions.  Finally, students and their mentors or teachers form a community of practice, where learners of all abilities agree to engage with a topic or content area.  Teachers can be instructed and participate themselves in the Acts of Authentication as a way to teach in these STEM makerspaces that require navigating both formal and informal learning spaces.

The images of “Playing and Doing” that women scientists and engineers shared during my study have sparked a more serious scholarly inquiry into the potential to leverage such activities for all learners.  Imagine what students and teachers could do if these makerspaces can be places of inclusive, creative, open-inquiry STEM teaching and learning.


Additional Reading about Makerspaces in STEM Education

Bevan, B., Ryoo, J.J., Shea, M., Kekelis, L., Pooler, P., Green, E., Bulalacao, N.,

McLeod, E., Sandoval, J., & Hernandez, M. (2016). Making as a Strategy for Afterschool STEM Learning: Report from the California Tinkering Afterschool Network Research Practice Partnership. San Francisco, CA: The Exploratorium.

Dierking, L.D., Falk, J.H., Rennie, L., Anderson, D., & Ellenbogen, K. (2003). Policy statement

of the “Informal Science Education” ad hoc committee. Journal for Research in Science Teaching. 40(2), 108-11.

Douglass, H., Verma, G. & Wee, B. (2018). Making the Invisible Visible: Providing Context of

Women’s STEM Experiences. Paper presentation at National Association for Research in Science Teaching International Conference, Baltimore, MD.

Lead States (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.  Washington, DC:

The National Academies Press.

Verma, G. , Puvirajah, A. & Webb, H. (2015), Enacting acts of authentication in a robotics

competition: An interpretivist study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52: 268-295. doi:10.1002/tea.21195

Tara Aveilhe, Assistant Director

We are thrilled to announce the promotion of Tara Aveilhe to Assistant Director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. Tara has been with OCH and the Dylan Institute as Administrator for 2+ years, during which time she has contributed her skills in event coordination, social media, web content management, budgeting, and general administration.

Tara holds an MA in Humanities and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Tulsa. She has 10+ years’ combined experience working for non profit initiatives in the arts and humanities. She has also worked as a freelance writer and academic editor for a number of years.

In her new role as Assistant Director, Tara will continue assisting Director Sean Latham implement rich public programming that engages the TU community and the wider Tulsa community. On the Dylan Institute side, she will assist with the launch and maintenance of several exciting new initiatives beginning in the spring of 2020 as well as planning for the 2021 Bob Dylan conference.

Please join us in congratulating Tara on her new role!

Using Analog Games in the College Composition Class

This week’s blog post comes from David Chandler, OCH Fellow and Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. David is currently teaching a freshman composition curriculum that uses boardgames and the experiences of playing them as the basis for understanding narrative and exposition.

In a community college classroom on an otherwise uneventful weekday night, a group of students learning about composition were planning a revolution. They took turns leading missions to strike back at the governing powers that kept them in a dystopian state of subjugation, and they suspected that some among the group were loyalists who would sabotage their operations. While the rebels try and root out the spies in their midst, the loyalists attempt to hide their agenda by spreading doubt among the ranks of the resistance, and each person makes careful notes of their opponents’ actions to determine who among them they can trust.

By the time my composition students have finished playing The Resistance, a tabletop game about hidden roles that takes between 20 to 30 minutes, they have catalogued their experience, employed social deduction to evaluate their classmates’ arguments, and created an emergent narrative. All of these elements inform foundational lessons about the writing process–from rough sketches of narrative content to practical rhetorical strategies. Indeed, the experiences my students have in playing and discussing games are among the most valuable they gain in their writing class.

Before discussing the use of games in a college classroom, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about gamification as a pedagogical tool. For advanced courses, I can see how classes built around gamified progress provide a welcome change from the standard classroom template. However, for my community college students, implementing ancillary features like experience points or roles to play could obscure their learning goals rather than elucidate them.

Indeed, I find that the classroom is always already a sort of gamified space for students. Here’s how Johann Huizinga describes the area of play in Homo Ludens:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga’s description looks more specifically at sacred and performative spaces, but a classroom, safely tucked in a pocket of a larger building devoted to learning, invites comparison. My classroom has rules and expectations after all–explicit agreements of conduct regarding participation and prior reading of the current texts, to name a couple.

In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits coins the term “lusory attitude” to describe the psychological state a player must cultivate before they can play a game. Essentially, a game needs not only rules, but also “the acceptance of constitutive rules so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur” (emphasis mine). A classroom makes similar demands of students: they must be game to learn before learning can begin.

So, with the classroom itself always already gamified, I encourage my students to approach games as texts to be read as well as played. In the example above, students played The Resistance after reading selections of dystopian fiction: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” They compared the two stories with the narrative that unfolded as accusations of betrayal and paranoia flew around the room, each student finding ways to argue for their innocence or build their cases against others at the table. Then, after a discussion about the differences between simulating a dystopia and reading one, they write about how these different texts operate in terms of tone, audience, style, action–all the hallmarks of writing freshman identify in rhetorical analysis.

Recently, I’ve expanded this format by bringing several games from my own collection to have a sort of board game cafe day in class. Students roll dice, play cards, and lay tiles in games such as King of Tokyo, Exploding Kittens, and Tsuro, after which we talk about their experiences. Within minutes, students explain how rolling dice simulates chaos as giant monsters destroy a city, how placing cards in a deck sets up ridiculous traps for their opponents, how moving a stone across a path is an exercise in abstract meditation. These exercises build critical thinking skills to interpret games as more than just fun diversions, though they are certainly that. Games become engines of social interaction to be tinkered with and interpreted.

The trick, of course, is to tie this into the requirements of writing, and while there is certainly no shortage of skepticism of organizing courses around specific themes, in my experience critical readers become critical writers. When students articulate strategic choices in a game while delving into how its mechanics communicate a theme, they do the work of blending active learning with analysis that they then organize into an essay. Colleges across the country put so much emphasis on the need for critical thinking; perhaps it’s time to emphasize critical playing as well.

Revolutionizing the Classroom with Virtual Reality

Our OCH Research Fellows’ blog contributions on the topic of play continue this week with a post by Akram Taghavi-Burris, instructor at the University of Tulsa and an award-winning designer, writer, and educator.


The term play can be defined as taking part in an enjoyable activity for the sake of amusement. Now if you were to ask a student (of any age), they probably wouldn’t consider the classroom a place of play. However, as educators, we want to make learning an enjoyable activity, so how can we make that happen?

This same question has been asked by educators for decades. In fact, William Higinbotham in 1958, was tasked in making the high school tour of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York a more enjoyable activity for students. What he came up with was what most experts consider the first video game ever developed, Tennis for Two. This game was played on an oscilloscope and was intended to be used as a learning tool to teach high school students about the work being done at the laboratory.

Just like today, in 1958 Higinbotham had a hard time engaging the students, and he thought that some sort of interactive display would get the students involved, encourage them to ask questions, and make the overall experience more enjoyable. It’s not recorded how effective Tennis for Two was in engaging the students, but it must have made some impact since over 60 years later kids are still playing video games.

Since video games were intended as a learning tool (and as of 2018, 75% of American households play video games in some form or fashion) it’s no surprise to see video games making their way into the classroom. Indeed, they have been there for a long time. Many of you might remember the hours spent on the Apple II playing–one of my favorites–Oregon Trail. This heavily text-based game provided students an experience of life on the frontier as settlers traveling across the country, teaching money management, strategy, and how awful dysentery was.

Today, video games can offer an even greater player experience for students, especially with immersive new technologies such as virtual reality (VR). These new devices suddenly make real what was once only imagined in education programs like the Magic School Bus. In order to really teach the students about a topic, Ms. Frizzle used her enchanted bus to transport the students to the vast reaches of the universe or down to the smallest atom to explore these topics. VR is the magic school bus. So VR is amazing, but as an educator how do you implement it into the classroom? Here are a few tips and suggestions:

Isn’t it expensive and hard to use? 

Well, the truth of the matter is no. There are a ton of affordable options for VR and even smartphone apps. If you can use a smartphone then setting up VR isn’t that much different. One great example is Google cardboard , a VR/AR viewer that is made of cardboard and plastic. Google cardboard viewers can be purchased for as low as $5 and work with a smartphone and a variety of free apps, such as the Official Cardboard app, Proton Pulse, and Cardboard Camera.

How does VR fit into the curriculum? 

Well, there is pretty much a VR experience for almost any subject matter. If you are teaching science, then why not try a lab simulator, like those offered by Labster. If history or geography are the topic, then there are several virtual field trips such as Google Expeditions. Then there is the Trench Experience VR, which offers students an intimate look into the life of those who fought during WWI. VR tools like Tilt Brush and Blocks provide art teachers with new canvases for their students to experiment on.

Isn’t it just a gimmick? 

Ever take a class where the teacher announces there will be a video that day? Inevitably, students see these as do-nothing activities. The reason for this is that the video was added to the class but not integrated. The active participation of VR, however, makes it interactive, though it still requires thoughtful integration on the part of the teacher to make this experience meaningful within the curriculum.

Is it worth it? 

Consider giving VR a try since it make the learning an “enjoyable activity” and thus add a  sense of play to education—both in the classroom and beyond it.