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