Girls Can Make Stuff Too!

Maker education provides both boys and girls with the opportunity to learn dexterity, ideation, teamwork, and have fun while solving problems and building creative confidence.  As an independent school administrator and educator leading the Learning Innovation Institute at The Ellis School, I have worked with faculty and our innovation fellows to build a “maker culture” at our all-girls PK-12 school that is infused across all levels/disciplines.  Many of my peers that work at co-ed schools tell me they struggle with engaging girls in maker projects, computer science courses and engineering classes in upper school. What is important for all kids, but especially girls is to help them build creative confidence. Within a maker culture, girls can achieve creative confidence through maker empowerment: a heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so. By ensuring girls have the opportunity to make and tinker we can ensure they build/practice their creative confidence today so they have the confidence and perseverance to pursue STEM majors in college and beyond.

Through using design thinking and maker education, girls at The Ellis School can define what problems and challenges in their community and life they want to work on, rather than having challenges defined for them. Maker Education at Ellis enriches the curricular program in a really hands-on way that builds critical thinking skills and fosters creativity. Laura Blankenship (@lblanken), one of the founders of the #MakerEd chat and CS Department Head at Baldwin School says: “Make your space as gender neutral as possible. Include things that are attractive to girls. Robots are great, but think about other things—or let your robot be a helper bot.” Andrew Carle(@tieandjeans), another founder of #MakerEd chat said: “Start early, when a child’s enthusiasm and aptitude can still drown out engrained gender expectations.”

Ellis Girl Liz from the Girls of Steel Robotics team with the robot they made named Watson.

Here are a few examples of how The Ellis School integrates Maker Education into our program across the school:

  • More than two years ago we launched “Innovation Stations,” located in all classrooms in the Lower School and in common areas in the Middle and Upper Schools with the goal of providing girls a place to explore and tinker in a non-threatening way. From building wind turbines, to using the Makey Makey to write music and program Hummingbird Robots, Ellis girls are having fun while making.  Right now our Middle School Innovation Station is featuring an activity where the girls build an origami character that has LEDs and Motors (using the Invent-abling kit) and then write a short creative writing piece about the character, take a picture of their character and post it to origami gallery. This activity incorporates literature, arts and STEM. Tinkering is a powerful form of “learning by doing,” an ethos shared by the rapidly expanding Maker Movement community and many educators. Real science and engineering is done through tinkering. We also run an after-school program for MS girls called Tinker Squads.
  • In our Upper School engineering design class the girls recently worked on an artificial limb lab. The three Ellis faculty who co-teach the class mentored small teams of 3 to 4 students as they defined problems people with disabilities face, gained empathy for people facing these disabilities through personal stories and research, and then designed multiple iterations of designs within Autodesk Inventor, the MakerBot Replicator 3D printer, and manual use of tools to make prototypes. The teams then printed final parts on the 3D printer and presented them to the class and an internal panel at Ellis. Projects included the “RecFin,” an assistive swimming device for people with a limb loss below the knee, the “Triple Threat,” an assistive hair-tying device, the “BAZAD,” a button and zipping assistive device and the “Hold Tight,” a device to help grip small objects.
  • In their roles as city planners, the Ellis second grade students made decisions about the placement of their newly constructed services in the Central Business District, city or suburban neighborhoods or outlying areas as a part of the Metropolitan Community Project. They took into consideration such issues as aesthetics, usage, space restraints, noise, and pollution. The girls also gave special attention to green building and planning. The girls worked in cooperative learning groups to design and construct streets, bridges, tram, tunnel, incline, parking facilities, signage, parks and recreational spaces. As neighborhoods and services sprang up, the girls positioned their single-family homes as well as the town houses, apartment houses and duplexes they made with a partner. Fourth grade girls also recently designed scenes from the book Poppy using the Hummingbird Robotics kit in groups of three to make scenes come alive.
  • The Active Classroom and the “CoLaboratory” was designed and launched with assistance from our students last school year. The Active Classroom and “CoLab” project combines innovative teaching methods such as the flipped classroom, design thinking and maker education into physics and engineering courses. We have created new curriculum where the lectures are predominantly online and class time is spent in groups where students collaborate to define and solve problems through hands-on experiments and making. We intentionally build in time for our girls to gain empathy for each other, others in our community and others across the globe all while developing risk-taking and perseverance to solve challenges. The Active Classroom model was so successful at our school, we have since shifted several more courses/classrooms to this model.

Maker education strengthens girls’ capacity for problem solving, collaboration and builds creative confidence.  Our research over three years has shown 25-30% gains in engagement of girls enrolled in STEM courses when the focus is on active learning that includes design and making. Additionally, enrollment in computer science and engineering courses increased by a factor of six. Making is a position on learning that puts girls in charge of their learning – in many cases this requires a cultural shift on how learning is approached in schools. Starting out doesn’t need to be expensive. While a Maker Space is great, it’s not required to incorporate more “making” and problem-solving into your curricular program.

Here are a few tips:

  • Read Invent to Learn and check out the website for some great resources to get started with Maker Education.
  •  To learn more about Maker Education join the weekly Twitter Chat that takes place on Tuesdays at 9 PM EST using #makered hashtag. 
  • Visit the MakerSpace at the 2015 NAIS conferences  near the Expo Hall to see demos, talk to educators within NAIS schools who have embraced the maker mindset and see posters that showcase maker spaces.

The Ellis School, Second Grade Maker Project

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