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MAKING STUFF with a Community of Practice

ByScott AsakawaNOVA EducationNOVA Education

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For NOVA Education, the second MAKING STUFF outreach project is, to say the least, ambitious. Not only did we set out to build a network over three times as big as the one built around the first MAKING STUFF which originally aired four episodes around different themes in materials science in early 2011, but we also decided to experiment, for the first time, with turning that network into a “community of practice.” The term, as defined by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, refers to a group of people who share a craft or occupation, and deepen their understanding about that craft or occupation by sharing newfound knowledge and experiences with each other. Our community of practice was designed to build knowledge around the pedagogy of “making”—teaching and learning about engineering and design through hands-on experience, tinkering, creativity, and play.

All of this was undertaken based on the feedback from the first

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MAKING STUFF outreach initiative. Members of the original 20-site network from 2011 said that while they appreciated the experience of working with NOVA on outreach activities, there had been very little sense of a national initiative. Any knowledge gained through participation in the project was isolated to single sites. With the second MAKING STUFF , we strove to help sites learn together rather than separately.

Now, after months of preparation and a lot of effort from our small but decidedly determined team, our national network is a reality. Hosted on Google+, our community currently boasts a membership of more than 100 people, with representatives from 70+ educational sites, as well as organizations like Maker Education ,

Nerdy Derby , DiscoverE , Young Makers , Pixar, and Google. As the network sites work to deliver NOVA’s outreach programming to their audiences, our community message boards are blossoming with posts, pictures, and videos, and the results are teaching us some     valuable lessons about Maker pedagogy and group learning.

The first thing that has become readily apparent is that although NOVA (with partners NYSCI) designed a hands-on, maker-based curriculum to be delivered as a standalone product, the spirit of making cannot be so contained. Members of our network, from almost the first moment it was in their hands, began to adapt the content for use based on their existing infrastructures and resources. Such modifications are not only novel and exciting, but they are also at the core of the “Maker” ideology. Deconstruction, experimentation, flexibility—all of these things provide a solid foundation not just for learning through making, but also for figuring out how to guide other makers . This reality, a reality that sees educators succumbing to that “maker spirit,” is yielding better results than NOVA Education could have anticip


We’re also realizing how valuable and effective the Community of Practice model is as a self-sustaining professional development (PD) mechanism for educators. Through Google+, our network members are able to communicate with each other and with NOVA Ed staff on a daily basis. Further, the community has access to leaders in the Maker education world, which NOVA provides by hosting and recording Hangouts on Air . NOVA provides the stimulus, and the community builds and supports itself. Rather than producing all the PD content, NOVA Ed staff have been able to simply stand back and watch the network members provide for themselves. In so doing, the PD is more diversely applicable, and more responsive to the needs of the educators. The kicker, though, is that it’s easier to provide and more sustainable than traditional methods. This fact has exciting implications for the future of professional development in STEM education, and has us looking at possibilities for communities of practice across WGBH’s STEM education projects.

Finally, with representatives from across a very diverse educational spectrum, our community has become one of the best places on the internet to see how learning through making can work in an extremely wide variety of educational settings. Whether it’s in a classroom setting where middle school students are given two hours to complete a project, or it’s as part of a science Olympiad drop-in, or a 20-minute activity with seniors in high school, our network is proving just how flexible learning through making has the capacity to be. The NOVA projects serve as the base from which many educational approaches can grow, and we’re happy to see the breadth of application that our content has inspired.

The MAKING STUFF outreach community has been a true labor of love, but the results are well worth the effort, as the lessons learned from the experience not only benefit NOVA, but benefit every site that has participated in the campaign, and hopefully, will help inspire future educators to take the plunge into teaching and learning through making. If you’re interested in “maker” education, why not get your feet wet by checking out this short Youtube playlist ? It features NOVA Ed staff having conversations with some of the leaders in the Maker movement, and will give you a good perspective on this exciting area of STEM education.