Exploring the Role of the Arts in Maker-Centered Learning Experiences

Participants at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum consider the role of the arts in maker-centered learning experiences.

Earlier this month an eager crew of arts education professionals packed themselves into a hotel ballroom in Pittsburgh, PA to do something that has probably never been done in that space before.

Presented with a host of simple tools and scrappy recycled materials, the assembled arts educators were placed into groups and given the following design challenge:

With only fifteen minutes to address this challenge, as soon as they heard the word “Go!” the participants sprung into action—and a joyful commotion quickly filled the room.

This wild maker-rumpus took place at the 2014 Arts Education Partnership (AEP) National Forum, an annual convening of arts educators designed to address “what works in arts education and to advance best practices.” The theme of this year’s AEP National Forum was Preparing Students for the Next America in and through the Arts.

Considering the popular rhetoric framing the maker movement as a driver of creativity and innovation, the future of manufacturing in America, and the “new industrial revolution,” my colleague (and former AbD research assistant) Raquel Jimenez and I thought the 2014 AEP National Forum would be a great place to explore the role of the arts in a maker-centered learning.

As individuals who bounce back and forth between the universe of arts education and the new world of maker education, Raquel and I have been deeply interested in the role of the arts in making experiences—and vice versa. Intrigued by the work we observed in a variety educational makerspaces, our early experiences with the Agency by Design initiative prompted us to ask questions about the tension we began to notice between aesthetics and functionality in maker education. We found these questions to be particularly apt when maker education was heralded by some as the embodiment of “STEAM”—the combination of the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math education.

To pursue this line of inquiry Raquel and I engaged in an independent research study to better understand what arts learning looks like in maker-centered education. Our 2014 AEP National Forum session “STEM to STEAM” …or “STEM with Stickers?”: Understanding the Role of the Arts in Maker-Center Learning Experiences engaged over 60 AEP participants in a workshop designed to actively explore our research interests.

Being that the room was full of education professionals representing various arts disciplines, we weren’t surprised that it didn’t take more than two minutes into our AEP maker activity before a participant asked: “I’m a dancer and I approach the world kinesthetically, can we incorporate movement into our work?”

A smile came across our faces as we nodded, “yes.”

From that moment forward—it was on. Not only were wild contraptions being constructed with the materials we supplied, but chairs were being stacked high in the air, table clothes were whipping around the room, conference goers in high heels were deftly wielding box cutters, and dance moves were being choreographed and rehearsed—all in service of the classic maker design challenge that had been posed to our participants

As observers, Raquel and I noted that arts practices were indeed being used to address a functional purpose. It was also interesting to see that some participant groups used arts materials structurally—rather than aesthetically—as the fever of competition and the drive to make the most effective contraption took hold. We found it curious that, even when performance elements such as song and dance were incorporated into our participants’ work, these elements were employed structurally and for highly functional purposes.

Once the wild rumpus stopped (and a winner was declared), the participants all cheered and applauded one another’s efforts. Then we got down to business. By engaging with an authentic maker activity, the arts education professionals in the room had developed new insights and puzzles concerning the role of the arts in maker-centered learning experiences. A healthy skepticism for STEAM rhetoric permeated the space as participants reflected upon their experiences and rightfully questioned the role of the arts in maker-centered educational activities.

Raquel and I likewise emerged from this experience full of new insights and puzzles. While we are still in the midst of writing up our independent research findings, we continue to be deeply interested in learning from others. Whether you were in the room with us in Pittsburgh or not, we’d be delighted to hear your thoughts: what do you see as the role of the arts, if any, in maker-centered “STEAM” experiences?

This blog was published on September 19, 2014.
Authored by
Edward Clapp

Edward Clapp is a Principal Investigator on the Agency by Design project.