Educators are finding that the new “makerspace” movement – a strategy to teach K-12 students science, math and technology through hands-on activities – is providing the added benefit of helping English learners become more proficient in the language.
In makerspaces, students gather a few times a week in a separate classroom, library or museum for a group project using such technologies and materials as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, textiles, wood and wires to construct robots and other electronic gadgets. The teaching technique has been around since the early 2000s, and educators have applauded the idea for helping teach science, especially at a time when California and other states are phasing in the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize practical application of science over rote learning.
But now experts are also seeing makerspaces as a valuable tool for helping improve English, as children talk through their work in teams and keep journals to record their progress.
“This is our first full year of having a makerspace here. It’s an effective use of time,” said Ken Garcia, principal at Wilson Elementary School in Sanger, an agricultural town southeast of Fresno and one of the newer places where the maker movement has expanded.
Dale Dougherty, an author and publisher who launched Make Magazine in 2005 and organized the first Maker Faire in 2006 in San Mateo, said makerspaces effectively build confidence with English learners so that they can become more successful academically overall.
“Generally, ‘making’ can engage English learner kids who don’t do well, or fit well in the traditional academic setting, and are just behind,” Dougherty observed. “A makerspace gives them the confidence to do things. My involvement in ‘making’ and education isn’t to say we’ll get more kids in Ivy League schools. But rather kids are bored, disengaged and defeated by a school system, and we can make good learners out of them.”
He said that although English learners have no problem communicating with each other, they do have problems communicating with the teacher in a traditional classroom. “It’s hard to demonstrate proficiency when they think of themselves as poor learners and the system designates them as such,” Dougherty said.
At Wilson, about 49 percent of its 452 students in the 2015-16 school year were classified as English learners, and 95 percent as Latino, according to the latest available demographic information from DataQuest and the school. Many of the students are children of migrant farmworkers whose parents sometimes are forced to pull them out of school when employment opportunities arise elsewhere across California’s Central Valley.
The school’s 4th- and 5th-graders meet three mornings a week in an otherwise unused classroom as part of their regular science coursework. They use hammers, pliers and other tools to build projects, using such things as Styrofoam, wire, paper and screws.
In addition to learning science, Garcia said the makerspace has given English learners “a new way of engaging in English” as teachers encourage them to use complete sentences in talking through their collaborations and recording their observations in their journals.
“This is our first full year of having a makerspace here. It’s an effective use of time,” said Ken Garcia, Wilson Elementary’s principal.
“I learned English by being in it, not just reading a worksheet or book,” said 24-year-old Elizabeth Garcia, a teaching assistant at Wilson who is studying to become a biochemist at nearby Reedley College. “Here the students have an opportunity to learn English and not feel pressured in the classroom. A makerspace environment forces kids to interact.”
Last week, a 4th grade class at Wilson completed work building a small animal robot – or “bot” – made of wood, wires, batteries and gears that had painted paper masks resembling coyotes, lions, pigs, rabbits and turtles. A bot is a rudimentary device that runs automated tasks powered by a battery. The devices made by students here shake, walk small distances and have blinking lights to simulate eyes.
“I love it,” said Tania Braxton, a 4th grade teacher. “It’s a lot different than teaching from a textbook. It allows students to explore and helps them to explain things through speaking and listening.”
English learners agreed.
“I get to voice my opinion a lot more than before,” 4th-grader Maelena Perez said in English.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said classmate Ariel Porras.
Journals are a key part of instruction. In one exercise, as students recorded their work, they were encouraged to refer to a word list posted on a classroom wall to ensure spelling accuracy.
“Expressing their ideas in notebooks is important. It’s not just about tinkering,” said Jerry Valadez, president of Community Science Workshop Network, which runs the Wilson makerspace and others in Fresno, Watsonville, Greenfield and Salinas. Of the English learner students, he added, “The makerspaces help these underserved kids believe that they can be scientists or an engineer. It allows them to walk with a little more confidence.”
Valadez also is working with Fresno State University to set up a teacher-training program next summer for teachers to learn how to establish a makerspace at their schools. Valadez said he intends to hold the training at his science, art and music academy, SAM Academy for short, located a few blocks from Wilson Elementary.
He said that makerspaces are an effective way to reach out to English learners. “It’s a way for them to verbalize the language instead of trying to learn English out of a textbook,” said Valadez, who notes that the majority of his SAM Academy students are Latinos looking for ways to improve their language skills after school.
The makerspace movement has caught the attention of other higher education institutions, in part because of its benefits for English learners.
At Sonoma State University, one of the California State University system’s 23 campuses, educators have begun developing the country’s first “maker certificate” online program to help teachers in California form makerspace learning centers in their local schools. The university has been offering a 50-hour certificate program for the past two years, but now wants to expand it statewide by turning it into an online course.
Sonoma State is also in preliminary talks with three other CSU schools – Bakersfield, Monterey Bay and San Diego – to create partnerships for the program, according to Carlos Ayala, Sonoma State’s dean of education. His school offers its maker certificate program in partnership with the local Sonoma County Office of Education, an arrangement that Ayala said he wants other CSU campuses to replicate.
“My long-term goal is to get this in teacher preparation programs in the CSU system across the state,” Ayala said.
“Any time students come together and share knowledge, that creates an opportunity for learning English,” he added. “That is a place where you will start seeing potential research come out in the future. It’s pretty powerful.”
Jessica Parker, a community manager with the Oakland-based Maker Education Initiative, which helps school districts form makerspaces, agreed.
“We are seeing ‘maker’ educators show up in droves to meet up with others,” said Parker, who pointed to a doubling in one year of educators attending an annual maker educator convening conference in May.
She said makerspaces are a critical component in working with English learners. “I’m seeing them being established throughout the central and southern parts of California with that idea in mind,” she said.
Last fall, San Diego State University began offering the first-ever master’s level, three-unit course for creating makerspaces, according to Donna Ross, an education professor with the university’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education.
“For English learners, a makerspace starts them with the hands-on piece and adds language as they need it. It’s a more natural way to learn the language,” she said. “You can memorize a lot of vocabulary (in a regular classroom), but if you need to explain what you’re doing, you’ll learn English better.”