Making mayhem: The perils of project-based learning

Wes Terrell directs the science department at Skybridge Academy. You can see and play with some of the cool projects his students have made—despite all of the obstacles Wes discusses below—at the Austin Mini Maker Faire on May 3.


Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating. 

Making stuff is central to who I am as a person. I’m happiest when I’m in the midst of a project. So when I became a public school teacher, I set out to bring making to the masses of bored kids in the hopes that they would all be transformed and realize their inner maker.

In my mind, the opportunity for making was the only thing they were missing. We held a schoolwide junk drive and collected tons of awesome junk. I brought in every tool I owned, since the science department at my school had a $15,000 ventilator hood but didn’t have any $30 cordless drills. Then I told the kids to make something amazing. I showed them a bunch of pictures and videos of cool stuff that other people had made.

What followed was not the maker fantasyland that I had envisioned. Kids destroyed lots of things. They broke my tools. They even stole stuff. And worst of all, no one made anything spectacular. It dawned on me that I had grossly underestimated the energy that was required to maker-ize the public school system.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.As time went on, I got better at developing systems that were more conducive to the outcomes I wanted. In some cases, I simply stopped expecting certain results. Eventually I took a job at Skybridge Academy, where many of the barriers to this kind of work were removed and the administration was in full support of this approach to learning. I thought that I could finally have the maker space of my dreams, but it turned out that there were still some pretty big obstacles to overcome.

I’ve read a lot lately about the value of getting kids to make things. If you’re someone who has been thinking about embarking on such a mission and you’ve read up on the subject, you might have the impression that these maker spaces are whimsical wonderlands of innovation. You hear less about the messy part. What follows is a brief survey of some of the hardest parts of doing this kind of work with kids. I wish I could follow this with a list of solutions. I can’t. But I do think these points are useful to keep in mind for anyone considering how to implement project-based learning activities with kids.

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock 

Kids don’t know how to use tools. This sounds obvious, but I didn’t fully realize it when I started working with kids. Of course not many kids have used a chop saw before, but surely they know how to use a hammer. It turns out most of them don’t. I’ve seen kids use a drill as a hammer, a saw as a drill, and vice versa. If you’re going to use real tools—and most experienced project-based educators agree that you should—then you have to teach these things explicitly. It takes time, and tools will be destroyed in the process.

Kids suck at putting things back where they belong. So you built shelves and got separate bins and even labeled each one. Kids will not put anything back where it belongs. I covered our hammers in plastic wrap, hung them from nails, and painted them with bright red paint to make bright red silhouettes of hammers that would compel a hammer user to put it back where it belongs. If you want to find one of these hammers, you’d be better off looking in the “Screwdrivers” bin. No matter how good your system is, kids will ignore it.

Teenagers are never going to act as excited as you want them to. You’ll think you’ve come up with the most exciting project these kids have ever been exposed to, when, without fail, someone will say, “This is lame.” It can be demoralizing, but you just have to remember that the most vocal opinions usually don’t represent the most popular.

Lots of parents aren’t convinced that making is for their kids. Some people think that “hands-on” learning is synonymous with vocational learning, which is synonymous with my-kid-isn’t-going-to-college. Lots of parents think that their kids will be better prepared for university by memorizing electron configurations and that making stuff is for the less ambitious.

Kids hate failure. Celebrating failure has become a popular mantra lately. At least a dozen presenters at SXSWedu last month mentioned it [and multiple guest contributors to this blog have discussed it]. The idea is that kids learn to embrace the struggle and find the little nuggets of wisdom in each failed attempt at creating something. The truth is that this is way easier said than done. Kids want to celebrate their failure about as much as they want to celebrate their acne. I’ve done prototyping activities with my daughter’s kindergarten class where literally half of the kids are crying. This is definitely not a reason to stop trying to teach kids this valuable lesson; in fact, it’s exactly why you must teach them that failing is okay. But it’s not pretty. I think it’s easier if you point out your own failed attempts at something, but it takes a lot of training before kids start to get this.

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.
Some kids won’t ever be makers. A common belief among the maker crowd is that everyone is a maker. I want to believe this is true, and it’s my goal as an educator to try to prove it to all kids. I want every kid to experience that feeling you get when you create something. Some kids just don’t see the value in toiling away to create something that they can buy at the store for $10, especially when their version doesn’t look as nice and doesn’t work as well.

Kids aren’t as creative as everyone makes them out to be. I know this sounds like a terrible thing for a parent or educator to say, but it’s true. We’re told that kids are these magical little creatures that are just brimming with fantastic ideas, and that if we just give them the chance they will shine. The fact is that creativity is a skill that has to be taught, just like any other. Most kids have had their creativity stifled along the way, and so they must relearn this skill. Creativity can be taught and nurtured and refined, and we have to create environments in which this can happen. Just don’t be surprised when a group of kids fails to amaze you with their creativity. This is not to say that I am not often blown away by the ideas that kids come up with; I am. But I’m also frequently not blown away. I don’t find this discouraging; it just reinforces the idea that for me, teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy.

My messy maker classroom.

I am a full-fledged supporter of the maker movement, but I know it’s not all fun and games. It’s messy, frustrating, and even depressing when it’s not going well. We can learn from each other and find out what works and what doesn’t, but there will always be challenges that lead us to question our approach.

Of course, if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. And if we want kids to be motivated by their failed attempts, then we’d better be sure that they see us doing the same. Hats off to all those who fight the good fight.

Wes Terrell