Oak Bluffs science teachers are making “makers” cool again

A STEAM-y summer event.



How do you get a bunch of kids to go to school in the summer? Three teachers at the Oak Bluffs School have done it — with the power of science. Last week, the science teachers wrapped up a two-week STEAM-based clinic for kids at the Oak Bluffs School. If you haven’t heard of STEAM, you may have heard of STEM, a science and math education initiative that’s been blowing up at schools around the country recently. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, math, with the “A” standing for art.

This year was the first for this Innovation Education clinic, a nonprofit program founded by three teachers at the Oak Bluffs School, Leah Dorr, Heidi Ganser, and Doug Brush. The teachers all took part in last summer’s Camp Invention at the West Tisbury School, and decided to create their own clinic based on what they had done before, with slight adjustments. The difference was that Camp Invention, a nationwide organized curriculum, came with kits and instructions, which they felt was slightly limiting for the kids, compared with what they could do.

“All three of us are sort of tinkerers ourselves, and we liked the idea of coming up with our own program,” Mr. Brush said. In fact, all three stressed the importance of allowing the kids to have free will, with a less structured learning environment. That’s what STEAM is all about, and that’s where the creativity really came out.

For example, the clinic included all sorts of different projects, which the kids excitedly raced to work on. When The Times visited, the youngest group worked on marble slides, made of plastic noodles, tape, and cardboard. The common goal was to make a structure that got the marble to the ground as slowly as possible. Each group’s was different, and the kids were encouraged to try whatever they thought would work. If it didn’t work, they would try something else, and each failure was actually a learning experience for them.

“They’re testing it and redesigning it, and that’s all part of the engineering process,” Ms. Ganser, who facilitated the project, said. “What’s so amazing is that you give the kids these jobs, and you just watch what they create.”

There were more than 50 kids participating in this year’s clinic, ranging in age from 6 to 12, separated into age groups so the older kids were able to work on more complex projects. They were noticeably calm, quiet, and focused. They worked both collaboratively in groups and independently. The teachers reported no behavioral issues throughout the camp’s duration. Both Mr. Brush and Ms. Dorr attributed this to the fact that the kids are not in the traditional school environment, and are able to move around and work with their hands. Most kids said they were interested in science and engineering over any other subject. As Ms. Ganser recalls, one student begged her mother to switch her previously scheduled art camp to this one.

The teachers also continuously observe the kids, and even allow extra time for projects they are still actively working on. Ms. Dorr said, “When you have that kind of student engagement, then behavior doesn’t get out of control.”

The clinic is just one example of the maker movement, which is rapidly spreading among schools and individuals. This is a mindset where people are beginning to think of themselves as makers again, rather than just consumers of materials. It ties well into the STEAM program, and the teachers are able to incorporate aspects of both movements into a better curriculum for their students.

Ms. Dorr, the founder of the Oak Bluffs School Makerspace, a class that is now built into the students’ science curriculums, explains the core values of a makerspace, where kids can collaborate and practice creative problem-solving. The class allows students to tinker with different materials, all of which are recycled from old electronics, and past projects. She teaches a lesson about a relevant subject — keeping time, hot air balloons, the planet Mars — and the students make something that will solve the problem presented in the lesson.

The most important lesson they teach, however, is how to fail without giving up. One thing Ms. Dorr does to help her students is actually to avoid helping them. When they ask questions, such as whether a certain method they’ve chosen will work, she doesn’t answer. The point of this is to allow kids to test the project, and learn from their failures. Ms. Dorr assures them that there is always a path to success, and with this advice, they manage to find that path.

This method of teaching came into play when Ms. Dorr previously noticed her students becoming confused unless given explicit instructions for projects. She began to use the laissez-faire “productive struggle” method to teach critical thinking skills in her classroom. “There’s this gradual independence that they start to feel from needing your permission to try something,” she said. “There’s also this confidence they start to feel, and if it doesn’t work, they learn something from it.” She has also implemented a writing aspect, where students reflect on what they’ve learned from the project, and the steps they took to complete it. “It’s a valuable step,” Ms. Dorr added. “They’re really excited to talk about what they’ve done.”

Ms. Dorr is part of a maker collaborative right here on the Island, a group whose goal is to build resources for maker-based education opportunities for kids here, who don’t have as much access to advanced science camps as students closer to Boston might. In addition to the makerspace at the Oak Bluffs School, a makerspace has recently been added to the Oak Bluffs library, which has hosted soldering clinics and given free access to 3D printers. Innovation Education clinics will also take place next summer, with opportunities for kids interested in science and engineering, as well as older students who can pursue leadership opportunities within the program.