Left: TinkerCad design of the U.S.S Monitor. Rigth: Student team's 3-D printed model of the U.S.S Monitor.

Technology has abstracted the educational sphere in the way it has abstracted all other aspects of our lives. Pencils and paper have given way to the more amorphous cloud-based computing, kids are presenting more with Prezi than on poster boards, and work can be turned in online instead of in-hand.

Like any technological “progress” or innovation, in education, as in life, some have wholeheartedly embraced this move to the virtual, some have allowed it to seep into their lives, and some have bucked it for as long as they could. Is it possible, though, that human beings crave a certain amount of tactile learning?

What we’ve seen with this inexorable move toward technology is a countermovement to reground student learning and engage hands and bodies as well as minds. While the pendulum of educational practice has swung to the side of the virtual, there is also an effort underway to pull the pendulum in the other direction.

Wedding Virtual and Physical

Enter the maker movement: students are making things, designing things—actual things. The maker movement is an approach to design that shifts production of items from corporate manufacturing to a smaller, personal scale with the help of technology. This movement—in conjunction with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts/architecture, and math movements—has taken hold in part thanks to a strong push from the federal government to promote science in schools and classrooms across the country.

There has been a significant push to have the STE(A)M disciplines more emphasized and integrated in schools. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, there is expected to be a 17 percent increase in STEM related jobs in the coming years, and the push toward STEM fields has brought the maker movement into vogue. People have always been making, designing and beautifying, but what students are able to make now can transcend expectations because of the use of technology. In an article for ACSD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), Sarah McKibben paraphrases Gary Stager, a champion of the maker movement:

“[Making things] has been reinvigorated by the ability to make actual objects, not just models, with computers; the ability to add intelligence and inter-activity to everyday objects; and the increased agency over technological complexity possible through computer programming.”

Student team's working telegraph created during the Civil War Unit.

It is this marriage between technology and the physical that is in play in the maker movement. The creation of something that has its origins in both the physical and virtual worlds can then be transcendent. Making physical things and using the virtual world for augmentation, and as the vehicle for that creation, is a mirror of our own physical realities. Despite much of our lives taking place in the digital world, as humans we are physiologically wedded to the earthly world, to our impulses and to what is around us.

As educators in independent schools, we look for ways to implement cutting-edge pedagogy. This past year, our students used Project Based Learning—a method of instruction that focuses on discovery through extended inquiry and open-ended student-driven projects—to learn about Civil War technology. They forayed deep into STEAM and maker territory. Many of our students chose to make something physical that demonstrated their understanding instead of delivering a virtual presentation. These were things that students could physically connect with, touch and tinker with to show understanding. One team designed a model of the U.S.S. Monitor on the 3D printer. Another team created a train and railroad to show the differences between the rails in the south and the north. And another team created a functioning telegraph. Students chose to build and create this year more than they had in the past. The students wanted to make something.

Enhancing the Physical with the Virtual

A couple of years ago, it was considered “cutting edge” for students to design projects that employed QR codes. It became common for tech-savvy teachers to instruct their students to create a QR code for the sake of providing more web-based information about something physical. For example, one might find a QR code next to an art project on display. When scanned by a smartphone, the code would trigger a link to a YouTube video of the student explaining their work or to a website with additional information about the artistic method used.

Thanks to new applications like Aurasma, students can now use physical objects as triggers instead of the abstract, black and white QR codes.

Like 3D printers, some applications such as Aurasma function as a liaison between the physical and virtual worlds, grounding the technology movement in the physical reality of “things.” Aurasma is an augmented reality app for a smartphone or tablet that essentially performs the same function as a QR code, but instead uses triggers that are physical and tangible. For example, while a project using QR codes might have a barcode linked to more information about a monument, a student who uses Aurasma could have viewers the model itself as a hyperlink for more information. This is a significant and important distinction since the physical is the catalyst for the augmentation.

Bringing the Physical Element of Learning Back into Classrooms: in a New Way

Many educators are looking to get their students to connect to the physical world of the classroom in new ways. If students aren’t getting up to turn in their work at the teacher’s desk, then what other ways can they interact with the classroom environment? If they can’t interact with the room the way they used to, how can we make the actual class-room part of their experience again? Smart Wall Paint, chalkboard paint and other ways of allowing students to write on, interact with and create physical manifestations of their learning on a large scale are becoming more commonplace in classrooms. These walls allow students to get up, write together, draw together and show together, beyond the virtual, what they are thinking and imagining.

These movements reflect our human desire to connect physically with our environment when we learn. They remind us that not everything can be abstracted and that kids will be better able to make connections when they can physically interact with their environment. Going back to Piaget, child psychologists have noticed that children struggle with the abstract and that their understanding of the world is linked to the concrete. While technology can make so much available and accessible in education, the brains and bodies of our students still need to connect and experience in order to understand. With this marriage of the virtual and physical in education, the pendulum is now coming back into balance: though paper and pencils are disappearing, the physical connections to learning are not.