Curiosity Project

A living document accounting for one sabbatical exploration into the nature of curiosity.

Making vs Tinkering

People tend to have a really specific reaction to the words maker and making. I was surprised to discover this as I got into talking to educators and researchers. People who have already engaged in the notion of maker education use the words very casually, but those who do not see themselves as engaged in or connected to maker education tend to approach making with some formality and trepidation.

Use of the word tinkering seems to allow people to approach the idea of experimentation with openness and ease, rather than with fear that they "don't teach science or engineering" or "don't have time to design circuits in class." I also don't teach science or engineering - or have time to design circuits in class. I do feel that there's always time for experimentation, for tinkering.

Tinkering is mucking about with things.

Maker Education

Making as an instructional process is not a new thing. Education scholars such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, John Friedrich Froebel, and Maria Montessori all promoted making as core to the process of learning. Schools, museums, and libraries across the United States are designing and implementing making and tinkering programs. 


I had the great fortune to be able to spend some time with Steve Davee, Director of Education and Communications at (and a former Portlandian, as it turns out). Steve was the Documentation and Technology Specialist (also a math and science teacher) at the Opal Public Charter School in Portland. Before that he worked in biomedical research at both the University of Arizona and OHSU. He's the founder of CoLab Tinkering, which puts on tinkering camps and workshops. He's also just a really cool dude. 

Steve is able to demonstrate the infectious power of play and tinkering like nobody else. He joins a room, participates in interesting dialog, and constantly tinkers and makes as he does it. 

As Steve put it to me, "Play naturally arises from anything that is built." The challenge for me as an information literacy educator is to figure out how to bring that spirit to my subject matter; to figure out how to turn the library classroom into a tinkering lab. Research should feel like playing and building, not like tedium.

In the background of this image is Jackie Gerstein, another amazing Maker Educator and scholar I had the great fortune to spend time with during my sabbatical. Jackie put me through the design challenge wringer - and it was fantastic. I've never worked (professionally) on a group project where I wasn't the assigned researcher. Somehow I became the artist and basic prototyper - skills that I would not ordinarily suggest I posses.

Jackie is a spitfire and an educational dynamo, often known for asking questions such as, "Why don't you make your classrooms a little noisier?"


In my time with Jackie she pushed me to prototype and build a robotic arm out of kindergarten-style art supplies. It worked!

We also spent time in groups, brainstorming a problem, iteratively prototyping a solution, and making stuff. The research happened on its own - no one said, "Go out and research canine gut flora," that just happened of necessity.

Jackie has some really useful questions for you to engage yourself about the nature of your classroom:

  • Does the physical setting of your classroom reflect a participatory, creative, connected information-rich culture?
  • Is your learning environment an open portal - open to people, visitors, social networks?
  • Do you permit and encourage real-time, as needed, access to online content?
  • Do you encourage your learners to use Google Wikipedia, YouTube, and social networks - allowing them to do so on their own devices?
  • Do you teach and encourage your learners to find, join, and interact with their own personal, passion-driven learning communities?
  • Do you have a forum for learners to showcase their skills and passions using online tools and social networks?
  • Do your learners produce and create every time you meet?
  • Do your earners produce as much or more of their learning materials than they consume?
  • Do you use authentic assessments that provide ongoing and continuous feedback to learners about their performance?
  • Do your learners work harder than you during meeting times?
  • Do you know the background, interests, passions, antagonizers of your learners?
  • Do your learners interact more with other students, professionals, web materials, hands-on materials than with you?
  • Do you step away from your lesson plans and established curriculum to ride those teachable moments?
  • Do you focus as much or more on process of learning as the products and outcomes?
  • Do learners leave at the end of day saying, “I enjoyed being with my co-learners today”?
  • Do you encourage student voice in all its forms - speech, writing, drawings, and media creation?
  • Do you set up the conditions for your learners to be great?
  • Do you set a climate for assisting learners to develop kindness, passion, compassion, companionship, stewardship?

"Being a teacher who never makes mistakes in front of students is essentially promoting learned helplessness."

Moderator Jessica Parker and Bay Area maker educators discuss the role of making in their K-12 settings and how to maintain a culture of making within a formal, school-based environment. Learn how they started making with students and how they developed robust programs that foster hands-on, interdisciplinary maker projects and events which successfully support student learning. (Part one of a two-part series)

Guests for this webinar included:

Angi Chau, Director of Bourn Idea Lab at Castilleja School
David Clifford, Director of Innovation and outreach at East Bay School for Boys
Elizabeth Espinoza , Technology Coach at Marin Schools
Jessica Parker, Associate Professor at Sonoma State University and Director of the Maker Certificate Program
Ilya Pratt, Design, Make, Engage Director at Park Day School
Aaron Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab at Lighthouse Community Charter School

Live Chat Archive
Click here to view and download a PDF version of the live chat conversation that happened during the webinar.

Moderator Jessica Parker and Bay Area maker educators discuss the role of making in their K-12 settings and how they developed their own maker educator mindset. Panelists also share how they support their colleagues in developing a maker educator mindset and highlight opportunities for maker educator professional development, including the Maker Certificate Program at Sonoma State University. (Part two of a two-part series)

Guests for this webinar included:
Stephanie Chang, Director of Youth Engagement at the Maker Education Initiative
Julia Marrero, middle school Maker Educator and instructor in Sonoma State Maker Certificate Program
Sylvia Martinez, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom
Jessica Parker, Associate Professor at Sonoma State University and Director of the Maker Certificate Program
Casey Shea, Instructor at Analy High School, founder of Project Make

Live Chat Archive
Click here to view and download a PDF version of the live chat conversation that happened during the webinar.

On Tinkering

The above speech by John Seely Brown radically shifted my thinking about what I was hoping to find by using maker-thinking as a lens to explore curiosity. 

Tinkering seems to evoke images of a cheery and helpful grandfather, rather than a high-tech hipster who might sneer at us or leave us behind. It's absolutely an imaginary distinction, but one worth noting as you try to encourage the adoption of new ideas.

Tinkering is a process that marries play and inquiry. When you're tinkering, you're trying something that you don't quite know how to do and guided by whim, imagination and curiosity. See Makers working at the intersection of art, science and technology. From the Bay Area Maker Faire 2014 Center Stage.

Virginia Society for Technology in Education 2014 Keynote: A Global Revolution Goes To School: The Maker Movement. Presented by Sylvia Libow Martinez, Lead Learner, Constructing Modern Knowledge. Co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom.

Annmarie Thomas, PH.D.

Sometimes you meet someone who stops you right in your tracks. Meeting Dr. AnnMarie Thomas was one of those experiences in my research journey. She stopped me cold, in the middle of her keynote lecture, to tell me how wrong I was, how privileged my notions were. I'm incredibly grateful.

"No," she told me, "You cannot simply tell them it's okay to fail." The notion of failure is incredibly privileged.

Who among our student population at Portland Community College has the historical privilege of failure being a safe place?

AnnMarie joined the faculty of the University of St. Thomas in the fall of 2006.  Previously, she was a faculty member at Art Center College of Design.  She is the director of the Playful Learning Lab and leads a team of students looking at both the playful side of engineering (squishy circuits for students, the science of circus, toy design) and ways to use engineering design to help others. AnnMarie and her students developed Squishy Circuits.

Dr. Thomas, co-founded, and co-directs, the University of St. Thomas Center for Engineering Education (CEE).  Through this center, AnnMarie develops and teaches engineering courses for P-12 educators, and conducts research on engineering at the pre-collegiate level.

AnnMarie teaches Engineering Graphics, Machine Design, Dynamics (with Circus Lab), Toy Design, Product Design for an Aging Population, and Brain Machine Interfaces (seminar).

AnnMarie served as the Founding Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative where she worked to establish the national Maker Corps program, and lay the groundwork for this nonprofit which has as its mission creating " create more opportunities for young people to make, and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark interest in science, technology, engineering, math, the arts—and learning as a whole."