Citizen Science and The Maker Movement: New Ways in Education

Imagine a school in which the students built robots to help in the home; designed working models of wild habitats; used 3D printers to make prosthetic arms for war victims. Now that would be a real education, right?

In the current educational climate, which mixes a DIY ethic with social and ecological awareness, two phenomena are just beginning to impact learning environments: Citizen Science and the Maker Movement.

Citizen Science

Citizen Science

In the arena of science, there’s too much work to be done by too few scientists. For decades, experts have been delegating tasks to amateurs. Citizen Science is all about crowdsourced data collection. It involves enthusiastic amateurs going out and observing the natural world, using fit-for-purpose tools, and reporting their findings to a central database. The type of things they study include the weather, plant life, and animals. An example: every year, of the 19,000 species of animal newly named, amateurs are responsible for 60%.

The projects are as varied as nature itself. Eighth-grade schoolchildren observe the sky each morning and send their observations to NASA. A group of retirees goes on fossil hunts across dried-out ocean beds and logs their findings on a paleontology database. In the Congo, pygmies use specially designed smartphones (pictures instead of words) to gather data about poaching and deforestation.

Citizen Science is bound up with democracy and understanding the environments we live in. It may just help to make the world a better place.

The Maker Movement

Maker Movement

The Maker Movement is all about DIY. Groups get together in Maker Spaces or Fabrication Labs and just build stuff. Most of the ‘stuff’ is simple: nine-year-old Caine Munro’s game arcade made entirely of cardboard, or the marshmallow cannon that 14-year-old Joey Hudy demonstrated to President Obama in the White House.

But for a few privileged students, the building blocks are now 3-D printers, robotics hardware and microprocessors. At the annual Maker Faire in San Francisco, recent projects include a flight simulator based on Battlestar Galactica and a wheelchair-controlled DJ station.

In  mainstream schools, particularly on the west coast of the U.S.A., where teachers have brought the Maker Movement to their classrooms, it’s been observed that the projects bring together different academic disciplines: science, mathematics, art, and geography.

There’s even a variation called the Un-maker Movement. This involves taking things apart in order to find out how they work. Cassette recorders, old telephones, first generation computers – you name it, it can be sliced and diced.

Citizen Science, the Maker Movement and Language Learning

The type of education I’m talking about goes by a number of names: hands-on education, learning-by-doing, inquiry-based learning. But can it benefit language learners? And if so, how?

box kiteIn 1979, James B. Herbolich described a task-based lesson in which his engineering students at the University of Kuwait designed and made box kites. Using English only, they also wrote a manual on how to operate the kites. The idea of projects in language learning is that students become so engaged that they barely register that they’re using English as a medium of communication.

Citizen Science and The Maker Movement, quite apart from their potential to produce useful data and objects, have much the same promise. I see these as avenues that all teachers would do well to explore, to find out if making and observing stuff might just help their students become more engaged with the world and with what they’re learning.

Simple projects

bookThe projects don’t have to be complex. Some years ago my adult class of CAE students made a book of assorted writings and illustrations. They did almost all the work themselves, from design to editing to printing. As for the contents, each genre of the CAE exam was represented (essays, fiction, brochures, etc.). So they practised their writing, and at the end of the course they had a memento of their time at the school. I look back and realize that was my first Maker moment.

Since then I’ve seen colleagues working with students to script and film soap operas, interview community members about their town, put on English language plays, write museum guides, and document environmental changes beside a local river.

My advice? Start small and see where the journey takes you.

4 Comments on “Citizen Science and The Maker Movement: New Ways in Education”

  1. Learning by doing: one of my favourite lessons is to make pancakes with my kids. They ask me questions about the ingredients and the steps. They do everything and of course they also eat them! Then they write the recipe to take it home!

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Excellent! Thanks for sharing that, Borja. When I was teaching a class of mixed nationalities in London, one day everyone brought in typical food from their country and talked about how to make it, the ingredients, etc. But making pancakes sounds like more fun!

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Another cooking related story: when I was teaching in Newcastle, we had a week’s worth of lessons about cooking and food, with the final lesson taking place in the kitchen of one of the student flats. We spent a wonderful afternoon preparing and sharing food from four different countries, all in English.
    Thanks for sharing these ideas JJ. I hope I can get more of them into my classroom!

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