Making STEAM work for all

How makerspaces can help level the playing field for individuals with disabilities.

7 min read

Career-Technical Education


SmartBrief recently published an interactive, in-depth digital magazine about building inclusive pathways to STEM careers. The report featured the following article highlighting how makerspaces can help level the playing field for individuals with disabilities. Access SmartReport on STEM for more tips from students, educators and other experts.

Innovation has driven our country’s economic prosperity. Advancements in science and technology — such as the mastery of flight, the refinement of the assembly line, the disruptive forces of computers and software platforms — have been an economic growth engine. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has fueled this engine and will continue to propel our nation forward.

Students, parents, educators and allies in business and technology industries recognize the importance of a technologically literate workforce that can create and collaborate. In the past few years, the education community has begun to target underserved students — including girls, people of color and those from lower socioeconomic status — through initiatives such as private grants, nonprofit groups and government policies.

These changes pave the way for greater student access and exposure to STEM topics. The potential of STEM education cannot be overstated, as its effect on students extends from developing collaboration skills, promoting analytical and critical thinking and fostering creativity to providing pathways to economic prosperity. STEM education can benefit all students, of all learning abilities, at all levels, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, in a substantial way.

Maker education is a school of thought that strives to deliver constructivist, project-based learning curriculum and instructional units. Makerspaces allow students to discover and explore STEM topics, while allowing educators to create lasting educational experiences. Educators don’t have to stop at science or engineering. Makerspaces can integrate the arts into the curriculum and make STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Makerspaces can be full high-school workshops with a bevy of high-tech tools, or as small and low tech as one corner of an elementary classroom. What defines a makerspace isn’t the tools and equipment, but the learning.

Educators need to design these spaces to reach a diverse set of learners, particularly populations underserved in STEM subjects, including students with neurological differences, learning differences and special needs. Makerspaces provide a number of benefits and opportunities for typically developing students, and it just so happens that the type of learning makerspaces promote best is also the type of learning that students with learning challenges need most.

I designed the STEAMworks program, a makerspace explicitly designed for students with neurological differences, at The Monarch School in Houston in 2013 with input and help from my students. The STEAMworks program has delivered a broad range of maker experiences: building and learning 3D printing and design, computer-assisted design, entrepreneurial woodworking, high-school physics, computer coding and integrated arts projects. “Working with the students in a makerspace actually encourages me to be more creative as the teacher. Rather than running out to the store and buying supplies to solve problems the same way I always have, I find myself opening up to the possibilities that are already in the room. I’m able to join them in playing with what we have on hand and collaborating to solve the problem, so we both get to benefit in the problem-solving process,” reflected Danny Dyer, a working artist with Brave Little Company, who co-taught with me this year. Students — and teachers — can approach learning in innovative ways, which integrate learning to educate the whole child.

What follows is a Q&A with some of the students in STEAMworks.

What do you enjoy about making?

Logan: I enjoy the building and making the engineering shenanigans I get into every day.

Chris: I enjoy making cutting board because I feel proud. People are buying my art.

Cameron (adult learner): I feel accomplished afterward. I enjoy making something that will go into the community and be liked and used.

Brett (former student): I really enjoyed putting the space together and making it look nice and clean. I felt excited, tired because it took a while. You were teaching mathematics and also how to measure. I learned how to work power tools properly and safely. I learned how a 3D printer works and operates. There was planning for our future. I think of our classes as a happy time because of the friendships I made.

What types of projects have you built here?

Julian: I did robotic fingers, which is so fun to make I keep on making them! Right now, I’m making a space colony and what it looks like on the planet Mars. *jazz hands*

Chris: I’ve built cutting boards, robots, rockets, 3D-printed candy bars.

Laura: I’ve made two robots — a shooter-bot and a robo-gator — 3D prints, a car safe for an egg, a bridge, and am working on a STEAM fair project!

What skills have you learned in the makerspace?

Julian: Basically, listening to the teacher … being happy, smiling, making tons of stuff, like Mindstorms, things like that.

Cameron: I’ve learned teamwork, scroll saw, sanding machines, clamping, hand tools, all sorts of stuff. Patience.

Jordan (adult learner): I’ve learned how to safely use power tools and how to be part of a production team.

Chris: Safety. I’ve learned a lot of stuff, but there’s so many things I can’t name them. I learned to program in Scratch.

Brett: I also learned a little bit of executive functioning, too, and that came in play when we planned out how we wanted our makerspace to look like.

How could these skills help you in the future?

Logan: I could build a house. I learned planning skills. I learned how to safely use tools.

Cameron: I can get a successful job in these areas.

Laura: I could be an architect, as well as possibly making robotic parts for animals that lost their legs!

How do you practice and improve your relationship-development skills and capacities?

Logan: We worked on two-person projects and collaborative efforts. Mr. Patrick has coached me during class.

Cameron: I can now get my point across if I need help.

Chris: We work as a team to get it done!

Laura: I ask for feedback and ask how I can make whatever I am making better.

How do you practice and improve your self-regulation (emotional modulation) skills and capacities?

Julian: Breathing in and out, calming myself down while I work. Sometimes I make small objects out of scraps. I draw. I watch the 3D printer.

Cameron: I learn to stay focused and calm.

Jordan: I work on staying focused and slowing down.

Laura: Let my imagination go wild!

How do you practice and improve your academic competence/professional competence skills and capacities?

Logan: By using strategies and skills to get a head start on work, writing papers and reflections.

How do you practice and improve your executive-function skills and capacities?

Julian: We plan out our projects; we make our projects and work together, and we reflect after class.

Cameron: We wait till the class comes in; we talk about our work schedule, then we work on it step by step. And that’s how I do it at Starbucks, my job outside of Monarch.

Patrick Waters is a professional educator at The Monarch School in Houston. He was named Educator of the Year in 2015 by the National Association of Private Special Education Centers.

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