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Building a Nation of Makers

Last year, on June 18, President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire and challenged “every company, every college, every community, every citizen [to] join us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country.” On June 12-18, 2015, the White House will celebrate a Week of Making, including a National Maker Faire in Washington D.C.

Last year, on June 18, President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire and challenged “every company, every college, every community, every citizen [to] join us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country.” On June 12-18, 2015, the White House will celebrate a Week of Making, including a National Maker Faire in Washington D.C.

All over America, makers young and old are using 21st-century tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and open-source electronics to design and build things that are personally meaningful to them. Today, we are challenging a broad range of stakeholders – including school leaders, K-12 teachers, skilled volunteers, and companies – to ensure that all of our children have access to these opportunities.

The Obama Administration believes that making can also play an important role in education and life-long learning. Making can motivate and inspire young people to excel in STEM subjects and prepare students for careers in design, advanced manufacturing, and entrepreneurship. Making can help students acquire 21st-century skills such as teamwork and problem-solving, and address the “summer learning loss” faced by disadvantaged students without access to enrichment activities outside of school.

Making also has the potential to increase student engagement, which is critical for academic success. Survey data reveals that two-thirds of high school students report being bored every day. We can and must do better, and in 2011, a team of 15 teens from a low-income school in West Philly showed us what’s possible when learning becomes fun and inspiring instead of boring. To compete for the $10 million Automotive X Prize, the West Philly team built a 160 mpg hybrid kit car, which has outperformed other fuel-efficient cars built by professional engineers and graduate students from Ivy League universities. In a region with a high school drop-out rate of over 50 percent, every single member of the team graduated.

The Administration is committed to doing its part. For example, the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers are teaming up to bring making and tinkering activities to 25 communities in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The Corporation for National and Community Service and companies have partnered with the Maker Education Initiative to bring exciting educational opportunities to over 143,000 youth and families in 24 states.

But we will need what President Obama calls an “all hands on deck” effort to broaden student participation in making, tinkering and invention. For example:

  • Companies could sponsor one or more makerspaces, encourage their employees to serve as mentors for young makers by participating in programs such as US2020, and provide students with access to challenging, real-world problems.
  • School superintendents and principals could allocate space for making and other innovation activities like Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s “Dream Factory” and makerspaces at the Albermarle Country Public Schools, empower teachers and students to play a leadership role, and develop a strategy for engaging parents, makers, and STEM professionals who are excited about pitching in.
  • Teachers, educational researchers, and makers could collaborate to develop hands-on projects that motivate students to master challenging academic content, electronic portfolios that allow students to share their work, and “badges” that are recognized by employers and college admission officers as an indicator of topic mastery.
  • A philanthropist or foundation could play the same role that Andrew Carnegie played in supporting the construction of over 1,600 libraries in the United States, with a focus on makerspaces in schools and after-school programs in low-income communities.
  • An information technology company could create an online map of all of the public and private schools that would allow school leaders to signal their interest in participating in making. Such a tool would help grassroots communities of parents, engineers, and local employers come together to target resources and support to these schools.
  • Researchers and entrepreneurs could develop affordable and accessible tools and kits that provide on-ramps to making.

Although the new technology that is fueling the maker movement gets a lot of attention, more important are the values, dispositions and skills that making fosters, such as creativity, imagination, problem-solving, perseverance, self-efficacy, teamwork, and “hard fun.” As Steve Jobs observed, describing the impact that having access to a Heathkit (a do-it-yourself electronics kit) had on him, “Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation not these magical things that just appeared in one's environment that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one's environment.”

If you want to get involved, tell a story, or share an idea, please send us a note at Working together, we can create a nation of makers and a brighter future for our children.

Tom Kalil is the Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Roberto Rodriguez is the Deputy Assistant for the President for Education Policy.