I think every teacher sees the impact of the past few years on our students, but I was surprised to see that impact recently quantified with distressing clarity. In a March 2023 survey, virtual health services provider TimelyMD found 50 percent of college students identified their mental health struggles as their top stressor for 2023, and 71 percent of students surveyed indicated they struggle with issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Surveys show a similar trend in students as young as elementary school.
This alarming data raises two questions - why and what can we do? I think the why is pretty straightforward: Young people everywhere are grappling with overwhelming pressure and concern due to the escalation of worldwide problems. Global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental crises, political unrest, and economic uncertainties, are deeply impacting the lives of students. This generation faces the weight of an interconnected world, where information overload and the immediacy of global issues through technology contribute to heightened stress and anxiety. It's no wonder this generation has so much cynicism and apathy when their news and social media feeds rarely offer a glimpse of hope for the future.
So what can we do? My answer - pull out a bin of lego and build something.
That may sound simplistic and sarcastic, or perhaps it would appear to be classic avoidance. But I’m, in fact, quite sincere that I truly believe the first step is just to build something. Unfortunately, all too often, making and building is no longer part of young people's lives. They are voracious consumers, but without the sense of how things work that comes from building and problem-solving, everything in their lives is disposable as soon as it doesn’t work. Toys break - buy new ones, phones stop working, buy a new one, and unfortunately, that attitude transfers to relationships, marriages, jobs, political leaders, etc. With no developed personal sense of efficacy as a problem solver, it is no wonder that the future and all its impending problems feel so overwhelming.
This is why I am so passionate about my role as a Design Tech teacher and leader of our school's makerspace, known as the Creation Studio. On day one of each class I make one promise to students - you will make something every day. I also open with a statement that shocks them - “I hope you fail, and fail a lot.” I go on to explain that my goal is to teach them problem-solving and that without failure, this just won’t happen. Of course, I ultimately hope they succeed, but it’s through the struggles and challenges that come with failure that they gain confidence in their own ability to figure things out. I consider myself an evangelist for maker spaces, innovative, collaborative spaces equipped with tools and materials for hands-on projects that have emerged as transformative environments for students, fostering creativity and invaluable life skills.
Makerspaces serve as incubators for problem-solving skills. In these dynamic environments, students encounter obstacles and setbacks inherent to the creative process. Overcoming these challenges requires critical thinking, adaptability, and perseverance. Makerspaces provide a safe and supportive space for students to experiment with solutions, learn from failure, and refine their strategies. These problem-solving experiences are crucial for academic success and mirror the resilience needed in various aspects of life. By navigating the iterative nature of making, students develop a problem-solving mindset that prepares them for the complexities of the modern world.
Engaging in hands-on projects in maker spaces allows them to take ownership of their learning, experiment with new ideas, and see tangible results. As they navigate through the process of creating something from scratch, whether it's a 3D-printed prototype, a robotics project, or a piece of art, students gain a sense of accomplishment that bolsters their self-esteem. This newfound confidence often extends beyond the makerspace, positively influencing their approach to other academic challenges and real-world situations.
Makerspaces promote collaboration and teamwork, essential components of problem-solving in the real world. Students working together on projects learn to leverage each other's strengths, communicate effectively, and share ideas. These collaborative experiences contribute to the development of interpersonal skills and expose students to diverse perspectives, enriching their problem-solving toolkit. As students collaborate on projects in maker spaces, they address technical challenges and learn to navigate the social dynamics inherent in team-based endeavors. In this way, maker spaces foster the growth of confident and skilled individuals and contribute to the cultivation of a collaborative and innovative community.
If you are interested in seeing the type of learning I’m talking about, look at the types of projects we use with our students in the Creation Studio: https://www.stem4learning.com/team. You’ll find things as simple as Lego building since I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t take great technology or computers to engage students in high-level critical thinking and problem-solving. STEM4Learning works with teachers in Uzbekistan, where teacher salaries are $300 per month and there are no computers or Wi-Fi in the schools.
We’ve seen those teachers do some amazing hands-on STEM projects with their kids with nothing more than index cards. The goal is to give them an engaging challenge that requires new collaborative learning to solve and you have taken your first step. And in our mind, it’s not an option; it’s a moral imperative as we hand this generation a wealth of problems to solve.