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Making his own way: ASU student receives NSF grant for research on maker education

Micah Lande, Shawn Jordan and Steven Weiner on stage as part of a discussion panel

From left: Faculty members Micah Lande and Shawn Jordan join Steven Weiner in a panel discussion at at the 2016 World Maker Faire in New York.

May 18, 2018

If you could start any project right now, what would it be? Would you create something functional like a piece of furniture or finally tackle that home improvement project you’ve been putting off? Would you develop a revolutionary invention to solve one of the world’s biggest problems? Or would you spring for creating something wilder, say … a 20-foot tall, fire-breathing dragon with moving wings?

According to Steven Weiner, a doctoral student in Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, all of these kinds of ideas are conducive to learning important skills that can help us thrive in the real world.

Weiner, who examines maker education and innovative learning frameworks in hopes of creating better STEM learning environments, recently received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will help fund his research.

The maker movement is a broad term that encompasses engineers, scientists, inventors, designers, artists and more, who share a passion for independent creation and development.

Weiner was working as a physics teacher when he first learned of the maker movement through a podcast he had been listening to during his commute.

“It was like a lightning bolt moment,” he said. “They were talking about encouraging students to have authentic, meaningful interactions with hands-on activities. And not just things like pushing buttons or turning levers like a lot of science centers do, but actually making things and breaking things and getting to understand how things work on a very visceral level.”

For Weiner, the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Teaching had become frustrating, as he felt he was pushing students to learn things they didn’t want to learn — or at least, that they thought they didn’t want to learn due to the rigid nature of the education model in schools. But in discovering the maker movement, he realized that his true passion lies in inspiring learning through creativity and innovation.

So when he learned that the Arizona Science Center was planning to install a makerspace in the former Phoenix Museum of History building, he jumped on the opportunity to get involved.

“When I came in, it was just an idea, but I had a very clear vision of what it could be. I wanted a community space where people young and old could come in and learn how to make things,” he said.

Steven Weiner giving a presentation on making

Steven Weiner left teaching science in traditional ways behind when he discovered learning through makerspaces.

The space was revolutionary in that it wasn’t an exhibit or permanent display of ideas, but a place where people could come and use machines like laser cutters, 3D printers and woodcutting tools to design and create almost anything they could imagine.

“It was overwhelming having all of this responsibility and creative freedom, but also very exciting. I went from being a high school teacher working with these young kids, which I loved, to going on to having this very high-stakes role with $1.5 million on the line and working with architects and deadlines,” Weiner said with a chuckle.

Weiner’s visions helped shape what is known today as the CREATE Makerspace at the Arizona Science Center.

His plans for expanding the maker education platform didn’t stop there. He decided he wanted to go back to school to get his PhD in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology from ASU so that he could fully immerse himself in maker research. His goal: find out what makes makerspaces successful, and how that could translate to formal learning environments.

“It occurs to me more and more that the communities are the most important thing," Weiner said. "It’s not just about these technologies, its about the people who are interested in sharing their ideas, working with others, collaborating, iterating, failing together and ultimately getting each other excited about learning.”

To fuel this dream, he applied for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides an annual stipend of $34,000 as well as $12,000 in tuition coverage. The letter of recommendation written by his mentors, Micah Lande and Shawn Jordan of the The Polytechnic School, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, described Steven as “a young researcher who brings intellectual excellence and curiosity, an experienced perspective grounded in student-centered learning and the practice of teaching STEM and making, and a passion for impacting the future of STEM education.”

Weiner is clearly excited to dive headfirst into this opportunity.

“My plan is to look at bringing maker education into institutions like schools and even museums and libraries and examining how these things are being affected or are affecting school or organization cultures,” he said.

However, Weiner noted that before that can happen, something needs to be changed in how institutions go about installing maker education and makerspaces.

“There’s a fear that the maker movement is just a fad, that there’s no cultural buy-in, so these makerspaces aren’t lasting long,” he said, “It’s very exciting to come in and look at the technology, but those things are not enough to sustain the culture that we see in authentic grassroots maker communities. I want to look at these successful communities and find out what makes them sustainable and bring that into schools.”

Written by Madelyn Nelson, marketing intern for the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

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