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Maker Curriculum Highlighted in Albemarle County Schools

Brit Moorer

Albemarle County is at the forefront of an innovative school curriculum gaining national recognition. Instead of staring at textbooks and listening to a teacher explain theory, students are given the tools to take learning into their own hands. WMRA’s Brit Moorer explains how something called the “Maker Curriculum” is changing the direction of education, and how it’s helping students down the road.

[Sound of sanding table]

Not what you’d expect to hear in your typical high school class…

ERIC BREDDER:  … Is every one good?…Yeah, I got a whole bunch of lumber today.

Instead of a teacher at the front off the room… lecturing.. you’ll find… a tool box...nail guns… and sand paper…and desks neglected in the corner.  

BREDDER: Alright… enjoy the class…enjoy.

You’ve probably seen all kinds of technology used in science class…and art class… but now the Maker Curriculum is broadening the use of technology – and creativity - in the classroom.

BREDDER: It really just is a great way to introduce maybe a small set of skills, maybe a problem, maybe an idea that you want kids to learn in a way that kind of lets them sort of figure out how they want to learn.

Eric Bredder is a Mechatronics teacher at Monticello High School in Albemarle County.

BREDDER: You can open-endedly create what you think is best for a certain problem.

[Sound of 3D printer]

So, thanks to 3D printers, circuit boards and computers, students are able to take the average student project and turn it into something greater.

BREDDER: I wanted to introduce the idea of systems to kids in a mechatronics classroom.  In order to do that we had all the kids make something that made noise. A music instrument, if you will. I tried to frame it as openly as possible. Conversation happened naturally and kids just started building stuff. One kid built a guitar, one kid built a drum, one kid made up his own instrument, one kid just started to rap over this stuff so we had just this entirely different thing and to me all that was making creating and building.”

The idea is to give students the first dot – that is, a concept -- and then letting them find and connect the rest.

CHAD RATLIFF: It really truly is just an approach to where students have some power, control, agency to what it is they do when they come in to the classroom.

Chad Ratliff is director of instructional programming for Albemarle County Schools. He says, just three years in, Maker Curriculum is showing some promise.

RATLIFF: We’re seeing energy in classrooms, we’re seeing energy from teachers.  We’re seeing parents become very enthused. And quite frankly all the way up to the White House.

But with a unique approach to learning, comes a different approach to teaching. Teachers have had to adjust to a non-traditional way of educating.  Whether it’s the student making a hammock post, baseball bat or sanding a table, Bredder says that they all come up with ideas and turn them into realities.

BREDDER: I don’t need to sit down and outline exactly what the steps of something are going to be because it’s going to be different for kids, so I know on the backside sort of the path of the curriculum and what standards I want to hit. And I can usually hit them because I already know what they’re going to be and I can already direct a project of conversation.  And then the light bulb goes on with the kids.  But it changes the pacing for sure which is really cool which creates a little bit excitement around a project of idea and the kids really flourish. It enables me instead of making sure that I’ve hit this list of guidelines my job now is more how can I give students maximum access to tools machines, things like that.

Thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Albemarle County, one of two systems in Virginia, is able to invest in innovative approaches to learning, such as the Maker Curriculum. The money helped jumpstart the purchase of tools to help students learn in a non-traditional way.

RATLIFF: You have to try again, you have to turn to your classmate to ask for help, you have to turn to the web, to YouTube, to wherever and look and know how to learn something when you have to know something is a critical skill in this new information age. Information is ubiquitous and tools of creativity are becoming so as well.

The Maker program has attracted interest from some notable institutions of higher learning.  Harvard University researchers have already visited Albemarle County schools to observe the culture, and Stanford has shown interest in the next wave of learning.

Brit Moorer was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2016.