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A Hands-On Approach to SEL: How Makerspaces Support Student Social Emotional Learning

The maker movement is perhaps best defined as a series of tug-of-wars between solving problems and making mistakes, building empathy and establishing independence, setting goals and failing safely. 

This definition might surprise some. The maker movement in K-12 schools did, after all, arise from a relatively recent global focus on STEM education, and not from an explicit interest in social emotional learning strategies. But maker education isn’t an entirely new concept (we need to be giving credit to art teachers have been doing this forever), nor is it strictly limited to STEM.

The key principles of maker education have been theoretically discussed for quite some time (think Piaget’s constructivism and Papert’s constructionism), but the push toward project-based learning has certainly become more commonplace in U.S. classrooms over the past decade. And while STEM education remains the focal point of this movement, I’ve noticed a more nuanced form of learning emerge in my own project-based classroom — a type of learning rooted in the social emotional needs of my students.

At its core, social emotional learning is about helping students to “develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, 2020). In many maker challenges, students are tasked with solving a pressing problem that the world (or someone in it) faces. The very act of defining the need or problem at hand — often called needfinding — requires students to practice empathy building. In my classroom, for instance, I try to align my curriculum to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to help students understand how they can build compassionate solutions and use technology as a force for good. In doing so, students learn to cultivate empathy, while also figuring out how to make responsible decisions that have a direct impact on the world around them.

Makerspaces also encourage students to set goals, make mistakes, and fail safely. When students tackle a specific design challenge, they learn to set goals for themselves, and oftentimes, they achieve these goals. But to me, the magic really happens when students learn to fail. Failure is hard for students. It’s hard for adults too. Because of this, makerspaces can serve as a place for students to encounter failure and setbacks in a safe and supportive environment. In makerspaces and beyond, we can (and should) create spaces that give students the social emotional skills they need for a future outside the walls of our classrooms.

And when I think about the type of future I desire for my students, for my future children, and for myself even, I think about a future that is empathetic and kind and collaborative — a future created by a generation of makers and innovators and activists. In a world that is blistered with problems — from the global pandemic to centuries of systemic racism to a burgeoning mental health crisis — makerspaces give my students agency, and they give me, as a teacher, hope.

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