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Teaching and Learning Spring 2016

Climate change comes to life in the classroom; and Makerspaces allow students to create, invent, and build things once thought unimaginable.

Making Matters

Students are going to create and do things we could never imagine

By Nicholas Provenzano, Member Contributor

I have always been the type of person to take things apart and put them back together. So, I’m excited about the growing popularity of Makerspaces in schools—and not just for me!

Makerspaces, also sometimes known as STEAM (Science, Technology Engineering, Art, and Math) labs, are physical places where do-it-yourselfers can create, invent, and build cool stuff. For the past couple of years, they have been popping up in schools with growing frequency to help students test their imaginations in fields as wide-ranging as robotics and sewing, using tools that they probably won’t have at home or in other classes.

At my school, the librarian and I worked for a year to create a Makerspace in the library where students could build and create. The location is perfect, because it allows all students to have access. 

Making matters. It gives students a space to explore the world in a way that our too-often-rigid curriculum does not allow. The Makerspace also creates community, providing like-minded people with an opportunity to explore the world, and understand that they are not alone when it comes to the desire to get their hands dirty and make something.

When students are young, they are given sandboxes and toys, and urged to be creative and play. As they age, we take that all away. The Makerspace is the new sandbox for my high school students. I want them to come in, play, create—and, most of all—get their hands dirty.

The space’s creation has given me an opportunity to work with amazing students. I hear their stories about why they love being down there working during their lunch period, before school, and even after school. These few stories represent just a small fraction of what is possible when students are given a space and are encouraged to make. 


Solving Meaningful Problems

The student pictured below has a problem with her kneecap—it moves around, which can be very painful. She is an athlete and has not found anything to help her with this issue. When this student came to the Makerspace, she jumped into designing possible solutions on the Makerspace dry-erase wall and is close to building a prototype of a new knee brace. She says there are many people with this same knee condition and she wants her creation to help them all. She also has said the Makerspace encourages her to explore solutions in a way that would not have been possible elsewhere. 



Doing Good

Two students want to design a prosthetic hoof for horses. Of all of the things I expected to see in the space, this never crossed my mind, which is what makes the space so amazing! Students are going to create and do things that we could never imagine—and that is what learning is all about! These two students have researched and immersed themselves in the world of assisted technology to learn how to create this device for horses. I can’t wait to see their 3D designs and printed models. Their passion for this project exceeds anything else they are doing in school.


Fitting in

I run the orientations for the Makerspace, so I meet regularly with students in groups and tell them what they need to know before using the space. On two days, I worked one on one with two young ladies who were very excited about doing different things. The first student told me, “This is heaven for me. I finally have someplace to go and think about all of the things I want to do. Then, I can do them!” The second said, “I finally feel like I fit in. I felt weird about liking this type of stuff (making things, technology, etc.), but not anymore.”

I had a tough time holding back the tears and the desire to give them a hug. Everything I had hoped the Makerspace would do was happening, and these two young ladies put words to it. I wanted to create a space for students to come, tinker, create, and most of all, just be themselves. These students made me feel like I was winning education on those days.


A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

Climate change comes to life in the classroom

By Tim Swinehart, Member Contributor

“We can’t hunt [because] the ice is receding. People are going hungry,” says one voice. “Us, too! It’s food. We can’t grow it in the desert,” says another.

The speakers are my students, who have taken on the voices of different indigenous people during a role play on the impact of climate change. The exercise is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, a book I recently co-edited on teaching about the environmental crisis.

The students are representing First Peoples as far-ranging as the Yup’ik of Alaska, the Bambara of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Aymara of Bolivia. The list is diverse, but all of the populations share one thing: They all suffer from catastrophic climate disruptions. Rather than simply lecturing or having students read about these changes, I want students to bring them to life in the classroom. Their task? To share experiences and articulate demands for the rest of the world—especially for those who control fossil fuel reserves.

One aim of the lesson is to help students recognize that some of the world’s poorest people—and those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions—are the first to suffer the consequences of a warming planet. This is a point that was made dramatically by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, in which the pontiff argues that those most threatened by climate change are the global poor—the billions of people around the world who are currently experiencing the worst effects of a rapidly changing climate. With them in mind, the pope called for an approach that “integrate(s) questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” This “interdisciplinary” approach is one that educators also should embrace.

Our best curricular attempts to engage students come when we cross the boundaries of disciplines, in this case joining a scientific investigation of global warming with a social inquiry of how people are affected by a changing climate—and what we all can do about it.


‘Fix the problems...’

One lesson I’ve taught exemplifies these connections and is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. It is “The Mystery of the 3 Scary Numbers,” written by co-editor Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools. In this lesson, students receive clues and try to figure out the significance of the “three scary numbers”: 2-degrees Celsius, the temperature rise that, if exceeded, would likely trigger a point of climate no-return; 565 gigatons of carbon, the amount of carbon that can be burned without pushing a 2-degree rise; and 2,795 gigatons of carbon, the amount of proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas that corporations and countries have ready to exploit and burn. During class, students mingle to discuss their clues, and slowly piece together the frightening significance of these numbers. It’s a math lesson, a science lesson, and a social studies lesson all rolled into one.

Afterward, in class discussion, students wrestle with the implications of this playful, but sobering, activity. Should fossil fuel companies be left to decide the fate of the Earth? If not, how should the rest of us respond?

Our classrooms are an important venue in the struggle for a livable planet. We have an opportunity to put the most important crisis facing humanity at the center of our curriculum—and to do it in a way that brings hope to our students, who have been told for much of their lives that it’s up to their generation to “fix the problems” being passed on to them. If we can bring to life the stories of indigenous groups, anti-fossil fuel activists, and communities around the world who are working toward a saner and more equitable social and ecological order, our students can begin to see themselves as part of a larger movement. 

Teaching about climate change can be overwhelming. In fact, it probably should overwhelm us at times if we grasp the enormity of the issues in the way scientists suggest we should. But by teaching the crisis through imaginative curriculum, and telling the stories of the people most affected and the movements struggling for environmental and social justice, our students can also find the hope and collective strength to work toward a better future.  

A Classroom Resource Guide: Climate Change

These are just a few of the resources compiled by NEA Healthy Futures to help educators teach about climate change. For more, visit

Teaching Climate, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Provides resources for teachers, including videos, demos and experiments, and interactive tools. 

Climate Change Live: A Distance Learning Adventure—A website from the U.S. Forest Service and its partners provides links to educator webinars, lesson plans, and more. 

Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on the Earth, NASA—Includes links to online games and a visually appealing discussion guide for teachers.

Tim Swinehart teaches at Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., and is a member of the Portland Association of Teachers (NEA). He co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, available at

What you need: A Makerspace Starter Kit

The question I am most often asked is, “What should I buy for my space?” The best answer is this: Ask the students what they want to do! Their answers can guide you to build over time a Makerspace filled with different tools. Based on working with my Makerspace and connecting with other educators, I can share with you the most popular and common items you would find in a Makerspace. 

3D Printer. This is always a big item for a Makerspace. Students love watching their designs come to life before their eyes. While there are many different brands worth exploring, Makerbot makes various sizes that are wonderful and Dremel has the Idea Builder that works great as well. 

Makey Makey. This is a great tool to get students building projects and having fun using core STEM skills. There are many different projects, but my personal favorite is turning bananas into a keyboard. 

Lego. Students can create prototypes with Lego pieces before designing them in 3D software. Having physical pieces to manipulate by hand is still a great way for many students to learn and explore. 

Raspberry Pi and Arduino. These pieces of hardware can get students coding and programming in no time. And while this may seem too advanced for some students, this is where Makerspace projects can really take off.  

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.