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Let’s Play Ball – After Twelve Years of Study

What if we had to study sports for twelve years before we could actually play? Would people even study a sport for one year before actually playing? Of course not; I’ve never even heard of anyone who read a book about golf, let alone studied the game before attempting to play. Nothing would collapse the American institution of sports like a requirement that potential players spend time studying the game before playing.

Although the sports analogy sounds ridiculous, we expect our young people, for the most part, to study math and science for several years before they actually get to make use of the knowledge in making real-world solutions, i.e., projects.

In today’s world, we hear a lot about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and finding ways to get young people interested in STEM, especially young girls. The answer is simple. If you want to get a young girl interested in STEM, help her start making things of her own design in solution of her own or other people’s problems. The answer is the same for young boys. Making things provides the answer to interest youth in STEM. Making is an equal opportunity concept. Making does not discriminate based on gender, age, social status or any of the other protected classes.

Making something that is a personal solution to a real problem is a more valuable learning tool than just following an exercise in a book or downloading some 3-dimensional drawing from the Internet to 3D print. Designing and prototyping a dog umbrella or retrofitting an electric drill with a crank so it can be used to charge a cell phone are examples of making something to solve a problem.

When people make something to solve a problem, they are willing to learn whatever they need to learn from any of the STEM disciplines in order to make the solution work. This includes increased interest in reading skills so they can better understand the written information available to help with the project. Students improve their writing and communication skills as they seek to share information about their projects with others. The lessons learned from each project build an ever-increasing personal knowledge base available for solving more problems with increasingly complex solutions.

The concept of “making” as a learning tool has been around for a long time, but very, very slow to catch on. On August 25, 1912, a minister named Frank Gunsaulus preached a sermon in Chicago about what he’d do with a million dollars (that was a lot of money back then). He thought education should be more experiential, where students would learn by doing instead of just reading information in a book or listening to a professor’s lecture. He said, in the sermon, that if he had a million dollars, he’d build such a school. American meatpacker-industrialist Philip Armour was in the congregation. After the service, he asked Gunsaulus if he really believed what he had just preached. Armour gave the million dollars for the creation/enhancement of the Armour Technology Institute.

Way back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, there were people working at Stanford and MIT that recognized the value of the personal computer as a learning tool. Not as a way to merely digitize the boring content of textbooks, but as a tool to spur making. One of the early pioneers in the maker movement, Seymour Papert, envisioned personal computers with many input and output ports so that children could connect all kinds of sensors for input and all kinds of relays and motors as outputs so young people could build all kinds of machines. Today, we have a microcontroller called the Arduino (cost is about $10) that does just what he envisioned with the expensive personal computers of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Making should be a part of all education, starting in kindergarten and remaining through college. Once we get young people to a basic level of reading, writing and math, we should throw out the standardized testing and the obsession with outcomes assessment and make problem/project-based learning a substantial part of everyone’s education. Combine all of that with an entrepreneurial mindset and we'll start cranking out graduates that can change the world and we won’t be sitting around talking about how to interest young people in STEM.

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at

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