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Summer 2013

Making Matters

In the offices of Project Zero, tucked behind the main desk, are a couple of tables covered with art supplies: colored paper, markers, funky scissors. The hope is that visitors will spend time at the tables, making whatever they want from the materials. And although the project sounds fun, there's also real purpose: to learn more about tinkering.

It's part of a multiyear research project called Agency by Design recently launched by Project Zero, in conjunction with a group of K–12 educators in Oakland, Calif. Tinkering is one part of the larger project, which is trying to understand how design thinking (a way to approach problems that is people-centered, creative, and involves tinkering and prototyping) and maker thinking (a DIY way of thinking by making) impact education. Both processes are becoming incredibly popular, with everyone from entrepreneurs making prototypes for products to tinkering-types meeting in community hackerspaces to work on personal projects to little kids building robots out of Legos.

The first part of the Project Zero project, based in Cambridge, is figuring out what solid research is already out there related to design and maker thinking. The team is also interviewing people involved in these worlds — designers, artists, and tinkerers. The second part of the project involves collaborating at four California schools, using hands-on activities in the classroom that have students and teachers examining objects and even redesigning them.

Through these efforts, the team hopes to better understand how these two processes apply to education. Initial research has shown that design and maker thinking have the potential to make kids more interested in learning, promote hand-mind expertise, and boost knowledge in STEM subjects. The team is particularly interested in seeing how young people can begin to not only identify "design" in the world around them, but also understand that they can be active in making changes, starting, perhaps, through tinkering.

"A young person might notice that a coffee cup is designed," says Lecturer Shari Tishman, Ed.D.'91, director of Project Zero and the project's principal investigator. "We want to help them look at a coffee cup and think, 'I could do something different.' We're hoping they see themselves as players. To learn that they are part of the world that changes things."