Original article written by Jennifer Miller, Thomas Tomas, Nancy Maryboy, and David Begay
Note: This is an excerpt. The full report can be downloaded here.
A rural and remote Navajo reservation school is broadening learning opportunities through a makerspace for an underrepresented and disadvantaged population of Navajo students. Little Singer Community School (LSCS) in Birdspring, Arizona, located in the southwestern portion of the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona. Students attending the school have limited access to enhanced learning experiences. Before this program began most received some instruction in the Navajo language and culture, but there was little training in STEM literacy and makerspace pedagogy. Prior to this program, LSCS lacked the equipment to provide strong training in engineering and science. Two LSCS teachers have a master’s degree with an emphasis on bilingual education, specifically pertaining to Navajo and English languages.
That all changed in 2017 when LSCS partnered with NASA MMS (Multiscale Magnetosphere Mission), NASA Space Science Education Consortium (NSSEC), NASA Goddard’s Innovation Lab, Indigenous Education Institute, Navajo Technical University, Sul Ross State University, and Google to bring STEM career awareness to students through teacher training in a makerspace environment. LSCS makerspace program facilitates a 4-workstation project-based learning approach connecting makerspace to classroom curriculum. Dr. Jennifer Miller working with LSCS professional development coordinator Tom Thomas created a makerspace teacher professional development program highlighting the August 2017 solar eclipse. The curriculum of this makerspace program was unique in that it drew connections between Navajo cultural topics and science literacy classroom activities. The goal of the makerspace was to improve teacher performance and bolster their confidence in teaching STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) content so that they could more effectively encourage students to pursue careers in STREAM disciplines—with special emphasis on the STEM disciplines. Organizers believed that if classroom STEM instruction included elements of their cultural heritage, engagement and interest in STEM literacy would improve and more students would consider pursuing a STEM career pathway.
A Holistic Approach
Scholars describe the importance of a holistic approach toward learning, using a range of activities and learning environments. Makerspaces can facilitate activities that meet the needs of diverse learners. Successful makerspaces, particularly in education environments, balance practicality with creativity and collaboration to serve the needs of the school community” (Range & Schmidt, 2017). Makerspace environments purposefully designed may increase engagement of youth in problem-solving. Finally, the making process allows learners to share their perspectives and cultural experiences in their native Navajo language and English, increasing literacy skill sets.
LSCS teachers were introduced to STEM literacy and project-based learning in a makerspace learning environment during a summer makerspace training workshop. Training participants read Baje Whitethorne’s (2002) children’s book, Sunpainters: Eclipse of the Navajo Sun. Participants were instructed to ask themselves four questions as they read: What do I know? What do I want to know? How do I find out? What have I learned? Afterward, participants did a short rotation exercise, demonstrating their comprehension of the story by presenting positive statements and questions on sticky notes.
Next, LSCS teachers were introduced to a project-based activity using challenge cards to teach STEM literacy. Teachers learned how to create learning activities using four different types of career skills: the Scientist (Investigator), the Engineer (Designer), the Artist (Creator), or Journalist (Communicator). Challenge cards incorporated the use of new technologies to facilitate each career skill set to include a green screen, fabrication printers, bean weaving loom kits, quadcopter, cameras, telescope camera adapter kits, Rasberry Pi units, art supplies, and circuit kits. Teachers were introduced to coding, 3D printing, and other STEM technologies as part of the training. Teachers then repeated the makerspace project-based learning activity with LSCS students later in August to celebrate the 2017 solar eclipse. Students were encouraged to create their own challenge cards.
Wilphina Becenti, a Navajo cultural teacher at LSCS, reported that the children really took interest and that the makerspace process created excitement. Ms. Becenti stated that “students were surprised by how much they learned and responded well to creative teaching versus traditional teaching,” she added.