MAKEing the Most of Project-Based Learning

By Diana Dull, third grade teacher in Austin, TX, and Jenny Burns, Community Coordinator for Allen Distinguished Educators
September 12, 2016

Award-winning project replicated with DIY Guide grant from Allen Distinguished Educators

DIY Guide grants ensure adoption of ADE-created classroom projects and practices across a diverse range of schools – engaging student of all backgrounds.

“One of the biggest challenges I have as a teacher is finding the time for students to engage in projects. When I came across MAKEShift Poetry, I was excited to find a project that combined science and math with poetry and language arts,” said Diana Dull, a third grade teacher and DIY grantee from the Allen Distinguished Educators (ADE) program. “If I can do something with students across multiple content areas, I increase the amount of class time available for the project.” Dull is one of 28 teachers to receive a DIY Guide grant from the ADE program in winter of 2016. 

Dull-With-Student-Working.jpgIn this project, students write a short poem that demonstrates understanding of figurative language. They then design and fabricate a mechanism that illustrates the meaning, theme, or concept of their poem. The main goal of this engineering and language arts project, developed by 2014 ADE awardee Scott Swaaley, is to introduce students to engineering concepts and develop a maker mindset. Dull’s school, Becker Elementary, recently invested in Maker Space portable carts filled with tools to support Maker Education practices. “A great way for me to build rapport with my students and at my new school was signing up to do a DIY Guide from ADE,” said Dull. As a new teacher at Becker, with little Maker Education and project-based learning experience, Dull saw MAKEShift Poetry as a great learning opportunity for both her and her students. “This project has helped me grow as an educator,” said Dull, “I learned how to use so many tools outside of my comfort zone.”  Download open-source materials for this project.

Teachers are encouraged to creatively adjust the projects to suit the unique needs of their students and classroom environments. 

Learn how Diana modified and adapted this project:

How Scott Does It

  • School: High Tech High
  • Type of School: Public - Charter
  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • School Population: 5,000
  • Demographic: 62% minority students 
  • % Free/reduced lunch program: 42%
  • Grade: 9th grade
  • Timing: Scott teaches this project in the first month of school and takes a total of six weeks
  • Subjects: physics, engineering, and language arts
  • Materials: Adobe Gear Generator, computers, laser cutters, and wood to build and design gears
  • Project Steps: Students write their own poem or narrative then develop a figurative representation using gears. 

Watch Scott’s interactive guided tour and download the complete project materials.

How Diana Did It

  • School: Becker Elementary (PK-5)
  • Type of School: Public - District
  • Location: Austin, TX
  • School Population: 325
  • Demographic: 71% minority students
  • % Free/reduced lunch program: 54%
  • Grade: 3rd grade
  • Timing: Dull's class worked on this project for several weeks between other lessons and projects up to the end of the school year
  • Subjects: engineering and design, language arts, and art
  • Materials: Gear templates, paper, cardboard, mixed media art supplies, laser cutter, motors, batteries, and wires
  • Project Steps: After writing short poems, students developed prototypes out of paper and cardboard for their visual gear representations. Dull's class then collaborated with another school that had access to a laser cutter to cut gears out of wood. Students then used mixed media to decorate their gears. Students plan to enhance their projects in the future by adding motors, wires, and batteries.
More details about Diana’s project adaptations will be available soon.

Featured project adaptations by Dull:

  • Although they ran out of time last school year, Dull’s class plans to take this project to the next level by adding motors, batteries and wires to move the gears when she loops up with this same class during the upcoming school year.
  • Dull’s students created two prototypes (one from paper and one from cardboard) before cutting their gears out of wood. Dull initially wanted students to research different ways to build gears and represent their poems but she found that the majority of her class needed high levels of support and encouragement in the design process. Diana’s third grade students are half the age of the students this project was originally developed for. The two prototype phases allowed students more time to experiment and plan their design.
  • Dull collaborated with another school to gain access to a laser cutter. After her students designed their gears, they sent them to the other school for cutting. Dull also consulted another teacher in the district who specializes in engineering and design during the gear construction process. 
  • Dull approached the MAKEShift Poetry project as a mixed-media art opportunity adding paint, colored pencils, and other art supplies.
“To see the students grow more independent and confident with this project makes me very proud of what we all accomplished. The parents and administrators were very pleased about this project from the beginning,” said Dull. “Implementing this project was also a learning experience for me and showed my students and peers that I am a lifelong learner.”

Student work from Scotts class

Students use a laser cutter to cut gears and engrave poems. Visit the MAKEShift Poetry page to learn more.

Student Work from Diana's class


Dull's students were very proud of their completed projects!

The ADE program was developed by Paul G. Allen based on his belief that innovation is a key driver in improving learning opportunities for young people. “Being innovative means trying something new and original. There are standards in education but teaching to these standards is the minimum requirement. When I focus on the minimum standard, I feel like I'm limiting the future possibilities for my students,” Dull explains. “Education needs to be exciting and open to all the possibilities if we want to be lifelong learners.”

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