The Benefits of the Copy Stage of Making

In Learning in the Making: How to Plan, Execute, and Assess Powerful Makerspace Lessons, I propose a model for the stages of making.

I believe that the heart of making is creating new and unique things. I also realize that in order for this type of making to occur, there needs to be some scaffolding so that maker learners can develop a foundation of knowledge and skills. This post focuses on the Copy Stage of this model.

  • Copy – make something almost exactly as someone else has done.

In this age of information abundance, there really is an unlimited number of DIY resources, tutorials, Youtube videos, online instructors and instructions on making all kind of things. These resources provide a good beginning for acquiring some solid foundational skills and knowledge for learning how a make something one has never made before.

For a recent classroom activity, I wanted students to learn about and use Adafruit’s Circuit Playground. Some students made a Circuit Playground Dreidel (they learned about dreidels from an Orthodox Jewish student who was in my class and they loved it!) using the directions found at, and others made the Circuit Playground Scratch game with the directions found at I provided them with these directions and the expectation that the learners follow them pretty much on their own with me acting as an explainer and coach when they ran into difficulties. Here is a video of my learners enjoying their newly made dreidels.

The benefits of beginning maker activities with the Copy Stage includes:

  • Basic Skill Development and Acquisition
  • Foundational Skills for More Advanced and Creative Projects
  • Following Step-By-Step Directions
  • Positive Problem-Solving When Obstacles Occur
  • Asking for Help From Peers
  • A Sense of Accomplishment About Finishing a Project
  • Enjoying the Use of Finished Products They Made

There has been a fair amount of criticism leveraged against “paint-by-numbers” types of STEM and maker kits. This criticism revolves around the stifling of the creativity of learners. I contend that learners need foundational skills so that they can be freed up to be creative. Think about learning how to cook or play an instrument. The basic and foundational skills need to be there in order for the makers to go in directions that are new and creative for them. For example, I spent several decades as a ceramic artist, making wheel thrown and altered pottery. I needed to know how to throw a decent bowl before I could go in that direction (and yes, my pottery in this image began as wheel thrown cylinders).

Going On A STEM-Maker Journey WITH My Students

Last semester, I worked with a few high school students to create a project for the New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge. Being a learner-centric, process-oriented educator (hence, the name of my blog – User Generated Education), I embraced the following practices during this project.

  • Learners selected and developed their problem statement and guiding question.
  • Learners naturally tapped into one another’s strengths, managing their strengths without any intervention from me. Some were good at problem conception, others at envisioning solutions, others at research, and still others at creating the graphics.
  • My role was that of resource provider and feedback provider. I shared and explained the challenge requirements, reviewed the qualities of valid websites, gave feedback on their research and written work, and provided them with materials and tools such as Arduinos.
  • Community resources were used reinforcing that communities contain experts – that teachers don’t have to be experts at everything. We visited the local makerspace so the learners could learn and use their 3d printers and laser cutter.
  • Given the nature of this project-based, problem-based format, grading was based strictly on class participation using the criteria of, “Worked on the project during class time.”

Although, I often approach my classroom instruction using the practices as specified above, this one took me even farther from a place of knowing. They selected CO2 emissions and a chemistry-based solution of which I knew very little, so I was not a content expert. We learned about this together. I had a little experience with Arduinos but not lots so I was not a technology expert. We learned a lot more about how these worked together. We went on this journey together and I loved being a co-learner with my students.

Here is a highlight video of their project:

Much to my chagrin, they did not win an award (19 awards were given to the 43 entries). Their rewards, though, cannot be overstated:

  1. They learned some concrete and practical skills from going to the local makerspace, and getting instruction on their 3D printers and laser cutter. They also helped them work out some difficulties they had troubleshooting problems with the Arduino part of the project.
  2. They experienced the rewards and frustrations of working on a months long project including persistence, having a growth mindset, dealing with failure, and following through with a project through its completion.
  3. One of the students has pretty much checked out of school. She was mostly fully engaged throughout the duration of this project.

Even though their excitement about attending and presenting their project was obvious during the hour long ride home as they spent that time brainstorming ideas for projects for next year’s Governor’s STEM Challenge.

2020: A Clear Vision for Our Learners

20/20 vision is a term for visual acuity in which the numerator refers to distance and the denominator refers to size. Visual acuity (VA) commonly refers to the clarity of vision. Vision is all about clarity. 20/20 vision is perfect, high-definition clarity. The question is: How clear is your vision? Specifically, how clear is your vision [for your learners’] futures? (How to Have 20/20 Vision in 2020)

The year 2020 can act as metaphor for us, as educators, to have an overreaching vision for what we do. I really love the idea of approaching 2020 with a clear, well-articulated vision of our learners’ futures.

Grant Wiggins in Why Do You Teach had this to say about the importance of educators developing their vision-mission statements.

I am interested in [teachers being able to answer]:  Having taught, what should they have learned? What do you aim to accomplish as a teacher? What is your goal for the year, for all the years? What kind of a difference in their thinking and acting are you committed to?

Many teachers do not have good answers; most have no such personal Mission Statement; most have not even written a long-term syllabus in which they lay out the key goals for learners (and parents) and how those goals will best be achieved. But then – I say this with no malice –  you really have no goals. You are just marching through content and activities, hoping some of it will stick or somehow cause some learning.

 If you have no long-term accomplishments that you work daily to cause – regardless of or even in spite of the BS you encounter – then you are acting unprofessionally. What a professional educator does, in my view, is to stay utterly focused on a few long-term learning-related goals, no matter what happens in the way of administrative mandates, snow days, early dismissals for sports, or fire drills.

I have a vision – mission statement that I developed years ago but still holds true today:

To help learners developing the knowledge, skills, and passion to be self-directed, lifelong learners.

From my vision-mission statement I developed some guiding principles.

My vision-mission was not just a mental exercise I completed. It, along with my guiding principles, was developed to inform everything I do in my classrooms. I frequently revisit them as a form of self-assessment. Which principles are currently guiding my instructional strategies? Which ones are not being integrated into my classroom activities? What changes do I need to make to do so?

Here are some resources for developing your own vision-mission statement: