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„They leave with a sense of confidence that they can achieve the same things as kids who arrive at the workshop with their parents”

Maker's Red Box 2022. 08. 09. 10:13

One year ago, almost to the day, we were selected as Google Impact Challenge grant recipients and given a chance to introduce 400 children in foster care to the power of making. This summer, we’re finally turning this ambition into reality. Camps in 15 Hungarian cities and towns are currently underway, with kids busy building the cities people might be living in 100 years from now.

And what will the kids take away from this experience? A student who’s exempt from maths in school has just left knowing that he can program a micro:bit herself, for example. We’ve sat down with Barna Buda, one of the brains behind Maker’s Red Box story-driven course materials, to ask him about his decade-long experience working with children’s home students and the difference these camps can make in their lives.

When and how did you become part of the Maker’s Red Box team?

I joined four years ago. At the time, I was writing a blog under a pseudonym about my experiences in children’s homes. I worked as a lead teacher for over ten years. I started blogging simply because I needed an outlet and didn’t want to burden my friends with my stories. As luck would have it, Péter Fuchs, the co-creator of Maker’s Red Box, was one of my followers.

Barna Buda (right) and Peter Fuchs (left) with a city of the future built by students

A shared acquaintance of ours put us in touch, and Péter invited me to the Maker’s Red Box workshop. At first, it was hard to see what I could bring to this whole operation. I was a teacher after all and had no idea about laser cutting or 3D printing. But Péter convinced me to teach one of their upcoming camps. He assured me he only needed me as a teacher. For everything else, the workshop supervisor would be there to help.

On day one, I arrived all excited to start the course, The City of the Future. I expected children who were just as enthusiastic as I was – but that’s not quite what happened. The high schoolers in my class were all studying to become mechanics and couldn’t care less about the topic. It was also the last week of school before the summer break. Their mates were already out having fun, and there they were, having to build the city of the future. One of them even arrived in full construction gear, ready to do some actual building.

It was on the second day of the camp that I caught an exchange between two students as they were trying to attach artificial turf to the side of a mountain. Everything was covered in glue. Then one of them turned to the other and said: “Honestly, I’d never thought we’d end up working together like that.” In the end, not only did the kids build the city but they even told me how sorry they felt for their classmates who had to stay in school instead of the camp. That’s when I knew I was in the right place.

How did your experience prepare you for your current role?

As I’ve mentioned, I got the job because of my background in pedagogy. Today, I’m part of the core team in charge of developing our course materials. I’m the one who looks at the story and the activities we’re working on from the children’s point of view. We don’t just come up with our courses in a lab and let the kids figure everything out. We start testing them with students early in the development process to see how they respond to the challenges, which ones engage them and which ones overwhelm them.

Barna Buda testing Maker's Red Box course materials with a group of kids

What’s the biggest pedagogical challenge children’s homes face and what could be the solution?

Kids who live in a children’s home are often bored. A programme like our courses or even just a makerspace workshop nearby where they can put all this free time to good use could make a world of difference for them. Especially, if they can also build skills in the process that will give them a much-needed edge in the job market later.

Working in children’s homes, I was always trying to come up with activities for the kids other than just hanging out in the yard, watching telly or playing on the computer. But the truth is, there’s never enough time or money for this. That is why I was thrilled to learn that we’d be able to invite residents from children’s homes to our summer camps, courtesy of Google.org.

What type of support do you think these children need to get into higher education?

Unfortunately, only a handful of children who grow up in foster care make it into college or university or can successfully compete in the job market. This is because they severely lack the confidence and skills that kids from traditional families internalize almost without any effort by simply interacting with their environment. It’s impossible for teachers in children’s homes, who are often in charge of 12 children, to provide the emotional support or factual knowledge they need to thrive in a real-world setting.

So how will those 400 children who get to participate in Maker’s Red Box courses benefit from this experience?

One of the key strengths of our methodology is that we don’t just teach kids how different tools and technologies, like a 3D printer or a laser cutter, work. Our courses also develop a range of competencies that they need to survive and thrive in today’s – and tomorrow’s – job market. These skills are extremely hard to gain in a traditional school setting.

When it comes to self-confidence and self-knowledge, proactivity, teamwork and emotional intelligence, children in foster care are at a distinct disadvantage. Our courses can help them improve in all these areas, and then some. The City of the Future, for example, allows them to solve challenges both on their own and in collaboration with others, including children in and outside of the foster care system.

In our experience, these summer camps can provide children with a huge dose of motivation and strength despite their shortness. Stepping into the workshop on the first day without knowing anything about the tools and technologies there and leaving five days later with their 3D printed and laser cut creations can be an incredibly empowering experience. As is seeing quieter students open up or a 12-year-old explaining something to a student two years his senior.

Kids building the city of the future in one of the camps funded by Google.org

What about kids who aren’t into technology?

They’re inspired just the same. Course participants don’t have to be coding wizards or experts in laser cutting to benefit from the sessions. We’ve spent years improving our course materials through trial and error to make sure that no kid leaves the course feeling that it was a waste of time. No matter what the frame story of the materials, the children always remain the main characters. And helping them find what they’re good at is the main goal. Role play is key to achieving this.

In our Superheroes – Digital Storytelling course, for example, the children’s task is to create their own superheroes. Not another Superman or Spider-Man, of course, but heroes who embody their own hopes, fears, dreams and perceptions. Thus, they are truly one-of-a-kind. And thought-provoking, too. The Pancake Monster was one of my favourites. He was travelling around the world and made pancakes for children who were being yelled at to make them feel better. You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure out what could have inspired his creator.

In the same course, the makers are challenged to write blog posts about their heroes’ origin story, sidekicks and adventures. In other words, create an entire universe around them. Such tasks are usually hard for children who have little experience in writing or have learning difficulties like dyslexia and dysgraphia. So we make sure they understand that writing perfect, grammatically correct sentences is really not the point here. One kid, who was failing in both Hungarian grammar and literature, came up to me during a session and proudly showed me how many pages he’d written.

Are there any challenges that are specific to running courses with children from foster care facilities?

It’s exciting to see their eyes widen as they step outside their low-stimulation environment into the workshop. From this point on, all you have to do is keep this curiosity alive. It’s a great source of motivation. Not only for students but teachers, too. No two cities of the future or superheroes will ever be the same because no two children are the same. This makes the courses less of a challenge and more of something you’re looking forward to. How will the next city turn out? What superpower will this character have?

Overall, I don’t think students who come from children’s homes require any kind of special treatment. Being a teacher means that you have to embrace the fact that students are different and make an effort to understand what makes them tick. If you’re open-minded and show empathy towards these kids, you’re doing enough. They will enjoy 3D printing and laser cutting all the same – or even more. These courses are like a summer school for them, only they hardly notice they’re here to learn.

The city of the future kids from a children's home built in Eger

Are the learning outcomes different in any way? If yes, how?

I think that for children living in foster care, the biggest sense of achievement comes from exploring their creativity and being able to use the same tools and technologies as any other kid. Which is in sharp contrast with how they’re usually perceived in a regular school environment. Where they’re the ones who “come from a children’s home”, who “get picked up by a teacher after school” and whose “mum never comes to Mother’s Day Celebrations”.

But five days into the workshop, they’re all like “Wow, I’ve done so many things in the past few days!” and “Look how cool my superhero has turned out!”. These experiences can give these students a huge push forward because they instil a sense of confidence in them that they can achieve the same things as the kids who arrive at the workshop with their parents.
It’s very clear that they crave positive reinforcement more than anything. So if they realize they’re good at something, they’re not letting it out of their hands. For example, in one session, a dowel turned out to be too small for the hole it was designed for. Who took it on to polish it? A 16-year-old boy from a children’s home, who enjoyed the task so much that he ended up polishing everyone’s dowels.

What piece of advice would you give to teachers who are just getting started with maker pedagogy?

Don’t worry.

Teachers are often afraid of trying out new things because they’re used to teaching what they’re experts in, whether it’s geography, history or what have you. They tell the students what they’re supposed to tell them and call it a day. This type of education perfectly fit the job market demands of the era it was invented in, that is, the Industrial Revolution. Workplaces back then needed employees who excelled at doing exactly what they were told to do. Things have done a one-eighty since then. Creativity, teamwork and proactivity have become the most sought-after skills. But what schools teach and how they teach it remain the same. The “sage on the stage” is still the central figure and the provider of knowledge.

But it’s time the sage on the stage turned into a guide on the side. More than anything, today’s students need partners and mentors who help them find the knowledge they’re looking for at any given time. Figuring out when George Orwell was born or what school he attended takes kids two seconds of research on their phones. So why should they waste their energy on learning this information? Shouldn’t we encourage them to obtain skills their future employers will expect them to have instead? It’s not easy to shift your mindset but it’s inevitable. All you need is open-mindedness, courage and curiosity to take the leap. The same things you need to be a good teacher.

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