Kylie Peppler

Kylie Peppler

Kylie Peppler

Associate Professor, Kylie Peppler

“Making” a way to learn:  Learning Sciences Professor Kylie Peppler

Meet Kylie Peppler, a Maker. Part grassroots movement, part DIY crafting, part educational innovation, the “umbrella of Make,” explains Peppler, encompasses growing communities of young people and adults who are designing and building things, especially by incorporating technology into their creations.

An artist by training, Peppler is now an associate professor in the Learning Sciences Program at the Indiana University School of Education in Bloomington. Her research at the intersection of media arts, new technologies, and informal learning, especially her work on creativity among youth, has led to three books in print and four (co-authored) books in press as well as grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation, among others.

What does Making have to do with education? Peppler believes Making affords people opportunities for authentic engagement in a variety of disciplines, which can lead to learning outcomes in the arts as well as in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In a 2013 report commissioned from Peppler by the arts-focused Wallace Foundation, Peppler argues that today’s media-immersed children and teens use apps, mobile phones, computers, and more to create art that is “interest-driven”; that is, art that “emerges from children’s and teens’ own creative passions.”

“Youth are increasingly assuming public roles as artists, performers, designers, editors, and directors of creative products and are sharing their work through social media platforms,” she says. “Young people are producing this art solely because they want to, and they’re motivated by their own pride in their work and curiosity, not because of what others think or want.”

The breadth of such interest-driven arts was on display at the “Make-to-Learn Symposium” that Peppler and students from her Creativity Labs at IU Bloomington hosted in Chicago during 2013 (the symposium was supported by the MacArthur Foundation). Peppler says harnessing the impact of the Maker movement is crucial to enhancing and advancing arts and STEM education among young people.

"Whether a teen is building a robot, designing a video game, knitting a sweater, or crafting, there are a lot of complex STEM concepts undergirding each of these activities."  

“Whether a teen is building a robot, designing a video game, knitting a sweater, or crafting, there are a lot of complex STEM concepts undergirding each of these activities,” she says. “It gets us to not only think about how kids can learn STEM in the informal out-of-school hours, but also how we can re-envision STEM education.”

Improving science learning among young children is the focus of Peppler’s current National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. In September 2013, the NSF awarded more than $999,000 to Peppler, Joshua Danish (also an assistant professor of learning sciences in the IU School of Education), and Armin Moczek (associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington) for a project called BioSim.

Basically, Peppler and her collaborators are designing “e-puppets” to teach elementary-age students about complex biological systems. Electronically enhanced puppets that contain a wearable computer and wireless transmitter allow young students to simulate biological phenomena such as honeybees collecting nectar or army ants scavenging for food. Using the e-puppets, the children learn how ecosystems work by playing.

“Young children are already apt to explore the world through play-acting and games, especially those that involve playground-like dynamics among a large group of peers,” Peppler says. “We find a lot of commonalities between this type of play and the embodied exploration found in more advanced forms of scientific study.”

Peppler, Danish, and Moczek are creating a system that can accommodate large groups of 30 to 40 children and expanding it to include predators and other roles in an ecosystem. Their goal is to explore how the study of one ecosystem prepares youth to understand ecosystems more globally.

When the three-year project is complete, the researchers intend to make “how to” instructions publicly available so teachers and designers can create e-puppets through readily available materials. They envision partnering with science museums to make BioSim kits available. One partnership is already underway with the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology in Bloomington.