Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators

reviewed by Dilafruz R Williams & Sybil S. Kelley S. Kelley - March 06, 2015

coverTitle: Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators
Author(s): Margaret Honey & David E. Kanter (Eds)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 041553920X, Pages: 256, Year: 2013
Search for book at

Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators is a timely book illustrating myriad examples of state-of-the-art programs in the realm of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Capturing a vast array of real-world stories, editors Margaret Honey and David Kanter present a case for STEM innovation that aligns well with the emergent Maker culture and today’s DIY ethos. At the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting, President Obama urged the education community to sustain and nurture a culture of scientific innovation; he suggested thinking anew and creatively “to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it's science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things” (p. 3). In keeping with this sentiment, Design, Make, Play features learning science that goes beyond the traditional norms of classrooms and instead brings in expansive opportunities provided by informal settings—community centers, museums, virtual spaces, and more. Further, the authors build a strong case for better aligning informal learning experiences into the regular school day structure.

The book serves as a rich resource for case studies and examples of programs based on the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education. Twenty-eight authors, including editors Honey and Kanter, offer convincing arguments for why students are more likely to be creative designers and successful problem solvers when they tinker, play, experiment, make things, and have open-ended opportunities for learning. These experiences also tend to be fun and engaging, unlike overly structured and regimented activities—or worse, rote learning from texts.

The case studies are illustrated with photographs and figures that provide further evidence of creativity and action—indicators of learner-centered education. “It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?” is a chapter specifically focused on the Tinkering Studio, which is a new kind of public learning experience based on tinkering. The book makes a case for tinkering as a legitimate form of learning, since “tinkerers are always exploring, experimenting, trying new things” (p. 165).

In another chapter, the Design Lab at the New York Hall of Science is shown as “creating new possibilities for young people to identify design problems worth solving, notice design opportunities in the real world, and think creatively about the redesign and reuse of materials to solve everyday problems” (p. 34). As an example of finding a problem worth solving, students are prompted to “think about something you could build for a model city that would make people happy” (p. 41). Students make circuits for their model city, using cardboard boxes, index cards, aluminum foil strips, binder clips, markers, watch batteries, motors, LEDs, and other readily available items. In their assessment of children’s efforts at creating a model, the authors note that “problem contexts are to be chosen that are not too narrowly defined, providing dynamic ways for sharing and collaborating on design work, and offering engaging materials that call into action interesting applications of STEM concepts and skills” (p. 48).

Although Helen Quinn and Phillip Bell—both committee members involved in the development of the Framework for K-12 Science Education—clearly articulate how “design, make, play” types of learning are well-aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards, only two chapters provide examples of school-based programs. Steven Zipkes, the founding principal of Manor New Technology High School (MNTH) in Texas, presents a hopeful account of the school that was designed “to unlock the hidden talents of under-served students and to inspire them to go to college” (p. 218). Emerging from a chronically low performing school district, MNTH now consistently graduates 100% of their seniors, 80% of whom go on to college. MNTH uses project-based learning to “shake students out of extreme boredom with sit-and-get lectures, worksheets, and textbooks” (p. 220). Instead, the school “encourages students to learn the way most people do outside of a typical classroom—through collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and research” (pp. 220–221). This case study is particularly important as it points to deep issues of equity. We are strong advocates for informal learning experiences of many types; yet, we also believe that if rich learning opportunities are only available through informal contexts, a large portion of our population will be left behind. Although many informal programs specifically target under-served youth and communities, there still remains an issue of access. We hope that Design, Make, Play will serve as a call to educators, administrators, and policy makers alike: if we want to diversify STEM fields to capture the myriad of experiences and perspectives that make up our nation, then rich learning opportunities need to be available for all students within the formal system—especially underprivileged students.

The pedagogical philosophy embraced in the book indeed embraces teaching how to think, rather than what to think (Dewey, 1910). In the process, Design, Make, Play demonstrates how children and youth are enamored and absorbed in STEM learning. The conviction that young people can “fall in love with science and technology by presenting science as a creative, hands-on, passionate endeavor” (p. 2) undergirds the book’s proposals for growing the next generation of STEM innovators. This book challenges the schools’ traditional role—entrenched in what Paulo Freire (1960) argued was the archaic “banking” model. When students take responsibility for their learning through hands-on project-based activities, they tend to collaborate, ask questions, and become so absorbed that the structure of the school day can hinder their active engagement. The more students are given permission to tinker with things without adults getting in the way by regimenting their activities, the more creative they can be. This sentiment is captured convincingly in all of the case studies, and demonstrates a new path: instead of allowing schools to crush students’ innate curiosity, Honey and Kanter argue convincingly for lighting their spark and honoring their innovations and creativity. We are reminded of what Neil Postman (1996) observed many years ago: why is it that children come to school as a question mark and leave as a period? In Design, Make, Play, a plethora of examples enable active engagement that thrives within school, and even beyond it.

The book describes a rekindling of innate motivation in youth for learning, and does so in a supportive environment that engages students in meaningful ways. Acknowledging the significance of both out-of-school as well as in-school learning, Design, Make, Play requires a change in classroom culture to accommodate group-based and problem-based learning, and allow students significant autonomy to become life-long learners of STEM. Missing from the book, however, are examples of children and youth learning outdoors—in and from nature—whether through play areas, school gardens, field trips, etc. Nature itself provides ample opportunities for students to learn about systems thinking, ecological design, and interdisciplinary understandings of life (Williams & Brown, 2012). In our own research on learning in school gardens, for instance, we have found students and teachers authentically engaged in meaningful STEM learning right on their school grounds. As learning gardens sprout all across the country they are also legitimate venues for Design, Make, Play.

If we are serious about encouraging the development of STEM innovators of the future, then attention must be paid to their learning now. In addressing this urgency, the authors of Design, Make, Play have made a huge contribution, as they showcase what is possible. For this, they are to be commended.


Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston: Heath & Co.

Freire, P. (1960). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Postman, N. (1996). The end of education. New York: Knopf.

Williams, D. R. & Brown, J. D. (2012). Learning gardens and sustainability education: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 06, 2015 ID Number: 17885, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:47:25 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review