With the goal of supporting an inclusive maker education learning experience, a science museum, university, and middle school partnered to engage students diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in an authentic design challenge: fabricate a personalized fidget.
The value of fidgets
Among strategies to help students with ADHD remain focused, fidgets are acknowledged as a noninvasive accommodation that has proven effective in increasing student attention during listening tasks at school (Voytecki 2005). Fidgets, sometimes referred to as “fidget toys” or “fidget tools,” can take many shapes and sizes depending on the need of the individual student. Some students prefer fidgets that are soft and easy to squeeze, like a stress ball. Other students prefer fidgets they can spin in their hands, or which are scented with soothing oils such as lavender. While most are designed to be held in the hand, some fidgets are designed for the feet, while others are designed to sit atop pencil erasers. The use of fidgets supports the goal of inclusive education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), allowing even the squirmiest students to remain in general education classrooms with the support of this accommodation.
Fidgets and maker education
The Maker Movement is another recent educational trend that is becoming increasingly mainstream in K–12 schools. This movement emphasizes the need for all individuals to learn the skills necessary to critically create in the modern, digital world and encourages students to transition from technological consumer to producer (Blikstein 2013). The act of making typically draws on and helps develop knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines, particularly Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) (Bevan 2017). Moreover, making can help students become comfortable using a variety of tools and materials, ranging from high-end laser cutters and 3-D printers to everyday crafting supplies such as fabric and glue (Martin 2015). Spaces that support this type of work are emerging in a variety of settings, from public libraries and tech shops to schools and museums. Makerspaces, design labs, tinkering studios, and fabrication labs (or “fab labs”) are all spaces that encourage and support novice and expert makers alike (Peppler, Halverson, and Kafai 2016).
The act of making has proven useful to motivate and enrich learning opportunities. Perhaps the greatest justification for the Maker Movement comes from the work of Seymour Papert, MIT professor and developer of Logo, the first child-friendly computer programming environment (Papert 1980). Papert and Harel posited that the act of creating physical objects for a larger audience or purpose was a motivating learning context (Papert and Harel 1991). The constructive process of making provides two major affordances: the opportunity to dwell in the process of learning and the opportunity to step back to reflect on the process (Ackermann 2001). This balance is key. Stepping back from one’s own learning requires the difficult work of internally assimilating newly learned information into one’s previous understandings (Piaget 1980). The process of dwelling in is quite the opposite: It involves complete immersion in the materials, tools, and contexts surrounding learning (Papert and Harel 1991). Papert’s ideas about learning through making inspired this project.
We worked with five students ages 12 to 13 during their seventh-period class, a time typically reserved for teaching study skills and finishing homework. Students were introduced to the process of engineering design, as described in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and were tasked with designing a personalized fidget that would meet their needs as well as likes and dislikes (NGSS Lead States 2013). Students were provided with a range of materials and tools to design and create their own fidgets. Because the participating school was in a rural area without a designated space or tools to support such fabrication, the school looked for supplementary out-of-school learning opportunities to meet their students’ needs. What resulted was a fruitful collaboration between university researchers (A. Hansen and Harlow), a local school, and an interactive science museum.
The first partnership in this study was established between a middle school and a university, specifically between the lead researcher (A. Hansen) and the special education teacher (E. Hansen) at a local middle school. The special education teacher had previously worked with the university team on research projects when he was a teacher at an elementary school. The research team initially requested to work with his students to implement a computer science curriculum that also focused on the engineering design process. Over time, as they worked together, the teacher began contributing to the research process and influencing the direction of research (Hansen et al. 2016). The teacher later moved to a new school district, but maintained an interest in the ongoing research and connection to the project researchers.
In his new role as a middle school Special Education instructor, the teacher became responsible for overseeing curricula and providing accommodations for his students with special learning needs. His work with the earlier research project had helped him recognize the value of children engaging in engineering design, and he realized that the students at his new school had few opportunities to engage in the process of engineering design despite the performance expectations in the NGSS. The school also did not have designated tools or resources to support the kinds of engineering projects he envisioned. The teacher reached out to the university researchers he had an established partnership with for guidance. In their discussions, the lead researcher and special education teacher determined that understanding the affordances and accommodations necessary to engage middle school special education students in authentic engineering design would benefit the larger education community and developed a research plan.
The second partnership was between the university and The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (MOXI). MOXI is a new museum in Santa Barbara focused on engaging visitors in science and creativity through interactive experiences. Since its inception, an important goal of MOXI has been to provide children, families, and adults from all segments of the community with the opportunity to enrich their understanding of science and engineering. This means that the exhibits and programs are designed with accessibility in mind. University researchers and MOXI have worked to establish a partnership since before the museum opened in 2017 (e.g., Harlow, Skinner, and O’Brien 2017; Skinner and Harlow 2017). As characteristic of research-practice partnerships, these studies have been driven by the needs of the practice-based institution, MOXI. The research partners also collaborated with MOXI on developing and documenting curricula. These collaborations, while not directly related to the fidget project, allowed individuals from the two institutions to identify common interests and visions and recognize and value the different expertise each brought to the partnership.
Bringing the partnerships together
Because the university researchers had a pre-existing research-practice partnership with MOXI, bringing the two partnerships together was a natural connection. The middle school students worked with MOXI staff on designing their fidgets and printed them using MOXI’s 3-D printers. As a result, MOXI was able to increase community outreach and prioritize accessibility goals, and the middle school teacher and students received access to expertise from the university staff on engineering design and tools for an authentic and engaging project.
Design session 1: Engineering design and tools (45 minutes)
Students were introduced to the process of engineering design, as described by the NGSS for middle school students (grades 6 to 8), as shown in Table 1. The lead researcher (A. Hansen) visited the school to facilitate an interactive discussion about the process of engineering design with the help of the special education teacher. During this time, students identified a problem they experienced in school that they wanted to solve: struggling to stay focused during class. Next, students brainstormed criteria for success and project constraints and decided that the fidget needed to be a greater help than distraction. Classroom rules formed the basis for further constraints. For example, students are typically not allowed to eat during class, so a fidget should not be edible. Additionally, students concluded that their fidget should not make noise and be small enough to fit in their hands.
Middle school engineering design standards (NGSS Lead States 2013)
|MS-ETS1-1||Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.|
|MS-ETS1-2||Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.|
|MS-ETS1-3||Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.|
|MS-ETS1-4||Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.|
After the larger project goals were discussed, students were prompted to think about their specific fidget needs and how they might differ. Some students expressed they wanted a soft material, like playdough. Others expressed an interest in creating a fidget that rotates because they enjoyed the feeling of spinning something in their hands. One boy also brainstormed how he might design a fidget for his feet. All students were given an engineering design notebook to begin sketching their initial ideas. Figures 1 and 2 show early fidget sketches created by students. Students were encouraged (but not required) to continue working on their design ideas in their engineering notebook until the next group design session.
An early idea for a foot fidget, connected to the legs of a chair, created by a sixth-grade boy.
Finally, students briefly consulted a staff member from MOXI via video chat. Students received a tour of the Innovation Workshop, a maker space, and were shown available tools, including various 3-D-printers, a laser cutter, a hammer, and saws. They were also given an overview of how to use those tools to fabricate their designs. The video tour greatly heightened the students’ excitement about the project, as many of the tools introduced were new to them.
Design sessions 2 and 3: From 2-D to 3-D with TinkerCAD (~75 minutes)
Students worked on turning their 2-D sketches into 3-D designs on TinkerCAD, a free and publicly accessible novice-friendly 3-D design website. Because TinkerCAD requires a minimum age of 13 to create an account, the teacher created a class account and shared the login information with students after obtaining written parental consent. This allowed students to all login without complication and the teacher to monitor their designs over time. All students used school laptops to access TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD saves works automatically in case a student forgets and, allows users to export designs in a variety of file types to easily 3-D print or laser cut.
TinkerCAD features a variety of tutorials and resources on its website for novices. While the teacher was initially uncertain about his students’ ability to use the website, he was pleasantly surprised. The students ignored the tutorials and resources, opting instead to immediately begin designing by dragging shapes into the design area, adjusting their sizes, and rotating the viewing platform. Essentially, the students taught themselves how to use TinkerCAD through trial and error. One sixth-grade boy noted that TinkerCAD felt like playing a video game in first-person mode, where the viewing stage must be continuously adjusted. Most students requested a computer mouse to make dragging and dropping shapes easier than using the laptop’s trackpad. Students also collaborated to share tips and tricks they learned while designing. Figure 3 shows a 3-D design created by a student in TinkerCAD.
While most students opted to create designs that would eventually be 3-D printed, one seventh-grade girl knew she wanted a scented stress ball. Instead of designing on TinkerCAD, she spent time exploring various scented oils the teacher provided and successfully designed a lavender-scented stress ball made from playdough and a balloon (see Figure 4). This is noteworthy because it demonstrates that students can still create a fidget without access to expensive fabrication tools like 3-D printers. It should also be noted that this design took substantially less time than others, resulting in this student finishing her work early and observing others as they used TinkerCAD. This created a low-stakes environment for her to build the confidence necessary to try TinkerCAD herself. Eventually, this student decided she, too, wanted to design and 3-D print a fidget. She was able to complete the design in time to receive her final 3-D printed fidget along with her classmates.
A lavender-scented fidget designed by a seventh-grade girl using playdough, blue balloons, and lavender oil.
The learning environment for all design sessions was flexible to ensure that students with ADHD could succeed in the project. Students could sit or stand where they preferred, work alone or in groups, take breaks when needed, and use any accommodation included in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For example, many students were provided with a computer mouse to use alongside their laptop, a small accommodation that was included in many of their IEPs. However, the individual nature of maker projects meant that no major modifications were necessary to ensure students could participate in the engineering project.
Design session 4: Precision in measurement (45 minutes)
After the third design session, the teacher noted that students needed additional support to ensure their designs were precisely measured. As such, the next session focused on precision in measurement. Students were allowed to choose between inches and centimeters as their units of measurement. From there, each student had to identify specific size constraints for the fidget. TinkerCAD has a variety of tools to support precision. An object’s specific dimensions are displayed when it is selected on the screen, and TinkerCAD allows users to set the design area to specific dimensions. Once students identified their desired fidget dimensions, the teacher demonstrated how to change the grid size and prompted the students to choose a grid size closer to their desired dimensions (see Figure 5). If students were designing fidgets that required the use of a center bearing, they were prompted to measure bearings ahead of time and take these measurements into account for their designs. Students were instructed to have finished their first design draft by the end of this session. These designs were then sent to MOXI’s Innovation Workshop to be 3-D printed.
A seventh-grade girl’s fidget design created in TinkerCAD using the edited grid function. Note the grid is smaller than typically shown in TinkerCAD to make designing easier.
Design session 5: Field trip to MOXI (120 minutes)
The next design session occurred on a field trip to MOXI. Students spent the first 30 minutes working with museum staff to refine their fidget designs in the Innovation Workshop. Each student received the first printed version of their fidget. At this point, only one student had a functional design (see Figure 6). The remaining four students received a fidget that printed incorrectly, mostly due to lack of precision in measurement. See Figure 7 for an example of a fidget that did not print as the student expected.
A final fidget spinner created by a seventh-grade boy. This fidget was the only design to print correctly at MOXI.
An example of a fidget that printed incorrectly. The center hole was too small to fit a bearing, and some of the edges were not properly attached to the fidget before printing.
In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to have students create physical models or prototypes of their fidget design before accessing TinkerCAD. For example, students might use cardboard, tape, and glue to create their first design. Working with concrete materials rather than a 3-D version might have allowed students to better visualize the dimensions of their fidget and thus measure more precisely. We recommend this step to any practitioner interested in replicating this project with their students.
Students then worked with trained museum staff to refine their designs in the Innovation Workshop. This was motivating for several reasons. First, students were able to see the fabrication tools in person. Second, students received a concrete print of their first fidget, providing valuable feedback for their redesign. Finally, students had the expertise of several adults assisting them at the museum, allowing for a more authentic and rigorous project. Museum staff was trained to safely engage students in using fabrication tools, ensuring no harm would come to participating students. After students worked with museum staff on their designs, they were free to explore the rest of their museum with other classmates from their school.
Design sessions 6 and 7: Redesigning (~75 minutes)
After the field trip to MOXI, the remaining design sessions occurred at the school site. Students spent another two sessions working to refine the first printed design they received at MOXI. Students worked closely during these sessions, sitting together on their laptops and frequently asking each other questions. At the end of the final session, all students had a design they felt confident printing. These designs were sent to MOXI, where they were printed by museum staff to be delivered to the students. Each student was then interviewed about their design process and final printed objects (Hansen et al. 2017). Students reported enjoying the learning experience and being motivated by the use of fabrication tools and the opportunity to visit MOXI. However, they also reported struggling to initially use TinkerCAD. Further, students described how they used their created fidget in class: Similar to other research (e.g., Voytecki 2005), these students recognized that fidgets were most helpful during listening tasks, such as lectures, and less helpful during writing and hands-on activities.
One student showed a particularly exceptional ability to optimize her design over time. See Figure 8 for the evolution of her fidget. Initially, she wanted to customize a fidget spinner to include shapes such as hearts and stars. When she received her first print, however, she realized the points of her stars were too sharp, making it difficult to spin. This prompted her to redesign, changing the stars to flowers. She then encountered another problem: TinkerCAD did not have preformulated flower shapes to drag and drop into the design stage. Instead, the student made a flower by using small hearts to give the appearance of flower petals. This is an important component of engineering design – optimizing the design over time to better meet the project constraints and criteria.
The evolution of one student’s fidget over time, from her initial 2-D sketch on paper to the final printed version.
This project demonstrates the creative potential of youth who are sometimes left out of “enrichment” activities beyond the required curriculum, such as engineering projects. All five students successfully fabricated a personalized fidget by following the engineering design process described in the NGSS. Despite the small number of students involved in the project, this work demonstrates that it is possible to engage students with special needs, in this case ADHD, in meaningful design challenges both in-school and out-of-school. The process also highlights, however, resources outside of the classroom are often necessary to add authenticity and rigor to projects. Without access to MOXI’s Innovation Workshop and staff, students would not have had the necessary expertise and tools to create more complex designs. This work serves as a model of collaboration when designing projects to ensure that inclusive maker education can reach all students, at school and beyond.
While this was the first iteration of this fidget project, there are plans to continue this collaboration. Because this project occurred near the end of the school year, researchers were unable to collect significant data on the students’ use of fidgets and impact on attention in class. Future directions include repeating this learning experience earlier in the school year to allow for additional data collection and evaluation. Further, there are plans to extend the project to include students with other learning disabilities besides ADHD, possibly resulting in more diverse engineering problems that students can use technology to solve.
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