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Cultivating Environmental Sustainability Within Classroom Makerspaces

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Listen and learn : Research paper
Roundtable presentation

Research papers are a pairing of two 20 minute presentations followed by a 5 minute Q & A.
This is presentation 1 of 2, scroll down to see more details.

Other presentations in this group:

Alicia Accettura  
Dr. Paula MacDowell  

Despite growing global problems of unsustainable consumption and environmental degradation, which threaten the health of the planet and our survival, many students and teachers are not taking action for sustainable living. Explore how maker-centered learning environments can strengthen a classroom’s contribution and commitment to sustainable development goals.

Audience: Library media specialists, Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Android, iOS, Windows
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Topic: Maker activities & programs
Grade level: PK-12
Subject area: Preservice teacher education, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards: For Education Leaders:
Empowering Leader
  • Inspire a culture of innovation and collaboration that allows the time and space to explore and experiment with digital tools.
For Educators:
  • Establish a learning culture that promotes curiosity and critical examination of online resources and fosters digital literacy and media fluency.
For Students:
Knowledge Constructor
  • Students curate information from digital resources using a variety of tools and methods to create collections of artifacts that demonstrate meaningful connections or conclusions.

Proposal summary


In Stephen Petrina’s groundbreaking analysis on the political ecology of design and technology education, he argues that conventional design methods, problem-solving models, and technocentric teaching practices are not sustainable and “simply amount to bad pedagogy” (2000, p. 207). Petrina presents a revised model that attends to culture, life cycles, and critical design processes to support sustainable design practices and good pedagogy for confronting humanity's growing cultural and environmental challenges. Most significantly, he puts waste at the center of the model. Petrina’s research foreshadowed the exponential rise of the global maker movement, the increased scholarly interest in maker culture, and the resulting need for methodological advancements in maker education. Unequivocally, making in the classroom and educational makerspaces are amongst the most engaging and leading-edge learning environments for today’s children and youth, driven by the intensifying demand for transversal skills and competencies that have practical value in our increasingly technological world (Care & Luo, 2016; Koole et al., 2017; Martin, 2015; Prendeville et al., 2017). The unsustainable design practices and models that Petrina critiques, however, are still unsettling issues in the field of maker education. While research by Adrian Smith and Ann Light (2017) documents some of the impactful and inspiring projects that are taking place around maker citizenship (e.g., reduce, reuse, and recycle), sustainable making is not inherent to all makerspaces. A lack of emphasis on cultivating sustainable practices inhibits the benefits and potential of maker-centered learning.


I will examine three interrelated and essential questions that not enough researchers are investigating, to thereby discern what students learn about sustainability through maker experiences. The findings draw from relevant educational literature, my personal experience as a design and technology teacher, and empirical data from the Tech for Change Makeathon (MacDowell, Ralph, & Ng, 2017). The questions I will address:
• What is sustainable maker pedagogy?
• How do teachers influence sustainable practices in makerspaces?
• How can we improve the impact and effectiveness of youth engagement on sustainability issues through digital making techniques?
Beginning with an exploration of waste management in design methods and processes, I argue that more accountability will improve the responsible use of resources in maker education settings. Next, I analyze how “greening making” can help teachers cultivate more sustainable practices and protocols in makerspaces. Then, I present a case study to show how we can improve the impact and effectiveness of youth engagement on sustainability issues through digital making techniques. Building on the scholarly work of Elshof (2009), Prendeville et al. (2017), and Smith and Light (2017), I highlight five principles to guide sustainable design practices within diverse makerspace learning contexts: 1) teach the importance of sustainable thinking throughout the design process, 2) empower students to be sustainability problem finders and problem solvers, 3) reinforce the power of creativity for making sustainable change in our world, 4) students are changemakers, and 5) teachers are changemakers. Overall, the objective is to demonstrate how making involves ethical and pedagogical considerations that must be addressed; transformative opportunities for maker-centered learning to catalyze pro-social and environmental change will be explored.


Here are a few examples of the case study findings (abbreviate due to proposal length restrictions). Tech for Change maker Char analyzes her design strategy at the Makeathon, “The way that we addressed an environmental issue in the form of a game. I think it is a clever kind of irony to take a negative issue and represent it in a positive and fun way. I think that approach has value, because if you like something, subsequently you start to care about it. If people like our app, they will be more thoughtful about what they throw away.” Likewise, Yifei reported, “We felt that an app that combines being environmentally conscious with having fun would be the perfect way to get people active and help the environment.” Gwen decided that she is interested in making more apps, “I can make apps to further connect my friends and I at school and solve problems people in the school community might have.” Collectively, the participants identified what digital making experiences offer for their growth and development: challenging work where they can explore problems and find opportunities, seeing the real-world outcomes of their efforts, collaborating with friends on meaningful projects, questioning the ways they use and consume technologies, and gaining the confidence and resourcefulness to build and shape their worlds through sustainable making.

Unequivocally, making in the classroom and educational makerspaces are amongst the most engaging and leading-edge learning environments for today’s children and youth, driven by the intensifying demand for transversal skills that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing technological world. Sustainable education is happening in makerspaces that facilitate life cycle thinking and mindsets around reduction in production and consumption. Here are five interconnected principles for educators working on design challenges with students:

1. Teach the importance of sustainable thinking throughout the design process. With a sustainable maker mindset, learners of any age, in diverse educational contexts, can contribute to the important task of taking care of ourselves, each other, and the planet. Teach for openings; there are many ways to solve design challenges. Teach appreciation for different points of view; no one person holds the answer for creating a more inclusive and sustainable world. Sustainable maker education achieves its purpose by deepening understanding from interdisciplinary perspectives, with careful attention that our design practices are governed by our being for the ecological world. Be mindful to disrupt the unthinking consumption of materials, energy, and artifacts, such as frivolous plastic 3D printed things that get discarded just as quickly as they are made. During all stages of the design process, scaffolding the development of a sustainable thinking disposition is key for motivating learners to take action for sustainability. Use renewable resources whenever possible and treat waste as a design failure.

2. Empower students to be sustainability problem finders and problem solvers. Teaching sustainability within makerspaces involves the dual process of both finding and solving problems. Make space for students to understand and articulate the sustainability issues that they care about; solutions are already percolating in their imaginations and optimistic spirits. There is no need to trivialize wicked design problems, rather cultivate a classroom community where big ideas can thrive. Consider asking students questions like: Where did the problem begin? Why does this issue still matter? Who and what are affected? What is being done? What are the consequences of inaction? When students embrace complexity and are supported to take the lead in their learning, then they will be challenged to change their world through making. The goal is to inspire learners to think for themselves, ask critical questions, and take responsible actions that improve human lives and protect the environment.

3. Reinforce the power of creativity for making sustainable change in our world. Learners of all ages benefit from meaningful opportunities to be creators, coders, builders, inventors, and makers of our world. This involves an understanding of how our world is designed and that it is capable of being redesigned— not only the material world but also its knowledge, systems, processes, values, narratives, and “the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together” (Solnit, 2013, p. 33). Creativity in makerspace learning environments is not about a specific tool or technique. It is about the freedom that we all have to contribute and create something new; a game, an image, or a unique point of view. Creativity matters because the made dimensions of the world we live in is not inevitable but shaped in a real and tangible way by humanity’s capacity to wonder and generate new possibilities, our ability to envision the world differently, and our creative confidence to take action toward that vision. Building a sustainable future requires creative solutions from people of all cultures, genders, and ages, especially the voices underrepresented or discouraged.

4. Students are changemakers. Maker classrooms ought to come alive with the energy of empathetic learners who are engaged in making a difference through design thinking processes, protocols, and projects. Teachers need to challenge, “How do we make things better?” and then believe their students’ actions and continued efforts can make innovation happen. Teachers must be intentional in facilitating opportunities for makers to become changemakers, proactive contributors, and responsible risk-takers, who learn from failures and persevere to achieve success, rather than being indifferent consumers or passive citizens. Changemakers need to “engage and assume active roles, both locally and globally, to face and to resolve global challenges” with ideas and actions that lead towards ecological and social justice (UNESCO, n.d.). Maker-centered learning environments should support learners in practicing and promoting green design principles as they are working on personally or socially meaningful projects. Mobilizing child and youth changemakers is significant for empowering the next generation to connect their design skills with their communities and take collective action to build and sustain better futures for all people and the planet.

5. Teachers are changemakers. Teaching done well is complex intellectual work within making and makerspace learning contexts. “Teachers change kids’ brains,” according to neuroscientist Martha Burns (2019). As changemakers and role models, teachers should be mindful of their influence on students’ emotional and cognitive development, and their part in building character and making identities. Through the careful consideration of the curriculum, they can bring in dialogues, openness, and a spirit of inquiry to confront monologues, conformity, and rigidity. They can affirm and reaffirm students’ belief in environmental justice, the global SDGs, and respect for human rights; without these, we cannot welcome peace, prosperity, and inclusion for all. They can focus on relationships and foster understanding of how we are connected to friends, family, community, and the natural world. Teachers can influence their students to develop maker mindsets and be intentional about building sustainable futures. There are all sorts of ways to do this, but no matter what, teachers are a guiding symbol of the subject material they teach in their students’ minds.


What is most important for students to learn in educational makerspaces? Who is accountable for the responsible use of resources and environmental integrity? To what degree are teachers complicit in overconsumption and unsustainable practices? How might students expand their commitment to sustainable developments through maker-centered learning? These essential questions and matters of concern need to be addressed in the future development of more intentional and transformative makerspace learning environments. For example, findings from the case study show how we can improve the reach and efficacy of youth engagement on sustainability issues through digital making techniques like designing educational apps for pro-social and environmental change.

Sustainable practices are not well-integrated into all makerspaces, which can intensify the consumption of non-recyclable materials, one-use activity kits, and cookie-cutter projects that involve simple reproduction rather than problem-solving skills. As the field matures, maker education must not be indifferent to or disconnected from the undesirable consequences of excessive or careless consumption. The educative task is to develop making and makerspace learning environments in which students gain a deep understanding of themselves as designers, world builders, and responsible citizens. With these skills and knowledge, child and youth changemakers can achieve the confidence, agency, ingenuity, motivation, and resourcefulness to transform the made dimensions of their worlds. Then, they can influence others by advocating for sustainable societies and taking action to address the complex environmental issues that affect their lives and learning circumstances. We can’t afford to wait, as Elshof (2009, p. 134) warns, “The sustainability challenge is emerging as the global challenge facing young people because without significant advances on this front, other important human development agendas like security, health and well-being will be impossible to meet.”


Bullock, S., & Sator, A. (2015). Maker pedagogy and science teacher education. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 13(1), 61–87.
Burns, M. (2019, February 19). I’m a Neuroscientist. Here’s how teachers change kids’ brains. EdSurge. Retrieved from
Care, E. & Luo, R. (2016). Assessment of transversal competencies: Policy and practice in the Asia-Pacific region. Bangkok, Thailand: UNESCO.
Clapp, E., Ross, J., Ryan, J., & Tishman, S. (2017). Maker-centered learning: Empowering young people to shape their worlds. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Elshof, L. (2009). Toward sustainable practices in technology education. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 19(2), 133–147.
IDEO. (2013). Design thinking for educators toolkit (2nd edition). Retrieved from
MacDowell, P., Ralph, R., & Ng. D. (2017). App making for pro-social and environmental change at an equity-oriented Makeathon. In Proceedings of FabLearn17, 8 pages.
Martin, L. (2015). The promise of the maker movement for education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 5(1), 30–39.
Petrina, S. (2000). The political ecology of design and technology education: An inquiry into methods. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 10(3), 207–237.
Prendeville, S., Hartung, G., Brass, C, Purvis, E., & Hall, A. (2017). Circular makerspaces: The founder’s view. International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, 10(4), 272–288.
Smith, A. & Light, A. (2017). How to cultivate sustainable development in makerspaces. Liinc em revista, 13(1), 162–174.
Solnit, R. (2013). The faraway nearby. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
UNESCO. (n.d.). What is education for sustainable development? Retrieved from
United Nations. (n.d.). About the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from

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Alicia Accettura, School District 43
Graduate student

Dr. Paula MacDowell, University of Saskatchewan

Paula MacDowell is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology and Design at the University of Saskatchewan. She is a researcher and developer of tools, communities, and methods that support innovation in addressing humanity’s challenges and opportunities, to achieve sustainable change with and for our communities. Paula studies the design of constructionist learning environments and works closely with teachers to integrate media and technology in the classroom for meaningful learning.

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