UTeach program emphasizes creative problem solving in the classroom

Nathan Han

Mathematics senior Connor Dillon said he always loved making things as a kid, but when he went to college, his passion faded with the stresses of life and school.

Dillon said that’s why UTeach Maker was a perfect fit for him. The program is a micro-credentialing program in which UTeach students create things with 3D printers, woodworking tools and more.

“This program just helped me get back to what I love,” Dillon said. “So I hope I can bring my passion to the classroom and influence students.”

Shelly Rodriguez, director of UTeach Maker, started the program in fall 2016. She said she started with five hand-picked students and grew the program to 25 students this fall. 

The program centers around the idea of “Making,” or creative problem solving through hands-on crafts. Each student has a personal mentor, works in specialized internships and creates a final showcase that serves as a portfolio of their work.

“At its heart, ‘Making’ is empowerment,” Rodriguez said. “It sits at this crossroad between (science, technology, engineering and math) but also arts and crafts and design-thinking that brings that personal self-expression.”

Oren Connell, a UTeach Maker mentor, is also a teacher and manages the maker space at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin. 

“Maker education makes learning about more than just taking tests,” Connell said. “It helps students learn how to struggle and take risks.”

Rodriguez credits the Austin maker community with helping and supporting the program. However, she said the community has lacked participant diversity.

“It’s getting much better, but in the past, the community had been dominated by males,” Rodriguez said. 

One of the goals of UTeach, Rodriguez said, is broadening diverse participation in STEM. 

Kristiane Smith, a biology senior in the program, said UTeach Maker and the Austin maker community has made her feel welcome.

“There’s a maker space in Austin called the CoLab that helps LGBT people and minorities interested in making,” Smith said. “As an African American myself, I just found the environment super welcoming and somewhere that I felt encouraged to create.”

Rodriguez said experiences like these are encouraging her to bring the UTeach Maker program to colleges across the nation.

“We’re working really hard to make this something that becomes part of a nationwide initiative,” Rodriguez said. “We’re writing a grant with the University of Houston and West Virginia University to try and bring UTeach Maker to their campuses.”