Exploring Maker Portfolios

Maker Portfolios

For engineering programs, the ongoing challenges of identifying best-fit candidates and filling seats has been made even tougher than ever this year. Pandemic-driven declines in international enrollment and necessary concessions toward a test-optional environment have meant that admissions and enrollment teams have fewer options and fewer insights to work with.

Plenty of experts talk about the value of holistic review in this setting. When we are struggling to collect “more/better,” the notion of throwing our net wider by utilizing additional resources makes good sense. 

As a rule, but especially in challenging times, it also makes sense to look to the experts and the choices they are making.

Even prior to the pandemic, a number of leading engineering programmade the decision to incorporate Maker Portfolios into their admissions review. It now seems likely that this strategic shift is on its way to creating a new paradigm for them, given that it provides numerous clear benefits both for institutions and for their applicants. 

For programs that are considering adding Maker Portfolios, we’ve provided food for thought curated from various sources on the topic with links to the full stories for a deeper dive. We’ve also included some actual examples of successful Maker Portfolios to show their breadth and diversity.

Takeaway #1: Maker Portfolios are not a new concept.

They have deep roots as a unique and important form of documentation of student learning that goes back to at least the 1980s.

The Evolution of Portfolios

Portfolios originated as a showcase of work by artists, models and photographers as “tangible evidence of accomplishments and skills that must be updated as a person changes and grows” (Tierney et al 1991). As such, portfolios have been more synonymous with evidence of competency and creativity in ways that test scores have failed. Outside of art and design schools, learning portfolios experienced an increase in popularity beginning in the 1980’s and 1990’s, perhaps as a response to increasing standardized testing in schools. This trend shows up in a surge of articles and academic papers done on the use of learning portfolios in the 1990’s. In a 1997 Edutopia article, Pittsburg teacher Kathy Howard notes the democratic role of using learning portfolios in a writing classroom. “There is a shift in the power base from teacher to students,” says Howard. “Students start looking at models of good writing and setting their own criteria and standards for good work.” In the 2000’s, as more electronic portfolio companies have come into existenceportfolios are playing a greater role in higher education, including undergraduate and postgraduate medical education (Senger 2012). 

Even more recently, and seemingly in time with the Maker Movement overall, a push for engineers to have portfolios has also emerged. Engineering students with portfolios “are able to communicate about their past experiences more clearly, regardless of whether the actual portfolio is needed in a given application process. Also, once they’ve created their engineering portfolio they are able to respond to unexpected opportunities of displaying their work,” states Justin Lai, Invention Education Associate with the Lemelson-MIT program and prior researcher for MIT’s Ideation Lab. 

Maker Portfolios: Authentic Assessment that Tells a Story, by Christa Flores,  Fablearn Fellows of Stanford

Takeaway #2: Maker Portfolio assessment provides deeper insights and ultimately the ability to differentiate one’s program over the competition. 

In 2013 MIT introduced a different option for admissions. They called it (and are calling it) The Maker Portfolio. “In many respects, the Maker Portfolio has been a resounding success. Over the last two years, more than 2000 students have used it to show us the things they make, from surfboards to solar cells, code to cosplay, prosthetics to particle accelerators. We believe the Maker Portfolio has improved our assessment of these applicants and offers us a competitive advantage over our peers who have not developed the processes to identify and evaluate this kind of talent.” – Chris Peterson, Hal Abelson 

University Admissions and the Maker Program by Tony Deprato, The International Educator

Takeaway #3: Maker Portfolios make review of materials more accessible for admissions staff who do not possess direct engineering skills.

This enables applicants to share their work in a more compelling way and reviewers with admissions expertise to weigh in more strategically on admissions considerations like best fit.

Did you come up with a solution to a problem you encountered? Were you enthralled by an engineering elective at school? Does working with your hands genuinely just make you happy? Personal projects sometimes make more compelling maker portfolios because we get to know you better as an engineer and person! How your project helps others is also important… 

Those evaluating the technical side of your application will be experienced in engineering but there will also be admissions officers less science-y like myself checking out your work. Think about it this way…explain your work as if you are explaining it to one of your friends who might be more of a history buff than a science whiz.

“What Makes a Good Maker Portfolio” by Shanice Kok, Admissions Counselor, Tufts University Undergraduate Admissions website

Takeaway #4: Top engineering schools like MIT are stressing the value of soft skills in applicant assessment. 

The Maker Portfolio is an opportunity for students to showcase their projects that require creative insight, technical skill, and a hands-on approach to learning by doing. Members of the MIT Engineering Advisory Board review all Maker portfolios. If you would like your technically creative work to be reviewed by academic and instructional staff, then it might be a good fit for the Maker Portfolio. 

For your Maker Portfolio, you may submit images, video totaling no more than 120 seconds, and up to one PDF of technical documentation and/or specifications via SlideRoom. You may document one project or many, and your work may have been done inside, or outside, of school, and alone or with a team; just make sure you explain it to us! 

MIT Admissions site 

The hands-on learning that students participate in is central to the MIT experience,” said Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at MIT. “It was fairly clear to us some time ago that our application didn’t really allow our admissions officers to evaluate students in that context. We want to allow students to show us their talents. The traditional college application isn’t designed to do that. We recognized that there’s a whole set of students doing projects or project-based work who didn’t have a platform to demonstrate what they’d done.

Reimagining College Access with SlideRoom Portfolios

Takeaway #5: Fueled by forces that include the Maker Movement, our traditional educational model is changing to a lifetime learning model.

Students will increasingly seek this model, and educational institutions that cater to this demand will be the most successful.

In Education, practice trumps theory. The Maker Movement, in conjunction with other pressures, will have a disruptive impact on traditional educational institutions as it shifts the focus of learning from theory to practice and sets the stage for more distributed and sustained active learning where the individual seeks out and crafts educational experiences, formal and informal, tailored to her unique needs. Lifetime learning will be the main event rather than a secondary creative or enrichment activity, and collaboration, mentoring and reverse mentoring will be key components. Many other institutions will play a significant role in promoting and supporting learning to equip the workforce with the tools, access and community to continually develop new skills and capabilities. Successful educational institutions will find ways to support lifetime learning by providing infrastructure that will help these learning ecosystems grow or positioning themselves as talent development agents that will work with individuals throughout their lifetime to craft a learning path that will help them to achieve more of their potential.” 

“Impact of the Maker Movement” – Developed by Deloitte Center for the Edge and Maker Media from the Maker Impact Summit Dec. 2013

Now, eight years after MIT led the charge as the first to add Maker Portfolios to its admissions formula, engineering program applicants are enthusiastically creating and sharing their own signature takes as part of their applications. And they’re keen on sharing them with the public after they’ve posted them for their schools of choice. 

It’s interesting to observe the numerous soft skills — with many of them having nothing to do with scientific acumen — that each student plainly exhibits while sharing their individual learning journeys with STEM experimentation. How many of those other skills would have been conveyed in a traditional college application? 

Here are some inspiring and entertaining examples. 

Alisa Hathaway 

Aaron Becker

Shayna Ahteck 

Chase Reid

Joseph Takach

John Stanwick 



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