Annie Murphy Paul has a short piece on her blog about “The Joy of Making Things,” and it argues for a more hands-on, experimental approach to learning than one typically finds in school:
Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality.
I haven’t read the study being referenced here, but it sounds like the intervention employed a kind of inquiry-based, learning-through-design approach. I would add that one possible advantage to this method, aside from the question of which way helps students “learn the material better,” is the affective dimension: How do students feel about the subject? What attitudes toward water resource management (or science more generally) were formed as a result?
Some of my own work (such as this) suggests that approaching a subject from an attitude of play and experimentation can profoundly affect later perceptions of (and practices within) that subject. Unfortunately, school isn’t typically set up to allow students much room to experiment, especially in this age of increasingly high-stakes standardized testing.