Nov 11, 2016

Paper Clips and Duct Tape: Getting started with the maker movement

Unless you have spent the last several years meditating on a mountaintop, you have undoubtedly heard of makerspaces. From mobile carts to innovation labs to entire faires, the maker movement is being touted as the newest “it” child of educational technology. But what is it really and why is it useful? And if you’re already sold, how can you get the benefits of one of these spaces in your school without a high budget?

What is in a Makerspace?

A makerspace (aka fablab, innovation lab, hackspace, iLab, and more) is a space set up for students to design, invent, and build while learning. These spaces are filled with tools to facilitate engineering and design projects from the old-school (laser cutters and wood saws) to the cutting-edge (3D printers and Makey Makeys.) In schools there can be a lot of variation in what such a space entails. These can include mobile carts stocked with balsa wood, wood etchers, glue guns, legos, and markers that teachers can wheel from room to room. On the other end of the scale, they can be fully development engineering labs with computers and large pieces of equipment. The basic idea, however, is always the same - to facilitate learning through making physical objects.

Why make?

Makerspaces have definitely caught on in the last few years, but as with any new trend in education, we should think about why they are implemented, and analyze whether they successfully teach our students. So why, you ask, are makerspaces meaningful? Why invest time, money, and training in their establishment? There are a few reasons that particularly stand out.

  1. Teaching students to fail safely. Creative projects and building are based on iteration and trial and error. The first try is never the final product and success means trying different methods until you find one that works. This gives students the opportunity to get comfortable with failing at first and persevering through challenges. A makerspace provides a chance for a student to come up against a challenge, experiment with a way to get around it and work hard to succeed. In an otherwise highly structured day in which we expect students to sit still, perform, and be precise, the makerspace is like a sandbox that allows students to experiment, to mess up, and to learn from the experience.

  2. Fostering creativity. Whether it is designing a toy set and 3D printing itbuilding a Lego robot, or sewing a doll that lights up and makes noise, makerspaces give students a much needed chance to express themselves while solving real problems. They provide a way of getting at creativity that draws on pieces from science, engineering, technology, and art resulting in a cross-disciplinary experience. They are about making STEAM accessible to any student, not only those who are already comfortable with advanced technology or those highly skilled in the arts.

  3. Solving real problems. A lot of the concepts students learn in school are ones that will help them in the future. We try to help them make connections to real life events and problems in order to make their learning meaningful. Makerspaces are a natural environment for challenge and project-based learning. Students can work to solve problems that affect their lives and create products they can use. The fruits of their labor are tangible and usable, infusing them with meaning.

How can I get started with the maker movement in a low-risk way?

How do I get started? Don’t you need thousands of dollars in your budget and plenty of space for a lab? Not necessarily! There are many opportunities to get started with maker projects that require a simple and inexpensive investment.

One low maintenance and low investment option is the RAFT Makerspace In-A-Box. For $29.99 teachers can get a box chock full of materials for at least 30 students to complete a maker unit. The kit includes things like foam, fabric, stir sticks, clear tubing, magnets, adhesive, and much more. These are aimed at K-8 students and can be used with RAFT’s hands-on STEAM learning curriculum.

Another option is putting a kit in a mobile cart together yourself, perhaps as a group of teachers working across disciplines. An IKEA cart and a few colorful boxes can easily keep your materials organized. All the basics you need to get started like plastic, fabric glues, pipe cleaners, beads, Legos, blocks, shrink wrap, Makey Makeys and more can be bought on Amazon and delivered right to your school. Finally, a few books like A Kid’s Guide to Awesome Duct Tape ProjectsTinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff, the Smithsonian Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects, and Maker Projects for Kids Who Love Fashion can get your students started with project ideas at all levels.

If your school has the funds for a larger investment to get started, more robust mobile carts can be purchased from a number of online maker outlets. The Copernicus STEM100 is one option that sells online for about $530. These carts come with all the organizational and set up tools, but materials have to be purchased separately. For ideas on stocking your cart, you can use the online Makerspace Playbook School Edition.

Tatyana Dvorkin is Director, DigitalJLearning at The Jewish Education Project.

Makerspace photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); changes were made.

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