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5 steps for creating a custom makerspace

Start your makerspace on the right foot with these steps

makerspace-customA couple of years ago, my son won an award in preschool for being “Eager to Learn.” I remember having such mixed emotions on the day he won the award. Of course I was beyond proud of him, but I also could not help but wonder if his schooling would allow him to carry and sustain that innate zeal for learning with him as he came to face the rigors of the Common Core and standardized testing.

It was about this time that I began my job as media specialist at New Milford High School, and my own worries about my son, combined with New Milford’s desire to reinvigorate their school library, made me more passionate than ever about forging schools that work for kids.

I believe that every child has the right to invent, tinker, create, innovate, make, and do. The maker movement has created opportunities for all educators to give students authentic learning opportunities that go beyond the typical classroom experiences and to rethink traditional learning environments to include those that nurture the kinds of creativity and innovation that will benefit our students both in school and beyond. We know children learn by exploring and playing and doing and making and that these kinds of things lead to deeper engagement. The maker movement embodies opportunities for experimentation and innovation to occur across all grade levels and all content areas.

Physical makerspaces have allowed us the opportunity to pull some of this excitement of the maker movement into our schools. Makerspaces can help set the stage for meaningful student learning, as well as help cultivate a culture of innovation within a school. My makerspace inspires innovation, passion, and personal motivation and interests, and has encouraged students to pursue STEM subjects and careers.

Next page: The 5 steps revealed

When schools talk about the maker movement and creating makerspaces, they often focus on purchasing the tools and materials first. While a physical room stocked with tools is an important part of the process, even more significant is the process used to plan your space. Paying close attention to how you design and formulate your space within the very specific context of your own school and its community will ensure that the resulting space is authentic and meaningful to the whole school community.

The following approach to planning will help ensure that your makerspace is a vibrant and thriving one.

Step One: Understand your learners.

Start with the learners! Find out what they want to do. In developing my makerspace, I spent a lot of time just talking to my students in order to get a strong understanding of their needs, wants, and interests. Take time to find out what they are doing in their classes, at home, or in afterschool and weekend activities.

Step Two: Assess existing curricula, programs, offerings within your school community.

Makerspaces can be a great opportunity both to fill in gaps in what your school offers and to democratize concepts that are too often taught to only select students within school. The aim is to render these concepts accessible to all students, regardless of their proficiency level, social status, or even levels of language development. As an example, my makerspace has extricated a number of mostly STEM-related themes from their usual classroom focus—subjects that only a small segment of our student population would normally experience (such as robotics), and at the same time it has brought in concepts that are new to the school and new to our students (such as computer coding).

Step Three: Consider global trends and best practices.

Through Twitter (via the #tlchat hashtag and others), I feel like I do have a finger on the pulse of education throughout the world. I am forever paying attention to global technology trends that are shaping our world and look at our makerspace as an opportunity to expose our students to some of those things.

Step Four: Develop themes.

While makerspaces are most often associated with STEM-related concepts and technology-based activities, they don’t have to be. The key is to develop authentic themes, across the curriculum that will have purpose and value for your learners. Some of the themes for my makerspace include:

  • Robotics
  • Engineering inventions
  • Brainwave technologies
  • 3D printing and design
  • Coding
  • Molecular gastronomy
  • Wearable technology
  • Electricity/electronics

Step Five: Order equipment and materials.

Rather than ordering a makerspace-in-a-box type of kit, it is best to order equipment and materials that authentically reflect the themes you have developed for your space. Some of the materials I have ordered include:

  • Legos: Architectural and simple machines
  • Raspberry Pi
  • 3D Makerbot printer and filament
  • Makey Makey kits
  • littleBits
  • Arduino boards
  • Molecular gastronomy kits
  • Robot kits
  • Wearable technology kits

Makerspaces should be seen as a metaphor for unique learning environments that encourage tinkering, play, and open-ended exploration for all. Purposeful planning will allow your makerspace to insinuate itself into the mindset of students, educators, and families within your school.

Taking the overall approach outlined here will ensure that your makerspace is a well-designed learning environment, one that it will serve your students and your wider school community tremendously, ensuring opportunities for growth and success for the future.

Laura Fleming is a media specialist at New Milford High School in New Jersey. This article was adapted from her new book “Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School.

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