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12 lessons from a year in a makerspace


More than a passing trend, the makerspace holds tons of potential for teachers and students

When Connecticut’s New Canaan High School said goodbye to students in the summer of 2015, it said hello to an ambitious new project: boxing up 7,000 books to make room for a brand-new makerspace to encourage students’ creative thinking, problem-solving and self-directed learning.

When the school’s new principal asked what library media specialists were doing with all the library’s books, and inquired about a makerspace, head librarian Michelle Luhtala knew she had a chance to do something unique with the library’s learning environment.

“Kids just come in and make what they want,” Luhtala said. “That’s the thing that is so much fun.”

As the year progressed, so too did the makerspace’s purpose.

Teachers scheduled time for their classes to learn and create in the makerspace. For instance, an English teacher asked students to create a visual representation of a character in the novel students just finished reading.

The makerspace also serves as a location for professional development. “The teachers really gravitate toward this space as much as the kids do,” Luhtala said. “We used the tables for weeks of PLCs.”

Next page: 12 things to remember when creating a makerspace

During an edWeb webinar, Luhtala chronicled the makerspace’s evolution in New Canaan High School and discussed what educators learned, how to make curricular connections, and how to meet challenges.

1. Involve students in the makerspace from the very start. “We left the tables bare and we waited for the kids to talk about it,” Luhtala said. As the year progressed, students started asking for what they wanted and Luhtala kept a running list of requests.
2. Consider a mini-makerspace. “That’s a nice way to start,” Luhtala said. Starting small can help educators and students determine the direction of their makerspace without doing too much too fast.
3. Figure out how students will have time to use the makerspace. Luhtala’s students have free periods, and that’s when New Canaan students visit the makerspace. “It is a packed library. We very often have 200 kids in this library.”
4. Let students invent their own learning. “Having choices is important for the kids–it’s really fantastic,” Luhtala said. “They choose their own learning.”
5. Don’t scoff at Legos. It may seem a simple place to start, Luhtala said, but they offer nearly infinite possibilities. One group of students built Lego cars and added pull-back motors. Some cars went faster or farther than others, and the students turned their project into a problem-solving exercise to determine what made the cars perform differently.
6. Consider themes. New Canaan educators selected themes to help guide students if they needed it, including Take-Apart in October, Media in November, Make-A-Gift in December, and Make 3D in January.
7. Move things around frequently and introduce new materials a few at a time. “Students do like fresh materials,” Luhtala said.
8. If funding is a concern, don’t overlook recycled materials. Outdated technology devices and household materials that would otherwise go to a recycling center instead could go to a makerspace. “Most of our stuff is recycled,” she said. “We don’t spend a lot of money on that.”
9. Think of creative ways to ask students to demonstrate what they are doing or learning. For instance, ask students to tweet at least once during a makerspace session and talk about what they are doing.
10. Don’t worry if you can’t afford a 3D printer. Some makerspaces sustain themselves without one, and introducing a 3D printer after the makerspace is established might not revolutionize things. “It hasn’t been a catalyst for change in ours, and that’s not to say it can’t be for someone else–it just hasn’t been for us,” Luhtala said.
11. Let students help. “Students really do want to help,” Luhtala said. “They want to be facilitators; they want to be leaders in this space.”
12. Think about power stations. Remind students not to move power stations because it can create a tripping hazard, but be conscious that you’ll need to find a way to provide outlets and power for students. Asking a fire marshal to check on power arrangements is a good idea, too.

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Laura Ascione

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