My take on makerspaces

From time to time, people ask me about makerspaces.  Instead of recreating the wheel each time, I thought I’d write it all here so I can just send them to my blog!


So to me, a makerspace is a community center with tools, the community in this case being the students and staff at the school.  I don’t have a soldering iron at my elementary makerspace, but I do in my secondary one.  The tools have to be age-appropriate for the audience.

And the tools in a makerspace are varied.  I share Kristin Fontichiaro’s list all the time.  When I first got started, I gave that list to a few students and asked them what we should get.


And do get student involvement!  The maker movement is all about empowering students.  Let it be *their* makerspace by letting them have decision-making power.  I actually have a Makerspace Club, and we fundraiser and do events and all of that.  They make most of the decisions.  But just by themselves, makerspaces can help lessen the digital – or resource – divide.  I have students who got Lego Mindstorms and Makey Makeys and Wacom tablets and 3D pens for Christmas.  Let’s share those sorts of things with the kids who didn’t find those under the tree.

The one thing at the elementary level that I’ve struggled with is getting teachers to see the makerspace as more than just *my* thing.  It’s in a space in the library, we have classes most all the day in the library itself so it’s difficult for teachers to use the space or resources in here.  This spring and summer, I’m going to work to make it more accessible for teachers and students, so they can check out materials.  Barcode numbers and due dates they understand.  (I’ve already started some – I have a Makey Makey checked out to a 4th grader and her parents right now.  She’s going to meet me next week and tell me all about it.)

But even if I succeed in getting the tools in classrooms, the fact is, not every teacher will use those tools.  Elementary teachers are so stinking busy and I honestly feel guilty asking them to put anything more on their plates.  So we do “Maker Week” each month, where students come for their regular Library/Technology special class but instead of what we usually do, we do maker activities.  Those have varied from coding to fusing plastics, robots to braiding yarn, marble roller coasters (with toilet paper tubes) to stop motion videos to marbling paper (that’s this month’s activity).  We hold a maker night a few months of the year and that is for kids and their parents.  We don’t get a huge turn out to that but that’s okay.  I think the people who come get a lot out of it.


Author photo. All rights reserved.

I think kids sometimes get the message that they aren’t in charge of their learning.  It’s all do this and do that, without giving kids ownership of any of it.  I think the library can be instrumental in giving them the message that they are in charge of their own learning.  We can do that through makerspaces, with the type of existential learning that can occur there.  (We can also do that through fighting for our students’ intellectual freedom, but that’s a whole other blog post!)

At the secondary level, makerspaces are a bit easier to set up and for students to use – they have more free time than elementary students – but then it’s on you to do the marketing.  Your audience doesn’t come to you in a specials class – you have to go get them.  Have an assembly, have making contests, do little workshops on making a craft or treat for a holiday.  Keep the makerspace in front of the kids all the time.

OK, so I’ve convinced you.  Now what?  First, educate yourself on the benefits of a makerspace, and formulate a loose plan.  Do you have a room you could put it in?  A corner?  I did a case study on a high school makerspace that is situated in two different corners of the library.  It wasn’t a separate room or anything, just a cart with a bunch of craft supplies accessible to the kids and then a green screen on the wall with a iPad on a tripod.  It really doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it’s probably better to start not that way.  (That library also has Lego Mindstorms and that sort of thing kept away in the back for kids to check out for library use.)  Look around for funding sources – fundraising, material donations, grants.  Then go to your administrators and talk to them about makerspaces and tell them what you’ve figured out.  Maybe they’ll give you some money to get started.


See the other makerspace posters I made here.

If you’re asked to do a makerspace, make sure you have help.  I could not do this without my full-time paras at each building.  They’re my eyes and ears on what the kids do every day, what they’re using, what they’re not, what’s giving them fits.  I’m not always there.

But remember, you and your paras don’t have to know everything.  Think of it this way – librarians are great at facilitation – giving their patrons the books and internet access and meeting space and even cake pans they need (well, North Liberty (IA) Public Library does!). Have we read every book?  Well, I haven’t.  This is simply one more thing we’re facilitating . . . tools.  It doesn’t mean we have to be the resident experts – let our patrons, especially our student patrons – teach us a thing or two.  That’s where their real learning begins. (But safety first, of course.  See ¶2 above, ” I don’t have a soldering iron at my elementary makerspace.”)

Finally, I think Dale Dougherty, current leader of the maker movement (Seymour Papert has the title of “Father of the Maker Movement) said it best:

Kids today are disengaged and bored in school, and as a result, many see themselves as poor learners. We should be framing things in our schools not just in terms of “how do we test you on that?” but on “what can you do with what you know?” When you’re making something, the object you create is a demonstration of what you’ve learned to do, thus you are providing evidence of your learning.” (Dougherty (2012).  The maker movement.  Innovations, 7(3), 11-14.)

Sometimes, librarians will talk about makerspace classes and challenges and grades . . . that’s just not how I do things.  Makerspaces really should provide existential learning opportunities, giving students a safe place to fail.  Dougherty stated, “If schools don’t get the spirit of [the Maker Movement], I don’t think it will benefit them a whole lot” (as cited in Herold, B.  (2016).  Maker momentum.  Education Week, 35(35), 28-30.)  But when they do?  The sky’s the limit.

(And that shushing thing?  You’ll have to give that up.  Makerspaces are usually loud and messy.  But so is learning.)

Taylor, Laura. ‘Day 174: Amazing Push-Button Shushing Action!” CC BY 2.0

My Dad, the Maker

You might know that one of my passions is the maker movement. I speak about makerspaces often, and I plan for my dissertation to be on the subject. Truth be told, though, I’m really not much of a maker myself. I mean, I cook, but going off-script, eschewing my cookbook collection, is actually out of my comfort zone. I’ve made baskets but it’s been more than a decade since I did that. I’ve sewn before, but I haven’t done mending in ages, let alone straight-up sewing. Oh well. That’s actually something I stress when I present on the topic – that you don’t have to be a maker yourself to have a makerspace. It’s about facilitating the work and creativity of others, and I definitely can do that. 

But the recent Make issue got me thinking. It has a piece about leathercraft. Leathercraft?!  My dad used to do that. He would order these Tandy kits and make wallets and belts and that sort of thing. It seems very 1970s-esque, so I was surprised to see it in the bible of the maker movement. 

And my dad did woodworking.  Turh be told, my dad was a little competitive and when my brother took shop class, my dad decided to take up woodworking. He made me a beautiful oak desk that I still have, and will always treasure. 

The epitome of his making was, of course, his house that he literally built with his own hands. When I became an adult and someone would tell me that they were building a house, I quickly learned that that did not mean that they were building it themselves, like my dad did with the help of his dad and sons, but they were paying someone to do so. Later, he remodeled the kitchen and made all new cabinets. Not buy, but he made them himself. Really fancy ones, too. 

You know, I still have those basketry supplies. Maybe I should get those out . . . 

RIP, Dad. The original maker in my life. 

Makerspace Kickoff!

Months of work and planning culminated last week in the MAKERSPACE KICKOFF at the elementary school.  It went off without a hitch.  Here are some pictures:

6th graders enjoying the Flextruck Virtual Reality station

6th graders enjoying the Flextruck Virtual Reality station

Scott from the AEA helping first graders make music with the Makey Makey kits

Scott from the AEA helping kindergarteners make music with the Makey Makey kits

I don't like roller coasters, so I left it to the kids to try it out with the Oculus Rift!

I don’t like roller coasters, so I left it to the kids to try it out with the Oculus Rift!

Fourth graders tinkering with Squishy Circuits

Fourth graders tinkering with Squishy Circuits

Our Thai foreign exchange student helping with straws and connectors in the 3D building station

Our Thai foreign exchange student, Thiti, helping with straws and connectors in the 3D building station

5 picture writing, using 30 Hands app

5 picture writing, using 30 Hands app

A second grader using CodeMonkey

A second grader using CodeMonkey

Skallops and cards fun

Skallops and cards fun

Sixth graders building with cardboard

Sixth graders building with cardboard

Our art teacher tries out Paper Circuitry on our pre-Kickoff PD day

Our art teacher tries out Paper Circuitry on our pre-Kickoff PD day

I will say, the word “Kickoff” might be a wee bit of an exaggeration, if it implies that the Makerspace is completely ready to go.  The room is getting painted today, I need to add some more shelves and some locking storage, and the Makedos and Skallops are out of stock.  There is a lot more to do, but the Kickoff event was a huge success and a great starting point.  Want to do a Kickoff of your own?  Here are my tips.

  • Get help planning –  Julie Graber was my great partner-in-crime from the AEA.  I couldn’t have done it without her.  If possible, get some on-campus help, too.  My principal was a full partner, but he’s a busy guy and I couldn’t exactly spent fifteen minutes a day debating whether Squishy Circuits or Snap Circuits were the way to go, or if the room should be painted in canary yellow or lemon yellow.  It would have been nice to have someone here every day – a teaching partner or para (mine was having a baby!) – to bounce ideas.
Me with Julie Graber, Instructional Tech Consultant with Prairie Lakes AEA

Me with Julie Graber, Instructional Tech Consultant with Prairie Lakes AEA

  • Plan early – Those of you who know me know that this isn’t exactly a strength of mine, but it is what it is.  In the fall, I did go to see Iowa State’s “Flextruck” (a portable setup taken around to schools by some folks at ISU’s College of Design with virtual reality and other tech tools) with the elementary and high school principals, and we got on their calendar early, then built the Kickoff around that.  I also applied for and received the ITEC/Mediacom Grant, so that kept me honest as far as planning goes.
  • Be flexible – We had eight stations total, but after Thursday with grades 3-6, I realized that some of the stations were just too difficult for the K-2 kids coming the next day.  We switched out Paper Circuitry for 3D building, with Skallops and cards (borrowed from another school), straws and connectors, and tanagrams (the last two borrowed from the preschool teacher). We got rid of Cardboard Challenge (not that young kids can’t build with cardboard, of course, but our quantity of “clean” cardboard was diminishing and getting students to build for a purpose – making a game – wasn’t really working in such large groups).  The coding station went fine for grades 3-6, with students using CodeMonkey, but it was a stretch on Friday.  Kindergarten classes were the last two session of the day, and the high school helpers begged me to change it up.  To what? I wondered.  They knew –> Minecraft.  We got that set up and it went perfectly.
A high school helper helping a kindergartener with Minecraft

A high school helper helping a kindergartener with Minecraft

  • Enlist lots of volunteers – We had over 40 high school students who came over on Thursday or Friday to help out all day.  We seriously couldn’t have done this without them.  I told them that they may have noticed that I never sent out an all-call email asking for help – I asked for them specifically, because I knew them and I knew they were people I could count on.  Only 2 students who I asked said no, and seriously, they were starring in the musical that night.  We also had some parent volunteers, old friends of mine, specials teachers when they were without classes, our tech guy, and more help from the AEA.  Then there are the people who weren’t there but helped immensely, like my library assistant at the high school.  I definitely couldn’t have done this without her!  (I say that a lot, I know.  But it’s true.)
  • Here is our schedule, so you get an idea of what our days looked like.  I know of some schools that let students decide which stations to go to, so there were a variety of grade levels together.  We didn’t do that, instead, classes stayed together all day, going to different stations.  All classes saw the ISU Flextruck but the 3-6 classes each missed a couple of stations through the rotation.  We’ll hit those up in Library/Tech class.
  • You may be like I was, wondering how we could possibly get people on board with giving up a whole day for this event.  We met with teachers early this year to discuss the idea of Makerspace, and we kept the idea front and center.  I wrote about it in the school newsletter to get parents interested, and I just kept my focus this year on Makerspace.  I’ve been a bit like a broken record – “A Makerspace is a community center with tools . . . “

We’re certainly not done.  As I said, everything needs to get in place, and we need to start presenting challenges to be fixed.  We’re also building a Makerspace at the high school.  I know what I’m doing this summer!