Maker Spaces: It’s Not About the Tools

Although the latest toys and tools attract lots of attention and gain great media coverage, the maker movement is more than having students make plastic thingies: it’s about helping students develop skills in design thinking, creativity, iterative design, and problem solving.

I spent a good part of my summer touring and working with other teachers, administrators, and managers of maker spaces in several states.  Though there was tremendous similarity in the purpose or goal of the use of the space, few looked the same, or even resembled each other.  So I began to wonder, do you need 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC’s machines and other sexy toys to have a proper maker space?


CWRU think[box]’s Executive Director Malcolm Cooke.  think[box] is a 7 story maker paradise open to the public that helps folks through the whole design process.


Several schools start out their maker spaces with the corner of a classroom, a converted conference room or a wing of a university library (Yale CEID). Some have some beautiful spaces built or transformed for the purpose of connecting the whole community (CWRU
think[box]).  Some schools are just starting to ask questions about how they can start a maker space or genius room. Yet at every stop, I try (hopefully with tact) to ask:  why?

Why are you building (or did you build) a maker space?  Why did you give up this precious real estate in your school building to put some stuff in a room that might only be used by a handful of the geeky students, that might take resources away from the classroom?  And then it gets quiet.


Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID) is open to students and grew out of an old library space.



I am not out to prove anything – or put people on the spot, I genuinely want to know the reasons folks have for starting these spaces.  For those of you with your own tinker shed out back, or access to a beautiful fabrication lab through your university engineering department, it may come obvious to you.  But for middle school and even high school and soon, elementary schools, I am curious what is driving so many teachers, administrators, parents and passionate supporters to thrust the maker education movement forward.

This is a good thing in my eyes, so long as it’s for the right reasons and structured in such a way that as many students as possible can get the most resources out of the resources committed.  Change will always ruffle some feathers, but can change be designed effectively and be learning focused for the students to reap the rewards of designing, creating, innovating, and even solving problems?  If we design the learning opportunities first, and then grow into a space, it will be much better received that spending money on printers and more, only then to figure out what to do with it.

Our maker space grew out of a combination of events: students wanted to work on interest and passion projects and science competition designs that they did not have resources for at home, and were asking more curricular breadth that allowed them to get exposure to engineering and design before they got to college.  The other element included some brave soul who would take it on; a new hire that was willing to try out this new concept and work with a modest space.

Students took my elective class, and after going through basic mechanics and electronic principles, they would go through some simple lessons on hand tools, and be put to work on a design challenge.  Our middle school head wanted a GaGa pit for the students, but had limited budget, and had laid down some other constraints:  most be portable, and needs to be stored out of the way.  Have you seen a GaGa pit?  (Disclaimer – this was a new thing to me at the time, but imagine a free for all dodgeball game in a gladiator style ring of 3-4 foot high walls and some 15-20 across.)

Students got to work studying the pits that were being built permanently into a playground, or could be purchased for several thousand dollars. Our budget:  $200.  Hah!  And yet – over a few class periods, and several late night runs to hardware stores, students managed to design, build, test, and place their project, only to find out they did not count on weight sitting on top of the walls; so re-design, partial dis-assembly, reinforcements added, new hinge design upgrades and now two years later, their design has withstood thousands of knocks, winter, rain, and even the occasional wind storm that lifted the pit up and moved it 20 feet across the field!


Karen Glum runs an Innovation Lab and Program for Middle School students at 7 Hills in Cincinnati, OH


So – what was the learning, what did the students get out of this, and did I need a maker space to impact the students?

  1. Students learned several things:
    1. The importance of clear communication when drawing plans, or giving orders of steps to accomplish.
    2. All the lessons of teamwork came together when you built 3 of the panels upside down and had to fix it: together.
    3. Nothing ever works right on the first build. Nothing.  Measure twice, and cut once, only to learn you used the wrong saw.
    4. Math is everywhere.  Measurements in length, area, board feet, angles of an octagon are important to hinges, order 20% more wood, just in case.
    5. Iterative design and learning from failure are life lessons.  Just because you move on to the next unit after you got a ‘C’ on a quiz at school doesn’t mean your first customer of your startup will be content until you make it right!
  2. Did we need a maker space?
    1. No.  we needed space, we needed specific tools for the project we decided to take on.  Though we had 3D printers, that project didn’t call for them.

So you can look around your school and community and ask for donations, create wish lists, and even ask your community what problems students can solve by designing something to fix or improve a situation.  Start small.  Let students solve simple problems.  Take an old AV cart with plastic totes or shoe boxes and stuff them with craft sticks, tongue depressors, string, straws, glue (I love hot glue as it’s faster and easily had from dollar stores), duct tape, paperclips and more.

Simple, mobile, maker cart.

Start with a design challenge:  build a raft, catapult, gondola that rides on a string, powered by rubber bands or balloons, kinetic sculptures (unfortunately named stick bombs).  Then, give students time and challenges to create less structured things:  a new mode of transportation (more creative materials could be added), design a solution to a problem in your world (watch the creative genius explode!!)


So, though I love and appreciate the energy and momentum of the maker movement coming into the education space, I caution teachers not to worry that you don’t have a 3D printer your first year, or that some other school has robotic arms.  Create an environment of innovation, give students the opportunities to work with their hands, while also guiding them on design thinking and make a few runs to the dollar stores. You will be amazed with the energy, buzz and creativity that is generated; then students will begin to ask for more opportunities to create, design and innovate or engineer solutions.




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