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Written by Sandy Johnson, who currently works at Tierney as the Curriculum & Instructional Specialist. Sandy spent seven years teaching high school English Language Arts in a large, suburban district outside Minneapolis, MN and has been with Tierney since 2017.

Defining “Makerspace”

The Tierney Professional Development team travels quite a bit to facilitate classroom technology training all over the US, and we get lots of questions from educators about Makerspaces. This buzzword has been floating around for years; I remember hearing it first when I worked at a high school as we discussed plans to renovate our media center. We toured examples of Makerspaces in our neighboring school districts, and these schools shared their vision of students coming together to tinker, discover, collaborate, and most importantly, make. The thing I found to be stressful about these tours, though, was how different each Makerspace looked. How could all of these spaces be considered the same, when they were obviously not made with the same ideas in mind? What is a Makerspace, even? Can all of these spaces be considered a Makerspace?

Years later, I have seen dozens of unique Makerspaces across many states, and I am learning that a Makerspace is defined more by its spirit than the items it holds.

Here are a few definitions of Makerspace and the Maker Movement that helped shape my own understanding:

After looking into these definitions, and witnessing students and adults of all ages engage in Makerspaces, my own definition of Makerspace would be:

  • A Makerspace is a place to gather, discover new interests, build and destroy and rebuild, solve problems, make mistakes, and fuel a life-long desire to improve. A Makerspace is not defined by specific products or supplies; rather, it is defined by a spark of passion and creativity that is ignited when a Maker is inspired to make.

If you build it… they may not know what to do

Picture this: a beautiful Makerspace in a corner of the school library, complete with a Lego wall and 3D printer, and countless drawers filled with supplies to keep you busy with projects all year. The only problem? The space is empty. Teachers and staff don’t know how to manage the space, or don’t have time to bring kids, or don’t feel comfortable with the technology. Students don’t feel they have permission to sit and play, and aren’t really sure what to do in the space anyway.

How can you guarantee your Makerspace investment will be worth the money, time, and energy? How do we ensure teachers will make good use of the technology? How do you avoid ending up with that sad, empty Makerspace? These questions come up a lot in our work, generally when we talk to schools about investing in classroom technology, and our team has zeroed in on a few key actions that we notice in successful technology integrations.

I am strongly in favor of guided Makerspace projects. Traditionally, Makerspaces are open and waiting for kids to come and create on their own time. The reality is that kids don’t actually have their “own time” during the school day. I don’t know about you, but if my students told me they were going to leave my classroom to hang out in the Makerspace every day, there’d be a real problem. Teachers can bring their whole class to a Makerspace, but many teachers feel uncomfortable with a complete lack of structure. This is where the guided Makerspace project comes in.

Guided Makerspace Projects

For guided Makerspace projects to work well, there does need to be at least one adult in charge of setting up the projects, which I would suggest rotates monthly. Each month, the Makerspace will focus on one specific skill/project/idea (ex: knitting).

If the first month’s Makerspace project is knitting, students will find resources and supplies on the tables to learn how to knit and create a few different knitting projects. The Makerspace could contain a couple devices with how-to videos from Youtube, craft books open to the knitting pages, printed pages of knitting patterns, and plenty of yarn and knitting needles. All month long, teachers can bring their students to the Makerspace and learn how to knit together.

Some students may discover a love for knitting, so these knitting supplies should be put away during the next month to make room for the next guided project, but students should be able to grab the knitting supplies all year long to continue knitting if they want. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. It would be easy to tell a student, “I’m so glad you loved knitting! But this month is all about coding, so now you need to try that.” I think kids should be exposed to lots of new skills and activities, but the whole point of a Makerspace should be to help kids find something they are excited to make. So, if a student falls in love with knitting during the first month, they should be able to knit for the rest of the year. They should make scarves, hats, and anything their minds can imagine.

We can use the concept of the guided Makerspace project to introduce new projects and ideas to students, but this is where a Makerspace truly becomes their space. The student is in control of their time, and they are allowed to pursue what interests and inspires them to make.

The Planning Process

If you are ready to get your Makerspace up and running, I suggest you consider the following steps to get things moving in the right direction:

  • Assemble the team: No matter the size of your space/building/district, you need a team of people to design a Makerspace. This space is meant to be a fun, engaging place for all kinds of learners, so you should assemble a group of diverse learners to design and create the Makerspace. The more people you have invested in the success of the space, the better.
  • Find the “why”: Why do you want to create a Makerspace? After giving your Makerspace team some time to investigate Makerspaces on their own, ask them to describe a successful Makerspace to the group. What would they like to see? What should it sound like? Once your team has a clear vision for the project, you’ll all know what you are working toward.
  • Start small: It’s tempting to create a huge wish list of items, and jump at any opportunity to purchase as much as possible to get started. However, I’d caution against this because a brand-new Makerspace full of exciting new technology and supplies can actually be pretty overwhelming for staff and students. It might be hard for teachers to know where to start, and it is often easier for them to skip the Makerspace altogether rather than try to figure out a dozen new projects. Instead, purchase supplies for 6-7 projects and make it last for the year. It’s okay great for kids to use the same technology/supplies for multiple projects because they will discover new ways to use the same tools.
    • I know this isn’t always possible, because school funding can be unpredictable and often, I am working with schools who had “money they needed to spend.” Of course, do what you can with the funds you have. I would just suggest you dive deeper rather than purchasing a wide variety of items to start. Keep it simple.
  • Listen to the kids: Pay attention to the popular projects, set up a feedback station or Google Form for kids to complete on their way out, and ask kids about what they are making. I would also suggest asking kids to do their own research, and create wish lists for their Makerspace. What project would they like to build? What supplies do they need to create something different? What are their favorite how-to videos on Youtube?
  • Celebrate the makers: This is really important. There are so many ways to share your Makerspace success, so find a method that works for your school and is manageable. You could create a hashtag and post pictures/videos on Twitter, start a Makerspace blog with posts written by kids, join a Maker competition, print photos and post them around the school, add a section to your school newsletter… And let us know if you have other ways you like to celebrate your makers.

Project Ideas

  • 3D Printing: This is the most common piece of technology we see in Makerspaces, and we love project ideas that integrate this technology! Students can learn to print, modify, and write code to create custom items with the printer. Not sure which printer to choose? We love Ultimaker, and the many lessons they publish on their site.
  • Knitting/Crocheting: Utilize a couple extra devices (tablets or computers) to display a Youtube playlist full of how-to videos on knitting or crocheting, set out some craft books, and provide plenty of yarn and needles. Before you spend hundreds on supplies, try reaching out to your community for donations -- you’d be surprised by how many people have yarn and other supplies lying around. It may also be helpful to create a systems for kids to save their work so they can come back to it throughout the month.
  • Coding: There are tons of free resources out there to teach basic coding skills to kids, and all you need are enough devices to support them. I’d suggest starting with Hour of Code, and check out the awesome free projects from Google’s CS First program for groups of kids that are ready to take their coding a step further.
  • Cardboard Structures: Cardboard is a great resource to use in a Makerspace because it is strong, and it is an easy thing for families to donate! Check out these great ideas and information on the Cardboard Challenge from Maker Education.
  • SAM Labs: There are lots of coding/engineering/robotics products out there, and many of them work really well in a Makerspace. Personally, I like SAM Labs because of the variety of projects, the pieces are durable, everything is reusable, and it’s a great way for kids to collaborate. Oh, and the pieces are Lego-compatible!
  • Origami: Grab those library books, create an origami playlist on Youtube, and watch the paper fly.
  • Virtual Reality tours: Teachers don’t have to be the only “guide” when it comes to VR. Students can use Google Tour Builder to create their own to create their own unique VR tours using Google Streetview images or their own 360° images.

Additional Support

If you are looking for more guidance at any point in your Makerspace journey, please contact our Professional Development team: PD@tierney.com. We can help lead your team as you plan and design the space, provide onsite or remote training to teachers/staff on specific technologies, or facilitate strategic planning sessions for classroom teachers so they can make connections between Makerspace projects and their curriculum.