If You Let Them Build It, They Will Learn

History of Making

The idea of ‘making’ in libraries has a long, rich history.  I was able to trace it all the way back to 1873, to Gowanda, New York, where the Gowanda Ladies Social Society came together to knit, sew, socialize, and talk about books.  In 1905, Frances Jenkins Olcott, the children’s department head at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, helped to establish home libraries in working-class houses, where she organized crafts such as sewing or basketry for local kids. In 1933, the Manitoba (Canada) Crafts Museum and Library was created as a meeting place and resource to connect people to crafts while both preserving the province’s cultural heritage and teaching students how to craft.  In 1960, the Nebraska Public Library Commission hosted a variety of special activities, including creative arts, that were organized by area groups.  In 1976, we even saw in Columbus, Ohio the first tool-lending library.  So this idea of making, while not new, has hit a resurgence and is flourishing.   The affordances of  new media allows for the opportunity to create a ‘maker culture’ like never before.  Recently, we have even seen the White House embracing this DIY movement when they announced the first ever White House Maker-Faire.  MIT has even announced it will accept making in portfolios as part of the undergraduate application process.  From this idea of making, we have seen the birth of what is known as a ‘makerspace’ which now seems to be the next step in library transformation in the 21st century.

A Makerspace is defined as:

…a place where young people have an opportunity to explore their own interests, learn to use tools and materials, and develop creative projects …the key is that it can adapt to a wide variety of uses and can be shaped by educational purposes as well as the students’ creative goals.

We have begun to see makerspaces popping up across the country.  The Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee created a 4th floor, a 14,000 sq ft. space that is part-public-laboratory-part-edu-space.  The Westport Library, in Westport Connecticut, has a makerspace which serves as a model in this new wave of library services.  The space includes a 3d printer and hosts presentations and participatory workshops on topics ranging from robotics to arts and crafts.  At the Fayetteville Free Library in New York, they have not one but 3 makerspaces:

  • creation lab – focuses on digital creation
  • fab lab – focuses on the fabrication of tangible objects
  • little makers – free play area that encourages children to create, imagine, and build.

At the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, they have a makerspace that they call a Tekventure Maker Station, which is actually in a trailer outside  the library, which houses a number of hand, power, and electronic tools for community use.

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Fundamentally, this maker movement is about moving from consumption to creation and turning knowledge into action.  Rooted in this maker movement is the idea of a ‘Participatory Culture’, a term coined by Henry Jenkins.  Jenkins defines participatory culture as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

Our Makerspace

It is my belief that every child has the right invent, tinker, create, innovate, make and do.  This belief is what drove my mission to establish a makerspace here at New Milford High School. I am very proud of the fact that our makerspace transcends academic potential, social barriers and even language and development.  Students of all levels can take full advantage of the resources and activities in this space.  I often see students taking it upon themselves to help their peers and to inspire their peers to experiment, make and do.  Our space sometimes is filled with our engineering and conceptual physics students, but also our english language learners and special needs students.  We truly have democratized the tools and skills necessary to design and make things that were of interest to our students while, at the same time, exposing them all to a new world of possibilities.  My makerspace is learner-driven and exploits the idea of experiential learning.  It is a mash-up of differentiated learning experiences combining traditional elements and new technologies.

The ‘world is your platform’ is a phrase I often use and that drives all of the the work that I do, including the creation of our makerspace.  In designing learning experiences, we need to think about the technologies, resources, materials around us and how they can be leveraged to engage and reach our learners.  Our makerspace was designed to encourage meaningful student learning and to help cultivate a culture of innovation in our school.  I spent the first month of this school year watching the library usage patterns of our students, watching how they spent their time in the library, and talking to them about their interests.  At that same time, I also looked closely at the existing programs, classes and curricula at our school and found opportunities for the makerspace to bring STEM-related concepts to all of our students, regardless of their proficiency level or social status.   In a previous post, I outlined the mosaic of themes of our makerspace.  All students will have access to our space during their lunch period, independent study, and I also collaborate with classroom teachers throughout the school day.    To set up our physical space, I used my school’s existing resources, including some library tables and bookshelves.  One of my hopes for the makerspace was that it would be a catalyst for future changes in the curriculum, some of which, gratifyingly, I am already seeing happening.

The layout of our makerspace consists of ‘fixed’ stations and ‘flexible’ stations.  The fixed stations are areas that are out in our makerspace all of the time for students to just walk in and sit down at and engage with.  These include our littleBits bar, our Take-Apart Tech Station (or ‘breaker space’), our Lego table, our Makey-Makey station, and our 3-d Design and Printing station.  The impetus behind choosing these to be our fixed stations was that I wanted to include activities that students would be able to start and complete during their limited time in the space as well as have them be able to do so independently, with little instruction on my part.  This informal learning piece has been key in students wanting to visit the space and engage with the activities here on their free time.

littleBits Bar

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Lego Table

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 Take-Apart Tech Station

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3-D Printing and Design

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Makey-Makey Station

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Included in our makerspace are some ‘flexible’ stations.  These are activities that rotate in and out of our space or are things that I take out when collaborating with classroom teachers which include more formalized instruction.  Some examples of that include molecular gastronomy, robotics and electric circuitry.

Molecular Gastronomy

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One of the highlights of our makerspace is our Smart TV.  Each day, I put up on our Smart TV something I call a Digital Breadcrumb.  I use this eye-catching display to draw students into our makerspace through a high-interest activity.  Sometimes this includes playing a virtual musical instrument, playing a game, or creating an electric circuit as seen below.  More often than not, students who have never visited our makerspace before, are drawn in by this and after engaging with our Smart TV, find themselves in the middle of our makerspace and usually explore some of the other activities in this space.

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I am often asked about assessing students and the skills that they have gained while in our makerspace.  We have experimented with some formative assessment methods including that of an ‘exit slip’.  Rather than focusing on formal assessment, we are instead moving towards focusing on acknowledging the granular skills students gain in this space and providing a way for them to get credit for, celebrate, and validate that learning.

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Please take a look at our makerspace website, Worlds of Making @ NMHS, for more information including photographs and videos of students creations.

Planning Your Makerspace

For those looking to plan their own makerspace in your school or library,  just don’t underestimate how ‘personal’ the space needs to be.  Your makerspace should directly reflect the needs, wants and interests of your school community as well as provide opportunities for deeper exploration into concepts new to your school community.  No two makerspaces should be the same.  Look around you and use as many of the resources that you might already have available to you in your library, ask for donations and look for grants.  For those in spaces that are not able to be altered to accommodate a makerspace, consider the idea of a pop-up makerspace, where even on a movable cart, you can provide opportunities for students to create.

Something I am hesitant to do when trying to be innovative is to read and research too much – sometimes it is better just to go with whatever ideas occur, and perhaps research can follow later when you want to improve or extend your original conception.  However, for those who are looking for additional direction or inspiration before establishing your space, take a look at the Makerspace Playbook intended to offer some guidance to those who are hoping to start a Makerspace at their school or in their community.

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A great book to read to help you plan is Invent to Learn, by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez

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I bought most of my materials  and resources from Maker Shed.  One of the things I really like about Maker Shed’s site is that it allows you to Browse Products by level, allowing you to effectively purchase based on the your needs.

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I also purchased some of my materials from Edmund Scientifics.

Maker Faire

An important part of the maker movement is the idea of a Maker Faire. A Maker Faire is an event created by Make magazine to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset”. My journey into this idea of making was at the Brooklyn Storymakers Maker Party organized by the Brooklyn Public Library and Hive NYC Learning Network, which I blogged about in a previous post.  At the event, kids had the opportunity to create online comics, design video games, make stop-motion animation and many other activities designed to unlock their creative potential.  We now see maker faires popping up all over the country.  Coming soon is the White House Maker Faire in which will be an opportunity to highlight both the remarkable stories of makers and provide opportunities for leading organizations to help more students and entrepreneurs get involved in making things.

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I have seen an adoption curve with establishing makerspaces. Many librarians are not sure if they have the right resources, schedule, budget, or are reluctant to manage a space that includes activities that they might feel they are not experts in. One thing I cannot emphasize enough is to not be afraid of including things in your space that are new to you.  Going into this school year, I had never used a 3-d Printer nor did I feel I was proficient in electronics or robotics.  The beauty of a space like ours is that it really has been a collective effort.  I have learned as much from the students as they have learned from me and that they have learned from each other.  Use the resources that are within your means and what you have access to and put them into your library. If you build it, they will come and if you let them build it, they will learn.

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All good teachers today have to acknowledge that they are also learners, and setting up a maker space in your library is a great way to ensure that you, the teacher, cannot only learn new things from the space but to do so openly with your students, to let them see you and respect you as a learner just like them!