Thoughts and ideas on school makerspaces are ubiquitous in education circles online, at conferences, in print, and anywhere else people who care about K-12 instruction gather to talk shop. Hashtags have trended around the craze and an entire industry continues to grow solely to sell robots, computers, 3D Printers, digital and analog kits, manuals, and much more to schools eager to hop aboard. There’s lots of shiny and smart stuff out there that sparks the interest of both educators and the kids they work with. All of it is great in its own right, but some of these items and ideas have stronger educational merit in a school than others. While it’s easy to get pulled into the craze of school makerspaces, it is important to plan each space around the students in that specific learning community and with a measurable academic goal in mind. By doing this, you’ll ensure that your school makerspace, along with the Maker Movement, won’t become another foregone trend waiting to be replaced by the next-best-thing.
As someone who helps districts and individual schools plan and build on-site makerspaces, I’ve spent a lot of time talking school leaders out of spending unnecessary amounts of money to furnish their new makerspace. This may seem counter-intuitive and bad for business, but my mission is to prove that project-based learning helps successful and struggling students alike become better readers, writers, and critical thinkers— not to build expensive sites for the sake of doing so. Instead of appeasing someone by immediately ordering everything they want, I first ask the teachers and administrators I’m working with something like, what academic or social problem do you want to see solved? By doing this, I’m teaching them their first lesson in the world of making and design thinking: find a problem and come up with a smart and sustainable solution.
The underlying issues that plague our kids’ academic lives are always similar and the answers I get mirror the problems each of us see day-to-day: there’s a lack of enthusiasm in core subjects, a dearth of grade-level performance on in-school, district, and state-wide assessments, different learners don’t engage well with the current curriculum being taught, etc. After hearing the team’s answers, we put together a clear goal that we want to see fulfilled in the makerspace in order to solve this problem. The language we use to put our objective together is precise and offers some form of measurability. An example of a clear goal with a measurable outcome would be: We want disengaged students to become involved and interested in ELA by building projects around the fiction and non-fiction they will be reading during the year. The projects students build will be used end-of-unit assessments and they will be required to use text-evidence in building them.
Once our goal is clear, we begin to design the room and order parts that will help fulfill our objective. I don’t want you to mistake me here– this doesn’t mean dull, frugal, drab, boring. In fact, a makerspace with a mission is the best type of makerspace. Knowing what the goal of your space is allows you to properly spend more money on quality items that will meet what you’ve set out to achieve. All the shiny items you were wishing to get can still be purchased, but now you understand why and how they will be used in order to move you towards your goal. By adopting this mindset, the things you order– whether it is a farm of 3D printers, tons of circuit kits, a laser cutter– now have a place and a reason for their belonging in your space. By approaching your build in this way, each tool will serve a purpose and not go underused.
Thinking about your makerspace as a means to reach an academic goal is invaluable for more than a handful of reasons. For starters, we’re ensuring that the space becomes a vital part of the school’s instruction and its mission, not an afterthought that only gets visited during lunchtime. It becomes a safe and fun learning environment that takes on the values and academic principles that are at the heart of the school. The space grows into a place where students do their best thinking, where they realize that the need for academic understanding will allow them to realize the ideas alive in their imagination. It’s a place that allows teachers some autonomy over their instruction, that breathes life back into their craft, and helps them realize why they signed up for their job in the first place. More importantly, by planning your space with academic goals in mind, the room stick around, immune to trends and marketing plans. It will do the job it was set up for: it will make better students.