Sunday, 5 October 2014

Makerspaces- for all those who like making

Makerspaces – for all of those who like making

By Jill Pears, Associate Principal, Years 7 and 8, Linwood College 

 I believe pretty much all children had fun learning when they were little – before the constraints of formal education – when they could make things, things that were dreamed up only in their heads, out of stuff – nobody else’s vision but their own and using bits and pieces that adults readily consigned to the junk heap. It is this mindset that is celebrated as part of the Maker movement, supported by Makerspaces popping up around the world – and in the oddest of places – libraries!! No longer are libraries only spaces for those who like to read quietly in the corner.

Robotics- a stunning addition to the
Makerspace if the budget allows
Makerspaces are an essential part of the Maker movement - a subculture that has sprung up, arguably as a way to balance our increasing digital world. The Maker culture itself combines traditional D.I.Y., an essential part of New Zealand culture, with the added possibilities made available through technological advances such as 3D printing, Robotics, CNC tools and electronic developments such as eTextiles. There is no doubt that hands-on learning, or learning by doing, is essential for children to develop their understandings about how the world around them works as well as for developing their creativity and problem-solving skills.

 Makerspaces have over the past few years begun to spring up in schools and libraries, at first in the United States but now this is spreading across the world and Makerspaces are appearing in New Zealand schools, libraries and communities as spaces where there are a range of tools, equipment and materials available to users so people can, driven by their own interests, create, innovate and collaborate on projects they are passionate about.

 The Maker movement believes in learning by doing or learning by making. Arguably this is even
more important as our world becomes increasingly digital and many children could be living lives devoid of hands on exploration and creation. Yet, the digital world is an essential part of Makerspaces due to the increasing range of possibilities enabled through digital tools CNC routers and 3D printing.

 Within the school environment Makerspaces are places where students are busy, actively engaged in what they are doing, maybe working on more than one project at the same time, or setting their project aside for a while to collaborate with someone else, experimenting, taking things apart and putting them together again and learning through exploring, making and learning.

In the same space, teachers work alongside the students. The authoritarian role that most teachers have already relinquished has no place in a Makerspace. Yet, for many teachers, while they would love the have this type of environment in which to work with their students the beginning of how to set it up seems very daunting.

 The advice I would give to those of us who are likely to see all the pitfalls of a new adventure is to start small. When you consider that the Maker movement and along with it the Makerspace is a state of mind or a philosophy you realise that this can happen in the smallest of spaces and with the smallest of budgets. Remember that the emphasis is on creativity and as such there is no reason why the corner of a classroom, or an alcove in the library cannot be converted into a Makerspace area.

Learning the skills of soldering
While I am fortunate to have a space that is dedicated to being a Makerspace this area is not exactly how I want it yet (and probably never will be considering I would love a space where there is a home for all the different categories of bits and pieces and students all put things away in the correct space) but what is more important than that, is how the space is used and whether or not there is true student ownership of the projects that are being created in the space.

There is no doubt that a Makerspace evolves over time through the shared ownership of all the people who make, tinker and create in there. This, I believe is the benefit of starting small. The space develops, over many iterations, into a space that works for all who inhabit it. Being a school that has been impacted by the school closures and mergers that are prevalent in Christchurch, while there was a dedicated space I quickly began to realise that the actual space was one of the least important factors.

With students coming from a variety of schools, and school closures no doubt having a large impact on their sense of belonging, the process of developing the shared culture that is present in schools that have not been through closures and mergers required a greater focus than the development of the space. Yet, while I am eternally grateful for having the available space, I was strongly reminded that school and education is not about the space it is about the learners (students and teachers) who inhabit it.

 So, once you have your space for the Makerspace, your next question is what do you put in it (aside from the people that is)? Again, I would like to recommend that in the early stages you don’t need a wide range of expensive materials. It is fully acceptable to start with basic materials – cardboard, scissors, pipe cleaners wooden sticks, glue, felt and fabric, wools, duct tape, clay, play doh, ‘junk’ for taking apart or recycling and a range of Lego for building. Also important are some sort of containers for students to keep their inventions in. Developing the ‘tidy’ habits from an early stage will make the life of the teacher so much easier, and students won’t lose or have someone else take apart their precious creations.

 In these early stages it is vital to remember that it is not what the students make, it is the process of how they make it that is important. Ideally students will be (even though they may be unaware of it) using an iterative design process where they keep on refining their inventions until they are happy with them. The role of the teacher in this is to work alongside students modelling this approach and use questioning to ensure a cyclic process rather than a linear one. Develop a culture of experimentation where creativity, tinkering, design thinking, and multiple iterations are celebrated rather than having something that succeeds perfectly the first time round. This does not mean there is not a place for specific teaching in a Makerspace. As the space develops and tools are purchased that need to be used in a specific way direct teaching sessions will be required. In these sessions, students can be taught how to use the tools, and when and why they would choose to use this tool. These lessons are not necessarily a time for creating; rather they are skills sessions to help students develop the skills necessary to enable them to become effective makers and creators. Without having the basic skills to use the available tools students can quickly become frustrated and lose confidence in their own ability to make and create. Being able to use a small range of tools, such as soldering irons, drill, a scroll saw or a sewing machine will greatly broaden the scope of students’ creations. Through TKI/Technology Online there is detailed advice and information about how to manage safety within technology education. This can help support many of the decisions with regard to the tools one should have available to students in a Makerspace.

 Even though the philosophy of a Makerspace is for people to create out of their own imaginations I
Using instructions from to begin
developing ideas for mini marshmallow guns
believe there is also a place for instruction sheets. These can be available to students, but, rather than having to be slavishly followed, can be used both as a way to help students develop confidence in using the materials and as a way to help students begin to adapt and develop their own ideas. Here teachers can play a role in disrupting the following of instructions by encouraging students to explore how they could do things a different way, or how they could alter the final product slightly. A natural disruption for students who like to follow instructions, or who may lack the confidence to believe in their own ideas, is to make sure you don’t have all the materials necessary. Having slightly different materials will force the students to be creative, and use their own ideas to help them invent and create.

 For teachers, as new ideas arise there is always that feeling of pressure of how this can be fitted into an already crowded curriculum. We are fortunate in New Zealand that our curriculum is flexible enough so that Makerspace ideas can be included across the curriculum. Give students hands on opportunities to demonstrate their learning and create things that show their understanding. And, if possible, have the Makerspace area open at lunchtime so it is available to students at non-timetabled times. Create a new lunch-time duty responsibility if necessary so the Makerspace is available to as many students as possible, across a wide range of times. There is nothing like the pride on a student’s face when they have created something out of their own ideas. This is true engagement. I have seen students walk around for days, they might forget their books their pencil case or their lunch, but they will still proudly be carrying something they have made through their own endeavours in the Makerspace.

'Invent to Learn' is regarded by many as the definitive
guide to starting a Makerspace

 And, as a postscript, there is a wide range of resources available to get you started on your very own Makerspace.

Try the Makerspace Playbook as a starter or explore the many posts about Makerspaces on sites such as Edutopia or simply google the word Makerspace and you will find a wealth of shared knowledge to help you get started.


  1. A really great post, Jill with lots of practical help for a quality #makered programme. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

  2. Thanks Jill for sharing your knowledge and experience - a brilliant read for all! Love your practical tips to help those at various stages on the maker journey. :-)