G. Grant

There is tremendous buzz lately about setting up a makerspace. Thankfully, educators, policy makers (for some reason they are not always one and the same?) administrators and the education community in general are realizing that in order to really cultivate metacognition and real-world skills, we need hands-on, project-based learning. Object-based learning is making a comeback, and teachers are connecting lessons back to the industry, creating a more vocational education. A big part of this movement towards active learning and STEM is creating a makerspace in the classroom.

Essentially, a makerspace acts as an area where students can develop innovative skills by applying their own thoughts and solutions to real-world problems in an engineering design focused lesson. However, as much buzz as there is about makerspaces, many schools are more likely to spend thousands of dollars on ready-made project-based learning that don’t allow for real innovation -rather than create their own makerspace. Now, I am all for pre-packaged curriculum-especially if it is STEM focused. In fact, I have developed a pretty excellent one myself.(Check out for The Building Blocks of Engineering Curriculum). However, within my curriculum, I made sure to include over 60 design and discover labs. These are inquiry based, open-ended projects where students harness the engineering design process and their content knowledge to solve real-life problems. Additionally, I am constantly encouraging my students to come up with newer better ideas than the solutions I came up with.
For a real story: I am a fairly innovative person, but sometimes I think that creativity belongs to the young. I teach middle school science, and I am fortunate to have a very supportive environment, including a progressive administration, supportive staff, and a committed body of friends and family. My brother is quite the reef tank aficionado, and he single-handedly arranged to have a reef tank and most of the required parts and equipment donated to our school. As we get this project up and running, one of the items required was a set of pvc pipes. I was tasked with measuring the diameter of the receiving pipes located at the bottom of the tank-but I could neither reach my arm deep enough into the fish tank nor lift the heavy pump to measure the proper pipe size. I posed the problem to my class, and within minutes I had an army of students ready to tackle the problem. “We need rope, and we’ll be done in three minutes!”. “How about inserting a balloon and inflating until the diameter fits the pipe?” “Oh, I think I have an app for this”. The sheer creativity of the ideas-some which worked and other which did not, sent kids running to my makerspace, and left me shaking my very impressed head. Kids love challenges, and will impress us at every turn if we just give them the chance. If I had no string, rulers, balloons, playdough (that got a bit messy) on hand that day, I would have had to deny my students the ability to take charge of their own learning and to arrive at concrete solutions on their own steam.
So why aren’t more schools buying into makerspaces? It might just be my impression, but I think educators and administrators are fearful of spending time and money on a curricular tool that is simply not finite. And a makerspace cannot be finite. The goal of a makerspace is to engage students in real problem-based learning. Pose a real-life scenario. Let the students empathize with the problem, and come up with new solutions. This is how to foster innovation. If we simply allow students a choice of 7 different objects that we know lead to pre-conceived solutions -where is the room for growth? As educators, we believe and hope for the day where the students become the masters. We want the students to come up with ideas we could have never come up with ourselves- we want to empower their ability to be creative, innovative and come up with NEW solutions. No cookbook science here. We are creating brand new recipes and an entire army of new chefs- let’s make sure the kitchens are well stocked and not limited to tried and true ingredients. Who knows, we may just create the next best French fry and end world hunger.
A question I come up against fairly often is how to keep a makerspace well-stocked. I have my makerspace on a double shelving unit and a few home-depot buckets against a wall of my lab. A typical day shows between 120-180 students through that lab. I used to ration materials (especially balloons) and only let students use materials I knew I had plenty of, or that I wasn’t saving for another class. Now, you may have to do this on occasion, but what I have found is that kids learn to be even more innovative when the materials get scarce. I have seen students who couldn’t find the right size pvc for their prosthetic legs use rubber cord instead . Guess what? They ended up making an excellent prosthetic joint with just the right amount of flexibility. Kids who run out of tape decide to use bungee cords and rubber bands and we end up with a spring loaded garbage can. Obviously, you will need to occasionally restock on basic items, but don’t worry about constantly taking inventory and doling out equal amounts of materials. If a student can provide a legitimate reason for why they need a certain material, let them try. Failure and success both breed great experience, and will encourage students to face problems head-on and confidently. Oh, and buy extra balloons. You’re gonna need them.
Basic Recommendations for a Makerspace
Focus: PBL- Engineering Design
With the essential materials suggested (most of which are available in the dollar store), there are countless PBL activities you can engage your class in. Don’t forget to check out for an incredibly engaging and incredibly affordable way to Enhance your pre-existing Physical Science Curriculum with PBL and STEM)
-scissors (25) (strong enough to cut through cardboard)
-Elmer’s glue (25)
-tape (12 rolls scotch; 6 rolls duct)
-lots of cardboard! (can be recycled-speak to your school janitorial staff)
-tons of pencils (specific color so everyone knows it is a LAB pencil)
*In my lab the pencils have no erasers because WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES
-index cards/scrap paper/lab notebooks
-rolls of string, yarn, floss
-silver foil
-plastic wrap
-pasta (spaghetti and penne)
-paper plates
-rubber bands
- Plastic cups
-Empty water bottles
-Ping pong balls/ golf balls
Suggested Add-Ons:
-foam half-pipes
- a box cutter for you
-2 hot glue guns for you
-Alka-Seltzer Tablets
-Food coloring
-Loads of glue
-Huge oil
-Hydrogen peroxide

Gittel Grant

President and Curriculum Developer at STEM Advancement Inc.


Gittel Grant