March 2, 2016 by

The Evolution of a Makerspace in a School Community

By Laura Ferrell

Ferrell Makerspace Evolution 300x300Much like the process of “making” itself, developing a makerspace was an evolving process for my school community—one that continues to adapt and unfold as we learn more about what students want to learn and tie it to what we are required to teach.

The idea of makerspaces has grown in popularity over the past few years with the expansion of STEM and STEAM conversations. The three-pronged approach to each NGSS standard identifies “engineering” as one component. By definition, engineering concerns itself with building and construction. Makerspaces have the ability to serve this purpose, as they are designed for the invention and creation of new ideas.  Schools therefore see an opportunity to meet these outcomes and are implementing such a space within their building. However, the pathway to achieve this shift in instruction spurs conversations about best practice and how this learning alternative can truly help students make physical connections to content.

We know for certain that having a makerspace is good for kids, which should be enough rationale to have it in the first place. However, in many ways, having a makerspace doesn’t necessarily align with the “schedule” of school. So, how did we attempt to fit a round peg in a square hole? Below is a list of four key factors we considered when implementing a makerspace in our school.

Access

Determining and expanding who has access to the makerspace has been part of the evolution of both the philosophy and physicality of the space.

  • We started with a small group of students from a technology club. This was a great place to begin, as it allowed us to explore what students were interested in learning about. However, with a student population of over 1,000, just 10 students participating a week seemed didn’t seem like enough.
  • Next, we invited a small group of accelerated students to meet for 40 minutes every other week. This provided an alternative opportunity for some of our more independent students to explore and engage in learning experiences in a way that, at times, was quite a challenge for their mindsets. Still, our reach was not as expansive as it could be.
  • This year, we introduced access to our makerspace as a club option for students. Any student in our middle school may join the club and have an hour each week to design and play.
  • Since our makerspace is currently housed in our library, we now have the ability to invite whole classes of students to the space, thus allowing a majority of students to use it as part of their learning.

Programming

Ultimately, what type of “making” did we want to tackle first? Including student voice throughout our makerspace development has been an essential piece of the conversation. Why incorporate something students aren’t interested in?

  • Initial conversations began with an open-ended question to students: “If you could learn anything, what would you want to learn?” We assumed that this question would generate a volcanic eruption of ideas, brimming with possibility. Not so much. Instead, we found that students needed, at the very least, an outline of options to get them started thinking. Remember, this isn’t just a matter of buying some Audrinos. This is a huge philosophical mindset for everyone in your school community.
  • Invite administrators into the conversation as early as possible. These supportive folks have the ability to support you and help out with scheduling to make student attendance possible.
  • Consider hosting a small focus group to gauge teacher understanding of what a makerspace is all about and explain how they can be included in the development process.

Location

Based on various factors, our space moved around a bit. It’s important to start small and expand a makerspace as necessary.

  • Our first space was established in a bookshelf in my office. As our materials grew, so did our space. We knew it was time to expand when the bookcase broke.
  • Our next space was a spare classroom. Sawing wood and creating sawdust didn’t make us popular with our custodians, but they were always intrigued by what we were making.
  • Paint is important. In other words, the physical reinvention of the space is necessary. Think about it from this perspective: we want the spaces we live and learn in to make us feel a certain way. Why else do we paint our homes or decorate bulletin boards? In the case of a makerspace, inspired, creative, and different are adjectives that users should feel when participating in the experience.

Connections

  • DIY.org: This site was key to helping students understand the maker concept. The concentrations listed on the website have expanded significantly since we began our space. In truth, some tracks are simply difficult to implement in a school (the Angler hobby, for instance, could be a challenge). The site also allows students to track their progress, share results, and initiate next steps. Online courses that have recently been added are also helpful to facilitators, as it is impossible to even pretend to know even a little bit about what interests students.
  • Reach out and create community connections. Start with a small group of students with interested parents. This will blossom into community helpers are willing to share their passions with students in various capacities.
  • Don’t forget to talk about philosophy. Makerspaces are not simply about programming robots and painting a wall yellow. If people don’t understand the Makerspace philosophy, they won’t use it.

Plans for the Future

Digital badging is a validating way to helps students showcase their accomplishments. Many online platforms offer the opportunity to create accounts and celebrate student achievements.  While the concept of badges has been around for a while, we are looking at ways to implement a schoolwide system to help students visually track their achievements in our makerspace. We are actively seeking time in our school day to maximize the amount of students that will benefit from our makerspace. In addition, we are developing documents that align our school curriculum, NGSS, and the physical elements of the makerspace so that we can fully incorporate the space into guaranteed learning experiences for our students. This will hopefully increase user access by providing teachers with the resources necessary to propel the curriculum forward. We are also exploring the concept of “mobile makers,” which are carts of materials that can be loaned to classroom teachers for brief periods of time.

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Laura Ferrell works as an assistant principal at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School, in Oak Lawn, Ill. She is an active member of her local ASCD chapter, IL ASCD, and is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2014. She has previously served in multiple teaching roles and as an instructional technology coach. Follow Ferrell on Twitter @LFedtech.