A "posterized" version of New Canaan high school students at work in the makerspace. (Courtesy Michelle Luhtala)
Excitement about school makerspaces has been in the air, but many educators eager to create hands-on learning spaces in their schools still aren’t sure how to get started or why it’s worth the effort. New Canaan High School librarian Michelle Luhtala recently jumped headfirst into creating a makerspace in her library and documented what she learned, how her space changed and how it affected students along the way. Her experience was very different from elementary school librarian Andy Plemmons, whose makerspace started with a 3-D printer obtained through a grant and blossomed into a core teaching resource at his school.
GETTING RID OF BOOKS
Luhtala is blessed with a big library, but for most of her career it has been dominated by large bookshelves. Over time, Luhtala has pared down her collection as she increased the digital reading material the library offers, but in order to make room for a makerspace she cleared out 7,000 books. She might not have had the courage to make such a drastic change if she hadn’t had the firm support, and indeed push, from her principal to create a makerspace. Luhtala kept most of her fiction and donated a lot of the nonfiction, which kids are now mostly accessing digitally anyway.
While Luhtala wanted open space for big making projects, she also made sure her library has comfortable sofas, quiet study carrels and a few collaborative workrooms where students can meet. She also sent a letter to students at the start of the school year explaining the changes in the library and asking them for their help throughout the year to make it the space they wanted.
“We had no budget for furniture, zero, none,” Luhtala said in an edWeb webinar. “I had this big empty space, but no furniture.” But, she found some old science tables in the district’s storage area and some unused stools to go with them. That was enough.
“Find the storage space for your district and see what’s available because chances are there’s stuff no one wants,” Luhtala said. “Those are conversations worth having. I encourage you to be bold.”
Luhtala also didn't want to over-plan what would happen in the makerspace. She wanted it to develop naturally from student interests. So, she didn’t spend much money buying materials at the outset. She picked up a few things like basic craft supplies and Legos that other teachers had recommended, but she took her cues from the students.
“I really didn’t want to go beyond that because I wanted to see what the kids wanted,” Luhtala said.
Early in the school year students immediately took over the sofa spaces, but they didn’t really know what to do with the rest of it. One day a student asked Luhtala what she was planning to do with the space. She asked what he wanted. He suggested Legos. She had those, so she brought them out. Another student suggested craft supplies. Luhtala brought those out, too. Pretty soon students were asking for all kinds of things, mostly recyclables, and Luhtala now keeps track of requests on a spreadsheet.
EVOLUTION OF THE SPACE
Luhtala soon started covering the tables with butcher paper to hide the old, scratched surfaces. Teachers would often meet in the makerspace and sometimes doodle on the butcher paper. Students recognized their teachers’ artwork and soon students started doodling, too, sometimes adding to each other’s designs, but mostly respecting whatever artwork was already there.
“That students and the teachers started to make those connections in the space was really important,” Luhtala said. The makerspace became a neutral place where students and teachers could create together and interact more casually. New Canaan High School has an open campus, so students come to the makerspace in their free time. Sometimes they use the space to work quietly on a project alone; other times they come in groups.
“Sometimes de-stressing alone is really important,” Luhtala said. She’s also found that there’s an ebb and flow to the popularity of the makerspace throughout the week. It’s usually slow on Mondays, but busy on Fridays, which Luhtala believes indicates students are prioritizing their time well. “By Friday they are ready to unwind and they are ready to get more creative,” Luhtala said.
Some students work on projects for class in the makerspace, and some teachers assign projects with the knowledge that the makerspace can be a resource for students. For example, students in a ninth-grade class were each assigned a planet and had to create an extraterrestrial who could survive on the conditions of that planet. Another time an English teacher asked students to create something that represented a theme or character from the most recent book they’d read.
“They invent their own learning,” Luhtala said of the students. A few students asked for pullback motors to use with the Lego cars they had built. Luhtala immediately saw the motors were well worth the investment because they turn a Lego project into a physics experiment. Students got interested in questions of friction and started researching on their own how speed and weight affected the movement of their cars.
By the end of the year, the makerspace was a casual meetup area. Luhtala might be teaching a group of students about citations in the same area as another student working to build a monster truck. And teachers would sometimes hold book discussions in the makerspace, finding that students were more engaged in the conversation when they could doodle on the butcher paper or make a Lego structure at the same time.
“TechXperts” are student-experts that help out in the library. With the advent of the makerspace, Luhtala asked this group of students to work on a bigger project to solve a problem around the school. They decided garbage was an issue and programmed a zumba to roam around the school hallways and yell out, “hurray,” whenever someone threw a piece of garbage in the can.
The TechXperts have also been a huge help managing the makerspace. Each student naturally gravitated toward certain materials and tools and became the go-to person when anyone had a question about how to use them.
Luhtala’s careful way of making sure students direct what happens in the makerspace has paid off in a number of ways. Students feel like the space is their own and work to keep it clean. Luhtala allows food in this part of the library, a move she was worried would lead to the makerspace looking like the pigsty that is the school’s cafeteria. But instead, students are careful with their food and trash. Luhtala found that when she gave students the trust and responsibility to take care of the space, they rose to the challenge.
One student, Miles, was so excited about the makerspace that he spent an entire semester laying the groundwork for a program that would allow students to get credit for doing a large, long-term project in the makerspace. He wrote a curriculum that would require students to write a paper about their project as well as lead a workshop. He made a wiki, set up a blog, created a Twitter handle and even gathered articles and other ideas for coursework.
“He set up the groundwork for us to really make this meaningful so we can carry this forward,” Luhtala said. Miles will be a freshman at Duke next year. When the university accepted him they made specific note of how impressed they were at his involvement in the makerspace.
Luhtala has found that the space works best when she puts out one project at a time and rotates them frequently. That doesn’t mean students can’t use other tools, but she does try to intentionally offer up a project to spark interest. The materials are stored in labeled bins and Luhtala has put together a photo album with a picture of the item and where it is located.
Luhtala didn’t buy a 3-D printer until January. “I would love to say it was transformational, but it wasn’t,” Luhtala said. Students seemed more excited to make things out of recycled materials than they were about the fancier technology. That may not be true in other makerspaces, but Luhtala found that engagement and buy-in throughout the building was very high at relatively small expense in her first year of running a makerspace.
AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MAKERSPACE
Makerspaces can be a positive experience for kids at all ages, but there are different considerations for different grade levels. In elementary school students all have the same schedule, so a library makerspace may need to be part of the formal library program. And, unlike high school where students can manage the space, little kids need more supervision.
“My first big challenge was how to balance matching curriculum and giving students some free opportunity to explore,” said Andy Plemmons, the librarian at David C Barrow Elementary in Athens, Georgia. He has facilitated a makerspace for the past several years. Demand is so high he often must choose between using the space to support teachers in curriculum-based projects and honoring the learning that happens when kids have freedom to tinker and pursue their own projects.
“It seems to me that when kids come into the makerspace, they sort of all get put on the same level,” Plemmons said. “Most of the stuff is new to all of them.” He says the makerspace has helped him connect with students who didn’t seem to have any interests or who are seen as behavior problems in class. Anyone can excel at making, and many kids show a different side of themselves when given the chance.
“You see kids jump in and start trying things and taking risks that they might not take in other subject areas,” Plemmons said. Students often have perceptions of themselves as certain kinds of learners that the makerspace can disrupt. Plemmons likes to remind students of how they struggled through a making problem when they encountered difficulty in an academic subject.
“When you move into an area where a student puts up a wall, you can go back to the makerspace and help them make that connection that it’s really the same type of skill for approaching a problem in another area of life,” Plemmons said.
Like most teachers and librarians, Plemmons wears many hats and running the makerspace is just part of his job. He encourages teachers to come to him if they have even the seed of an idea to see how the makerspace might be able to add a quality hands-on element to a unit. And, he has partnered with the University of Georgia school of education to bring in student teachers who help run the makerspace during open tinkering times. Kids come in at recess to tinker, and some teachers will even let students go to open-tinker times while the class is doing something else.
While not every school will have a teaching college right next door, Plemmons encourages anyone planning a makerspace to think broadly about possible community partners. “A lot of times there are people who want to volunteer but don’t know what to do,” Plemmons said. He also hopes people won’t get too hung up on having a separate space. To him, a makerspace is more of an attitude and approach to learning than a physical space.
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