Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Are Makerspaces Important to Learning

I have extremely mixed emotions about Makerspaces and the whole maker movement.  On one hand, I feel much like Matthew Arend, the Principal at Sigler Elementary in Plano, TX., who shared in his post How Our Space Became a Makerspace that makerspaces potentially insure that “collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking happened the moment you walked into the room.” (Arend 2015)  I think the ability of Makerspaces to elicit the 4Cs of 21st Century learning is their greatest asset.  On the other hand, if not addressed properly, I am weary that the Maker Movement has the potential to turn into 21st century arts and crafts.  As we see in the P21 Framework, the 4Cs are only a small subset of a much larger pedagogical approach.
(Partnership for 21st Century Learning P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning)

When backed by sound educational practice, makerspaces certainly have the ability to “promote multidisciplinary thinking and learning, enriching the projects that are built there and the value of the makerspace as an educational venue.“(7 Things You Should Know About Makerspaces) But without proper backing and commitment, my fear is that the concept will become just another failed attempt at educational reform.  

I have attended a number of maker events at conferences, visited school based innovation spaces, listened to people I respect extol the value of re-designing learning spaces (i.e., and even attended a maker faire or two.  Unfortunately, what I often see is a strange dichotomy.  Adults and children alike tend to gravitate towards the entry level experiences.  They visit the areas that let them build an LED felt project, construct Squishy Circuits or play with Legos.  The more advanced and what I consider truly innovative technologies, end up being more experiential than constructive.  While putting on a pair of VR glasses, steering a Sphero or a robot around a maze, or watching a 3D printer mold a logo may be “cool”, these experiences only spark interest.  It is up to innovative educators to fan that spark into a blazing fire that unleashes the true potential of the maker movement.  

I contend there is a difference between imagination and innovation and that a broad spectrum separates those two traits.  Imagination is the thought process and the creative design of the Maker movement.  When granted space and time for exploration, an “informal, playful atmosphere allows learning to unfold,  rather than conform to a rigid agenda.” (What is the Maker Movement)  But, innovation comes from “deliberate actions to improve a learning environment by adapting a method of presenting material to students that involves human interaction, hands-on activities and student feedback. “ (What is curriculum innovation and change?)  There are often wide gaps between ideas and meaningful implementation.

Certainly, it is imperative that we foster the imaginative ideas of young learners; however, I feel that as educators we need to take this a step further and make sure they have the opportunity to convert those ideas into reality by supplying the proper tools, resources and motivation.  And this is where I think many of us are currently failing.

In younger grades, Makerspaces allow students to play with new concepts and ideas.  They can begin to conceptualize and codify thoughts that will lay the foundation for further exploration as they mature.  Playing with a Makey-Makey, building lego constructions, drawing with Circuit Scribes and 3Doodlers can all become creative conduits that lay a foundation for innovation.  Indeed, Vygotsky viewed “play as a transitional stage from a child’s thinking constrained by the properties of a current situation to thinking totally free from these constraints.” (Bodrova, Leong 2105)

However, if the Makerspace movement is going to become more than the latest in a long line of educational “buzz words” and political propaganda, it has to include real-world application.  Students must be allowed to prototype and develop products that have true impact and address real world problems.   

When given the right technology, encouragement and support, students are able to accomplish amazing things.  Gabriel Fillippini a high school Junior in Loudoun County, Virginia worked with his teacher and a community group to develop a prosthetic hand for his 6 year old brother using the 3D printer at his high school. (Carey, Hartleb 2016) Unfortunately, the Video News Story will not embed here. It can be viewed at:

Of course, not every Makerspace success story is going to have such a spectacular effect.  But that doesn’t mean it should not have purpose.  The Godium Project was inspired by Kevin Honeycutt and implemented by the Ness City Student Innovations group.  Kevin is a well known keynote speaker and educational innovator who had a problem.  Kevin was buying and replacing too many suitcases and had too much equipment to carry.  So, Kevin partnered with Brent Kerr, a woodshop teacher at USD 303 in Ness City, Kansas and his students to develop a traveling suitcase that could convert to a podium when Kevin presented at conferences around the world. The students were able to work with Kevin and innovate and iterate to create a product that challenged “students to bring something new and needed to the world.” (Honeycutt 2016)

After seeing Kevin’s pitch for the Godium, I may just need to contact Ness City Student Innovations and order one for myself:
Makerspaces do not need to be fancy or expensive to be successful.  One of my favorite stories comes from Grand Center Arts Academy in St. Louis where Andrew Goodin a member of the Disruption Department allowed students to create their own space inside an empty room.  The students chose to address bullying and rumor mongering and developed “a box that anyone could approach, push a button, and say something really mean that they would typically say to someone else. Then, the box would ceremoniously "erase" their words (by playing a song or producing a noise), and say something complimentary back instead.”  (Stories from a School Makerspace).  These students had no resources at their disposal and had to hypothesize and then borrow materials from other teachers and janitors in the building to develop their prototype.  
The above examples are the kind of real world experiences that allow a makerspace to become a sustainable environment.  It makes the students want to continue to explore, genuinely innovate and take ownership of their learning.  By providing adequate guidance and supports teachers can certainly help students accomplish amazing things in a makerspace environment.   While not every school needs to have a formal makerspace, all learners could certainly benefit from the imagination and ingenuity that forms the foundation of the Maker movement.  The important thing is to target real world problems and weave creativity into the curriculum and open pathways to innovation that align with national standards.

Arend, M. (2015, January 10). My Thoughts...My Reflections...A Principal's View. Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

[P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning]. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2016, from

7 Things You Should Know About Makerspaces. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2016, from

What is the Maker Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

What is curriculum innovation and change? (n.d.). Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2105, Spring). Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian Views on Children’s Play. American Journal of Play, 7(3). Retrieved August 2, 2016, from

Carey, J., & Hartleb, E. (2016, June 28). Va. High School Student Makes 3-D Printed Hand for Brother. Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

Honeycutt, K. (2016). Making-Inventing & Growing Entrepreneurs. Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

Stories from a School Makerspace, #1 (The Prototype Process). (n.d.). Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

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