Our elementary computer lab could qualify for an entry on the show Hoarders. From last summer’s technology install we have piles of flattened cardboard and garbage bags full of foam inserts. To this we’ve added donations of cardboard tubes of all sizes, from the mundane toilet paper tube to an enormous fabric bolt tube. There are boxes of empty yogurt containers, wine corks, and lids of all sizes. There is a cart labeled connectors which is a Dollar Store bonanza of string, rubber bands, small containers of playdough, clothesline clips, glue, sticks of clay, etc… There is another cart labeled Things that Move consisting of donated old tennis balls, matchbox cars, dominoes, ping pong balls, recycled empty water bottles, tennis ball tubes, and pill bottles (all identifying information removed). Add to this purchased legos, Dash robots, and BeeBots. And yes, this being the computer lab for the school, it is still a working lab with 25 desktop stations that are used by classes on a daily basis. We’ve turned it into our makerspace at the elementary school and our students are excited.
The Elementary Principal, the Computer Lab Assistant, and myself wanted to introduce the concepts of making and a makerspace this year. One of the ways we’ve done that is with a makerspace club for second and third graders before school. We were hoping 20-25 students would sign up and were blown away when we had 60 students interested in participating. Our Friday before school makerspace quickly became a Tuesday session and a Friday session to accommodate all of the students. Parents drop the students off at 7:30am or the students come in on the Middle-High School bus run and are dropped off after the secondary students are deposited at the secondary building.
We started the first week with a more structured activity for all the students. This gave us an opportunity to discuss Five Star Behavior (our PBIS program) as it related to teamwork and problem solving. We also reviewed the idea that failure is an important step to success. We created makerspace journals and introduced these to the students and then we ran The Marshmallow Challenge. For twenty minutes we watched groups of 2nd and 3rd graders completely immersed in the challenge. It was awesome and the results were more impressive than what I’ve watched adults come up with.
The second week was more open-ended. We had four different challenges for students to select from. A Rube Goldberg machine designed to catch our rogue stuffed puppy, marble runs, mazes for BeeBots, and a Dash challenge. Students picked partners or small groups to work in and then picked what they wanted to work on. Creating marble runs out of cardboard tubes on one of our hallway walls was a popular choice. Again, we were amazed as students got to work and were immersed in the challenge they had picked.
At the end of week 2, any pre-conceived notions about what students in these grades could or couldn’t do had completely vanished. Week 3 brought even more open-ended challenges. These included designing and building a bridge made out of paper and tape that could hold the weight of their shoe, a catapult that could launch a ping pong ball at least 4 feet, designing and building a new game, and making a robot out of cardboard that moves by rolling. Students could also finish projects from the previous week, or go back to ideas from the previous week. Students always have a choice in how they want to work- alone, with a partner, or in a group and what they want to work on. We had a wide range of projects including a catapult that sent a ping pong ball 36 feet, a paper bridge that held up 4 sneakers, a variety of newly invented games, and Dash was programmed to write a large letter H on a piece of butcher paper. One of our students made a life saver dispenser and had the enterprising idea to add a quarter slot to it and I ended up paying him a quarter to get one of my own lifesavers dispensed. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was more excited, the students or the adults in the room. The level of energy, focus on making and sheer excitement when their project worked is truly inspiring. Our superintendent made a guest appearance for a session with each group and challenged them to protect their egg so that it would not crack when dropped off a 6ft ladder. The designs for that were some of the most original I’ve seen.
While we will continue to provide challenges and ideas we really want every makerspace day to start with the question “What do you want to make today?” and have students self-direct their own projects. We are also thinking about how to balance completely student driven making with providing students with some direct instruction on making different items. For example, in Week 4 I taught interested students how to fold a single piece of newspaper into a square box and then they planted seedlings in the boxes and took them home. I would like to introduce LEDs, conductive tape, and coin batteries- but this needs some instruction in the beginning. We’re also thinking about how to work with students on the design process to improve their creations.
From these before school maker sessions, we learned some lessons about how to improve our makerspace. Our biggest take-away is the need for a dedicated space. Materials like scissors, markers, and tape need a dedicated and clearly marked shelf. We also just need more space to better organize all of the recyclables to make it more efficient for students to find materials and clean up at the end. Next year, we plan on moving out of the computer lab and into a dedicated space. Students also need “work in progress boxes” to keep their projects safe for the following week.
We are also re-thinking the journals. Some students are really good at tracking their ideas and reflecting on how to improve or fix what they are making, but many students would rather just build. Even though we had 80 minutes with the students in each session, time always seemed to work against reflective journaling. Some projects don’t lend themselves to the journals either. A final important lesson for anyone thinking about starting a makerspace is that a variety of cardboard is key. While we had BeeBots and two Dash robots, the students gravitated towards the cardboard. The last week of both session, we didn’t bring out the carts with these robots on them. Technology can enhance a makerspace and provide advanced making opportunities, but it is not necessary to get started.
Our last Friday session was the day before the start the Memorial Day weekend. Towards the end of the session a parent came to pick up her daughter. She told us the family wasn’t allowed to start their trip to their cottage in the Adirondacks until after the makerspace had ended. The third grade students in each session made sure that all the adults involved knew they wanted this to expand to fourth grade.
Every day I was reminded of the ingenuity and creativity that student have when given access to common materials and challenged to build. This is the true power of a makerspace.