Makerspaces - a beginner's guide

At a recent workshop held at the International School of Luxembourg I was, apparently very belatedly, introduced the makerspace movement. As a teacher who has only recently joined the EdTech world, I am constantly confronted by how little I know in comparison to many schools, teachers and specialists around the world, and many of the ideas I am introduced to are common practice for these schools, yet totally innovative and unfamiliar to me.

That can be a very uncomfortable place to be as an educator and a professional, especially when you are passionate about a topic, but it is also very exciting and I can see many advantages to being 'behind'. For one thing, my school and I are working on walking a path that has been walked by a huge number of schools before us, from a hugely varied range of contexts, demographics and nations: we can benefit from their knowledge and learn from their experiences. It is the nature of innovation and innovative thinking that it isn't straightforward, and we have the possibility to avoid many of the pitfalls and issues schools who have led innovations will have had to discover and navigate without guidance. This brings me to my second point: as an inquiry-based school, we ask our students to take risks, be uncomfortable and be challenged every day. We tell them, and we believe, that this is a central part of deep, effective learning, and it is only fair that we should model and take that journey with them whenever we can.

So, what is a makerspace?

Well, that just so happens to link very nicely to my point about risks and innovation. A makerspace is exactly what is says on the tin and so much more: it is a space for students to make things, with and without technology. It is an area where students can explore materials, tools, technology, ideas and projects, based on their own interests. It is heavily self-directed, play-driven and emphasises problem solving, critical thinking, independence and a willingness to take risks, fail, persevere and succeed. In terms of what the kids are most likely to focus on, it is a space for creativity, excitement, fun and freedom with support. Typically they are colourful, comfortable, exciting and inspiring spaces: think Google or Facebook working environment, but for kids!

Here are some photos and videos of makerspaces, large and small, in schools around the world:

The beauty of the movement is that it isn't about how much money or space you have to devote to the idea, it's really about using what space and resources you have to give students freedom to innovate.

Why do my students need a makerspace?

Our students are extremely lucky, in many ways, to live in  such a technologically advanced age: we have phones that have more processing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon. But much of the technology we have access to is perfectly packaged, perfectly contained and lacks the opportunities that the current generation of designers and innovators had to tinker, create and innovate. Without those opportunities we wouldn't have the technology we have today, and if we do not create opportunities for our students to participate in the creative and innovative use of technology, as well as engaging in problem-solving and critical thinking through and about technology, we have to question whether we are preparing the younger generations for the technological demands they will face in the future.

Not only that, this is an excellent way to engage learners of all ages and ability levels in non-traditional learning: makerspaces could form the backbone of your school's Gifted and Talented programme, as well as giving students who struggle with other aspects of education a chance to shine and be successful.

Getting started with makerspace

As you can see from the examples above, makerspaces can be large, shared spaces in a school, or they can be in individual classrooms, designed to suit the needs of that specific age group. So, what if you are desperate to get started with your own makerspace at the classroom level? What do you need? For me, there are 5 basic, quite inexpensive steps/items that would provide a basis for a flexible, creative space for classroom innovation.

1. Make it as comfy and inviting as you can

It sounds simple but it makes a difference - make the space an exciting and welcoming place to be. That might mean comfy, flexible seating - perhaps a couple of gym balls (these have a dual purpose, as you'll see in point 2!), a bean bag, and/or a rug, pleasant lighting, and enough space to move around. This is an area to which you want children to be choosing to come, so think about how you would like a space like this to be, and see how close you can get to that with what you have.

Cost: entirely up to you! If you have some things you can re-purpose from home, you might be able to do this completely free, or you might want to invest some of your class budget if you have something special in mind.

2. Get a green screen

Oh green screens - they are so simple, and yet so powerful. Thanks to extremely simple apps like DoInk (it's pronounced Doo- Ink, not doink, as I assumed for the longest time), children can produce very versatile, creative videos with minimal teacher help.+

The videos below are just a few examples of how green screens can be used to support and enhance learning across the curriculum, from literacy to unit and social studies. I heard of a lovely example of a group of Grade 1s using the green screen to tell the story " Not a stick", which is one of the videos below, thank you to Tanya Irene of the International School of Luxembourg.

Cost: 10 - 200 Euros, depending on your budget and the level of professionalism you are going for.

3. Get a tripod

This is very important for the greenscreen idea, since nobody likes to watch or edit shaky video footage. Beyond greenscreening, it opens up very interesting possibilities for stop motion animation, which could not be easier with an app like Smoovie, for example and general videography.

There are a huge amount of options for this, depending on the device you are using. For me, the gold standard, which I have seen in action is Justand, but many standard tripods have the possibility to add an attachment to make it possible to add any device. 

Cost: 20 - 150 Euros

4. Make a LEGO table, board or wall

LEGO may seem terribly low-tech but the act of building, creating and problem solving is what is most important, and LEGO gives students a reliable and accessible way to do that. Not to mention, LEGO has a huge quantity of much higher-tech additions, such as programmable robots and drones. Mind you, if a low-tech LEGO wall is good enough for Google, I reckon it is good enough for our students! Why not superglue LEGO boards to the back of a door, the front of a library counter, or cover a table in them to make a permanent LEGO space?

Cost: LEGO isn't cheap, at around €50 per big box, but Ebay has lots of offers for 2nd hand LEGO and as we all know, it lasts an eternity so it is a worthwhile investment. How much you spend depends on your needs and the space you have available, but you could budget €100 to get started.

5. Create a "take-apart" station

I love this idea. If you have ever worked in IT you will know that the question of what to do with obsolete hardware looms large. Well, here is one idea: put it on a table, provide some screw-drivers, safety googles ad a dust mark and let your students learn about what is inside. Obviously this is more suited to slightly older kids and lots of supervision, but by learning about what components make up their hardware, learning the names, sorting the parts and putting them back together again, students can learn to fix, create and alter hardware to fit their needs or solve a problem.

Cost: Free for the things to take apart, plus the cost of safety equipment and tools.

Getting started with makerspaces can be as big or small a venture as your time, space and budget will allow, but the benefits to our students have the potential to be beyond measure. I hope some of you will feel inspired to give it a go. If you need any advice, guidance or inspiration, please check out some of the resources listed below, and let me know how you get on!

Worlds of Making - Laura Fleming

#MakerEd on Twitter

Desigining a school makerspace - Edutopia

Starting a makerspace from scratch - Edutopia

Worlds of Making school blog