Cool Tools Thing 38: Makerspaces

Trying out LittleBits

What am I doing?

This year is the third year we’ve had a maker club in our library. I do a club rather than a makerspace because I’m at an elementary school and our schedules don’t work for the usual makerspace, come when you can, work when you have the time, model. The first year, we met once a week at the end of the school day, from 2:50-3:20, and the art teacher was my co-advisor. The second year, we still met at the end of the day from 2:50-3:20 but the art teacher was out on maternity leave and they had cut our library clerks so I didn’t have anyone else to help support the club. It was a little tough to manage because I was also trying out an end of the day library helpers program that year as but, the makerclub group was smaller than the year before so that helped. This year, our building received a grant that is supplying an after school bus several days a week so I decided to try moving our maker club to after school instead (which unfortunately, meant the art teacher was once again unavailable to help). In previous years, I’ve hesitated to try moving the club to after school because I didn’t want transportation to be the issue that kept kids from being able to participate but the after school bus has solved that issue. All of our makerclub supplies have been donated or collected over the last several years. The year before I started the makerclub, I sent an email out to my whole building explaining what I wanted to start and asking them to bring me any supplies they were done with or no longer wanted. Once word spread about the makerclub, people starting bringing me things they thought I would want whenever they went through their rooms but, I still periodically send an email out in the spring-those colleagues that are retiring are usually already starting to clean out their rooms and are happy to help you out! To store it all, I used some leftover supply money to buy some drawered supply carts on wheels. I keep them tucked in an out of the way corner of the library until we need them.


What has been working? What hasn’t?

Some things that I think have worked well for our makerclub are:

  • Applications-Every year that we’ve had the makerclub, I’ve had students fill out an application to join. The applications aren’t terribly long or complicated but they do show me who has enough interest to follow through with the pre-requisites. Plus, the application has a place for them to share their ideas and interests which helps me personalize and guide our year together.
  • Information meetings-Last year I started having information meetings for students interested in joining makerclub. Every day for a whole week, I had a 30 minute, “All about Makerclub” meeting where students could learn what makerclub was, see examples of past projects, hear about my goals and expectations for makerclub are, and ask their questions. The only way to pick up a makerclub application is to attend one of these information meetings.
  • Starting with whole group challenges-I like to start makerclub off every year with several weeks of everyone doing the same project challenges (sometimes as individuals, sometimes as pairs or groups). It gives us time to all flex our creativity and get to know each other. Plus, the added element of competition gets them pumped! We’ve done challenges like trying to build the best catapult out of popsicle sticks, a spoon, and some rubber bands; trying to make a boat that can hold the most quarters out of tin foil and cardboard; making the paper airplane that will fly the furthest; egg drops; homemade ice cream three ways etc.
  • Moving from the end of the school day to after schoolMoving to after school this year allows us to have an hour of club time (twice as much as when we meet at the end of the day!). Besides the obvious benefits of having more time to work on projects and manage the cleanup, having that extra time has also allowed us to have…
  • Post-session wrap discussionsThe challenges and activities themselves can be wonderful learning opportunities but to help facilitate that learning, I’ve always wanted to have wrap up discussions and this year, we finally have the time for them! I like to ask them questions like,  “What worked? What didn’t? If we did this same experiment/project/challenge all over again, what would you do differently? If you could swap out a supply for a different one, what would you swap out and why?” and so on. I find these discussions informative and I hope, the students have been as well.

Some things that haven’t been working well for our club are:

  • Transitioning from the whole group challenges to individual projects-I’ve struggled with this one every year. There are several things that make this difficult every year:
    • Supplies-Even with the students providing me with their ideas for projects, I find it difficult to provide the variety of supplies that will help them try out their ideas and follow their creative whims. I always seem to have almost everything they need but not quite.
    • ToolsI also struggle with figuring out how to safely manage the use of some tools during makerclub as well as what tools are reasonable to let upper elementary age students use with moderate supervision.
    • Motivation– I find that many of my students like the idea of free choice creation time but freeze when presented with that time.
  • Balancing my time-I often struggle with balancing my time helping the students who need ideas and the push to get started with helping the students who have an idea and are working but have hit a snag.
  • Keeping them motivated!-Every year, students seem to lose steam with their projects and want to just abandon them before completing them. I struggle with how to handle this. Part of me thinks this is fine and acceptable. Makerclub is about experimenting and trying and learning. It should be a place they don’t have to worry about grades and getting in trouble for not handing something in. On the other hand, I want them to experience the pride in completing a difficult task and pushing themselves to overcome barriers. I also don’t like seeing supplies wasted on half-finished work since I have little to no budget for makerclub and I have to really work to collect and accumulate the supplies we do have.



What new ideas did you pick up from the readings this week?

I’ve been thinking about what hasn’t been working and how to overcome it a lot this year. So I focused my time and energy on finding ways to bridge the gap between the guided challenges we start with and true, free choice project time-and boy did I find some ideas!

  • Maker Tubs-I love the idea of these pre-assembled challenges! I already know my students love challenges so these would be right up their ally. But, by having lots of them to choose from, they would also be able to experiment with free choice (without being overwhelmed with ALL THE CHOICES). I’ll start keeping an eye out for good deals on clear plastic tubs so I can create some of these tubs overtime and hopefully, have a nice set ready to go for next year. I’m thinking these could be a great training wheel step for the free choice challenges (some kids really, really struggle with not being told what to do each and every step of the way and having everything in one little tub could really help them out). While I wait to gather tubs and put some of these ideas together, I also found these STEM challenge cards on Teachers Pay Teachers I think I might use. I still won’t be gathering all the supplies for them but I think just having the supplies listed might be a helpful step for my group.
  • Challenge Cards-I also like the idea of modifying the maker tub idea slightly and instead of making the actual tubs with everything in them already, making challenge cards based on the maker tub ideas. The students can pick the challenge, find their own supplies, and go!  I’m especially excited about making challenges related to books! I loved the Iggy Peck Architect example in the one video. It reminds me of a session one of my colleagues went to at a conference. The presenter talked about creating steam challenges based off of books (read The Gingerbread Boy, identify the problem, create a solution to the problem etc). I’ve had that idea kicking around in the back of my head for awhile and this would be a way to test it out before I tried it with whole classes at the lower grade levels.
  • Idea CardsI’ve been wanting to create direction cards/sheets for different craft like activities for quite awhile. I have several students this year who have expressed interest in learning how to do things like weave or crochet so this Cool Tool Thing was the perfect push to finally make some basic instructions for those and other fiber arts like string art or basket weaving. Here are the ones I’ve started so far: Maker Club Craft Idea Cards
  • Maker Journals-One of the ideas I saw when I was perusing Pinterest were Maker Journals. I love the ideas of giving the kids a place to record their ideas, make sketches, keep track of what worked, what didn’t etc. I think I might use this one I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. While we do something like this already during our end of class breakdowns I like the idea of adding the journals for a few reasons:
    • End of club whole group breakdown sessions are great when we’ve all been working on the same projects but, journals might be a better option for when everyone has been doing different activities
    • Some students just aren’t comfortable sharing and reflecting in a group setting. Hopefully, the journals would give them space to freely think about their successes and failures

Whew! Putting all these ideas together was A LOT of work (which is probably why I hadn’t gotten around to it yet and was still hitting those some old struggles with my Makerclub) but now that they’re done, I’m so excited and glad I took on this particular Cool Tool Thing! I’m sure the kids will feel more empowered to try things independently and now that I’ve started the process of gathering the ideas keeping it going doesn’t seem quite so hard (isn’t starting always the hardest part!). Plus, those Maker Tubs are practically done for me-just need to pick up some bins and hit the dollar stores for some quick supplies. This year’s Maker Club is going to be the best yet-I can feel it!


Cool Tools for School, Thing 23: Makerspaces


I can’t remember when I first heard or read about Maker Spaces but I do know I’ve been intrigued by them from that first moment. I think for me, the big appeal of Maker Spaces is that they encourage experimentation and exploration. There are no right ways to do things, only things to try at a Maker Space. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my younger brother and me playing with our Legos. Our Legos we’re mostly hand-me-downs so they were just in a big tub, no boxes or directions. In fact, we didn’t realize that Legos came in sets with predetermined purposes until we were much older. We would play with our Legos for hours, using our imagination to come up with all sorts of characters and adventures for them to have. I love the idea of my students having a place to feel that same kind of wonder and possibility.

And unfortunately, in my experience, while we say we want kids to be problem solvers and innovative thinkers, we don’t actually let them innovate or give them time to problem solve and make their own answers. So much of what they learn in school is scripted and controlled and creativity is squashed except when we want them to turn it on (I’m just as guilty of this an anyone-the last thing I want when I’m teaching a lesson is for some kid to make a fort at the table and turn his activity sheet into an origami bird).  Maker Spaces can give our students the time to explore, tinker, think, experiment, and gain confidence.

I’d hoped to start a Maker Club in my library this year. I spent the summer collecting ideas for potential projects, I signed up for some different PD offerings about Maker Clubs, I got my principal’s permission to start one and I even talked to my school’s art teacher about running it with me. But then, it kind of stalled out on me. The biggest hurdle I was facing was supplies. I knew I could spend some of my budget money on supplies for the club but I also knew that I would run out of those supplies fast and I just wasn’t sure where to get more supplies in a timely fashion. So, my big goal for this Cool Tool was to reach out to someone and get some tips on supplying my Maker Club.

I was super psyched to see that one of the maker club articles Polly posted was from my alma mater, Pioneer Central (middle school). After reading some of her blog entries, including the one about her maker club, I emailed Maria for some tips and suggestions and boy did she deliver! Maria not had tons of useful suggestions, she followed up with an email with links to all the forms and power points she created for her maker club!

Here were some of Maria’s suggestions:

1. If you have a school in your area that has a First Lego League or
robotics club, see if they would be willing to loan supplies (or run a
workshop with your club).
2. Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grants.  The deadline for this cycle has
passed, but you could jump on for the next one.
3. Email the staff in your building for donations.  That is how we obtained
the majority of our craft material.  People always have stuff that they are
looking to get rid of.
4. Join the CSTA – a computer science organization.  It’s free.
Periodically, they send out some grant opportunity stuff.
5. You might want to check out the Finch Robot loan program.  The deadline
has passed, but it would be worth a try to see if they would send you a kit
6. If all else fails, use some of your budget.  I used around $150 of
library money to get some Makey Makeys and squishy circuit kits…stuff
that wasn’t disposable that I knew we would be able to use for years to

So far, I’ve emailed my co-workers to keep the library in mind while doing their spring cleaning this year and I’ve talked to one of my 5th grade teachers about helping me set up something on Donors Choose. He’s used that site to score several iPad minis and cases for his class this year and is pretty excited about helping someone else get something going.

Fingers crossed that this time next year, I’ll be using this Cool Tool space to tell everyone about what we’ve done at my school and what I’ve learned about running a Maker Club!