Students across the country have settled into their back-to-school routines. I know my three children have. One of the courses added to my fourth grader’s schedule this year is “Makerspace.” She goes to the class every other week, similar to gym, art, and music. Some parents might be unfamiliar with Makerspaces. Let’s look at what they are, where they came from, and how these spaces can help children for life after school.
The most important conversation in education over the last decade is how we prepare students for an uncertain future. Technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence will shape the economy for decades to come. Studies indicate a large percentage of jobs across the globe will be automated by 2040. Amazon is prototyping physical stores with no employees and factories with minimal staff. Self-driving cars from companies like Tesla and Apple may eliminate many transportation-related roles. Delivery drones are being tested in markets across the country. These are just a few examples of automated technology that may replace the traditional workforce. Schools must teach students the skills they need to succeed in jobs that do not even exist yet. In a recent survey, employers stated the top three skills they are looking for in new employees are collaboration, problem-solving, and creation. They want people who can engage their peers to use their combined knowledge to apply new thinking methods to an organization’s challenges.
Makerspaces provide a space for students to learn those skills. Makerspaces go by many names: Creation Labs, Fab Labs, Hackerspaces, to name a few. Schools all over the world have been finding ways to incorporate creation labs into their buildings. Some districts have built spaces from scratch, while others have renovated existing classrooms or libraries for this purpose. There are even schools that have designed mobile fab labs that can move from school to school by outfitting a bus or trailer with various equipment. The best analogy is to think of the Makerspace like a kitchen. Every kitchen is similar, but each one is unique. What you can make in the kitchen depends on the equipment, the tools, the available ingredients, and the people with you. Each Makerspace is unique. Regardless of the name, size, equipment, or location, creation is the fundamental core characteristic of the space.
What types of things do students do in a Makerspace?
Several factors determine the types of activities in a Makerspace. The age of the students using the space, the kind of equipment and materials in the area itself, and the staff members involved all play a role. Younger students are often guided down a path to solve a problem. Guided instruction allows them to create using predetermined parameters. For example, they may use Lego bricks, PVC pipe, and string to move a marble through various obstacles. Students might make a circuit by conducting a small amount of electric current through an unusual object, like a banana.
Another example is instant challenges. Typically, instant challenges are pre-made kits that provide the students with a simple goal. For example, use the materials in the kit to see how far you can launch a marble across the room. This type of instruction provides the students with the opportunity to explore a problem, create a solution, and begin to think outside of the box. It also prepares them for the equipment they might see as they progress through school.
Middle and high school students can expect to see technologies like 3D printers, CNC routers, laser cutters, virtual or augmented reality headsets, and digital embroidery machines. These tools give students the opportunity to bring their ideas to life. Kids can create, build, and design items in the virtual world that can then be manifested in the physical world.
This concept is best explained with a real-world example from a local high school. Several faculty members complained about the traditional triangular wooden doorstops they would wedge under their door to prevent the door from shutting. The doorstops would go missing or not grip the floor hard enough to keep the door from closing. Several students decided to tackle this challenge using the equipment in the Creation Lab.
Prototypes were designed and subsequently printed on 3D printers. The initial iterations were tested on several doors throughout the building with mixed results. Student designers quickly learned their products needed to be more durable. Additionally, the shape and size of the doorstops made them unusable on some doors. The students cycled through several concepts and ideas before settling on the final design. The end result could be flipped or rotated to work for any door in the building.
The doorstop is just one example of the countless possibilities available in a Makerspace. The unlimited opportunities provide options for teachers from any curricular area. Music, science, world language, and even physical education have units that take advantage of the space.
My school doesn’t have a fab lab. What now?
The Makerspace revolution is all about creativity and inclusion. There are plenty of options for children whose schools do not have a space like this. Many schools offer community members the opportunity to use the tools in the Makerspace outside of the school day. ThinkBox at Case Western Reserve University is open to the public seven days a week. It is one of the best Makerspaces in the country. Some libraries may have Makerspace-style equipment as well. You may need to do some research online, but I imagine you could find a publicly available fab lab within driving distance.
You won’t have access to the technology that some Makerspaces use, but you can still cultivate collaboration, problem-solving, and creation through these projects. Check out makerspaces.com/25-makerspace-projects-for-kids/ or Google the phrase “Low Tech Makerspace Activities.”
Purchasing some pre-made kits is another option parents could consider. The website KiwiCo.com is a fantastic place to start. The site has pre-made Kiwi “crates” that focus on science, math, art, design, or engineering. The boxes arrive with clear instructions and everything your child needs to build or perform the activities. The boxes are designed to encourage the kids to do the work with minimal parent involvement. Parents can purchase an individual kit or choose the subscription model. We bought a subscription for my seven-year-old daughter in May. She loves the crates! We’ve been impressed with both the quality and variety of each box. MakeyMakey.com has some unique offerings as well. Makey Makey teaches students to use household objects to create circuits and perform various tasks. The activities are fantastic for kids, but they do require a computer and some parental involvement.
The world is evolving. Technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives. One of the best things a parent can do to prepare their children for the digital world to come is to foster the skills they’ll need to succeed. Please encourage your children to use the Makerspaces in their school. If that’s not an option, use the suggestions above to work on these skills at home. You’ll be surprised at how much fun they can have while learning science, math, and design.