Over the past decade, many schools have introduced “makerspaces” to enhance their STEM/STEAM education. Working in these spaces prepares students to be competitive in the future economy and become innovative, problem-solving, creative thinkers.
Makerspaces include collaborative workstations that include high-tech to no-tech machinery and materials. Tools include everything from cardboard, duct tape and bottle caps to 3D printers and drill presses to traditional art and woodworking items. Some have video and podcasting studios or virtual reality spaces. Schools equip their makerspaces differently.
If this sounds like the shop and home economics classrooms of the last century, it’s not. First, young people get equal opportunities regardless of gender. Second, instead of assigning students to make a birdhouse or a skirt, teachers challenge students to develop relevant projects.
“A makerspace empowers students to become innovators, creators, and makers,” says Nick DiGiorgio, director of Hawken School makerspaces. “These skills are needed more now than ever. Kids are on their phones consuming content all day. This is a space where they can produce and create. We’re trying to change their mindset and get them to make and do things.”
Learn by Doing
The buzz phrase “design thinking” applies to makerspaces. Design thinking has gained traction in industry over the past few decades and recently entered grade and high schools. The design-thinking model requires students to develop a product that addresses a problem.
In a blog for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author Rebecca Link explains: “At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: First, fully understand the problem; Second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; Third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms.”
“We take an abstract lesson and turn that into a physical object,” says Bob Newill, STEAMworks director and instructional technologist K-8 at University School’s Lower School.“It’s great, because a lot of people learn better by doing. Students take something off the paper and into the real world. It really makes those lessons stick. The steps of ‘design-thinking’ are part of the process. We are trying to instill in students that sometimes it’s important to have a plan, rather than just make a thing really quickly.”
St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland launched its makerspace about seven years ago.
“Makerspaces have been transformative,” says Jon Jarc, educational technologist in the Fine Arts Department. “We have tools like 3D printers and laser cutters. so students can rapidly prototype their ideas. They can then troubleshoot and go through the next phase of design thinking, and see if their prototype actually solves the problem.”
“They learn from feedback and from failure. They learn, make changes, and improve,” he says. “You learn your greatest skills from failure. Working through the process adds complexity, deep-thinking, and problem-solving skills. All those important abilities we want students to acquire.”
Young entrepreneurs have launched products by using these makerspaces to make Christmas ornaments, signs, stickers, and more. They then sell the items in the school bookstore and in online retail spaces.
Hawken School has an Innovation Lab for the Lower School and a Fabrication Laboratory – Fab Lab – for the Upper School. These spaces are equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, woodworking tools, embroidery machines and more.
“This prepares them to know how to design, to be producers, makers, innovators, creative thinkers,” says DiGiorgio. “It could be in any field — fashion, textiles, engineering, prop making, industrial design, fine art.”
Students have laser-cut earrings, 3D-printed necklaces, and used woodworking tools to make furniture.
“Having these tools at their fingertips helps them explore possibilities and potential, so they can see what lies ahead and what their interests are for the future path to college or a career, even a hobby,” DiGiorgio says. “We’ll be making clocks, furniture, stickers, and more, but what we’re really interested in doing is to get them to be confident, creative, and to think.”
Laurel School in Shaker Heights offers an engineering class dedicated to the Collaboratory makerspace.
“What’s so great about this is that students come in and feel more relaxed, because they’re building something of their own design, not something assigned for a class,” says Karen Redmond, technology innovation specialist and maker mentor. “They have the freedom to make mistakes and self-correct.”
A recent project was a chocolate candy mold. The girls used a CAD program to design an object, then printed it in 3D. Next, they poured food-grade silicone over the object to create a custom mold. The final products included chocolate cat faces and personalized shapes.
At Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, the IDEA Lab space includes a drill press, router, and power tools as well as sewing machines, and an electronics station for soldering and circuitry design.
“The central themes are creative design, problem-solving, and hands-on making,” says Leah Jackson, director of the IDEA Fellowship at the all-girls school. “In the pilot year of the maker space, 10 seventh- and eighth-grade students made functional scooters from basic materials. They learned to bend metal tubing, drill holes, and spot weld.”
“They liked putting on the welding gear,” she adds. “They felt strong and empowered.”