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Makerspaces: New Prospects for Hands-On Learning in Schools

Makerspaces are gaining a foothold in U.S. schools and providing students with new hands-on opportunities to design, create, problem-solve and construct.

by / February 12, 2017

In my last blog post, I wrote about the rebirth of career and technical education (CTE) in U.S. high schools. But I also bemoaned the lack of opportunities available to non-CTE students who wish to work with their hands. I closed by suggesting the growth of maker labs — or makerspaces — in schools presented some interesting opportunities.

Loosely defined, makerspaces are areas in schools that provide students with tools, materials and some assistance in constructing hands-on projects that are usually connected to an academic assignment. These spaces can be as simple as a section of a classroom or library containing a cobbled-together array of maker tools and supplies, or as complex as a full lab set-up with computers, 3-D printers, laser cutters and other digital and hand tools for the construction of sophisticated projects. But the central makerspace premise is this: Providing students with hands-on opportunities to design, create, problem-solve and construct are fundamental elements for engaging learners.     

Makerspaces are cropping up all over in K-12 schools. Many are being assembled and supported by industrious librarians looking for new ways to offer their students hands-on learning opportunities. Others are being built, used and scheduled, akin to traditional technology classes. Since there’s no strict guideline on what constitutes a makerspace, they’re all of this, and everything in between.

Over a year ago, I worked on a consulting project overseeing the implementation of a sizeable grant awarded to a consortium of parochial high schools in a large metropolitan area. Most of the schools used their grant funds to upgrade their networks and purchase new classroom computers. But one site, a prestigious all male prep school, decided instead to use its funds to build a full-scale makerspace in the school’s former library.

During my last visit, the school’s makerspace had become an impressive place, outfitted with a full range of tools: 3-D printer, laser cutter, computers with computer-aided design (CAD) software, robotics equipment, sewing machines and digital audio-visual equipment, as well as an array of power tools one would expect to find in a well-equipped workshop.

The school also developed a semester-long course for all incoming freshman to take in the makerspace, and it’s here the students learn to use the equipment while creating a project of their choosing. The school expects the students in their remaining years on campus to return to the makerspace independently to work on other projects related to their class assignments. The school also hopes teachers will view the space as a valuable class resource.

One more note about this school: A technology teacher is assigned to run the makerspace. However, during the program’s first year, the students quickly became the experts on the new equipment. Due to a challenging construction schedule for remodeling the old library into the makerspace when the school year began, much of the new equipment was still in boxes. So the students helped the teacher assemble the equipment, read the operator manuals (or not) and began working with the new tools. In so doing, they became their school’s resident experts on the new equipment. By itself, this represents an important point for other schools to consider: Let your students become the leaders and experts on using these maker tools and then have them train others. For schools and teachers interested in project-based learning, makerspaces are its natural extension, and student experts can become valuable assets.

There’s a wealth of online information and resources for schools interested in pursuing makerspaces. As a starter-kit, here are a few that may prove helpful.

•    Edutopia’s Starting a School Makerspace from Scratch offers some good ideas on how to build makerspace support in your school, how to find funding, how to connect with other educators doing similar work and how to integrate a makerspace into course curriculum.

•    Tech & Learning magazine’s 2016 article "Making the Grade: How Schools are Creating and Using Makerspaces" gives a rundown on several schools’ makerspace programs and lists the specific tools purchased and used in each. 

•    Maker Ed is a non-profit organization working to provide educators interested in makerspaces with helpful training, resources and a supportive community of colleagues. It's primarily focused on educators working with elementary age students.

•    Education Week’s 2016 article "The 'Maker' Movement Is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right?" is an incisive piece that examines the beginnings of the maker movement and its expansion into K-12 schools.       

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Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.

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