How to Design an Awesome Maker Space to Bust Summer Boredom

Summer is just around the corner and it is time for me to get our Maker Space at home back into full gear before school lets out! We moved last fall and we haven’t found a great place to set up our Maker Space.  Although our house is significantly larger (we were in an 850 square foot house – so everything is bigger here!), I’m still gauging how we use this new space. I find that my son is generally within 20 feet from me (probably because that’s as far as we could get from each other during the first five years of his life because of the 850 square feet we occupied!).  So here we’ve been for six months using any space around this place as our Maker Space. The kitchen table. The coffee table. The LEGO table. The basement. The floor! We have a great space upstairs that is almost like a small loft, but I’m afraid it won’t be used as often as if we keep it on our main level (ahem, that 20-feet-from-me-at-all-times-issue). Plus, we have the great fun of having my 13 year old niece and almost-9-year-old nephew hang out during the summer and having them upstairs removes me from the fun! It’s a real dilemma. What’s not a dilemma: Learning. Learning doesn’t have to halt simply because summer vacation is here. Learning should be fun, exciting, and spark curiosity especially during the summer!

We originally established a Maker Space in our home to encourage this mindset. What exactly is a Maker Space? Definitions vary, but we define it as, “A place to encourage and inspire children to challenge themselves, to explore, to learn to think creatively, critically, and problem solve.” Your child may have a Maker Space at school, but it can also be set up in your home. A small table, desk or workbench will get you started. As I shared above, right now our Maker Space is fluid. During the summer we extend it to a workbench outside. What does matter is giving your child the freedom to explore ideas, to be successful and even permission to fail.

Inevitably, your child will create a project and it will fail. A perfect example of this is a boat my son wanted to design this winter. He watched a youtube video of a homemade steam powered boat and went to work building it. I took one look at it and knew it wasn’t going to work like in the video. But he was determined and it did float and sort of work before capsizing! A year ago, this same kid would have been angry and quit. But this time, he had a breakthrough. He laughed and we talked about what might have make it sink and what he could change for the next round. And he went right back to work.

No matter your age, failure is a part of life and we use our Maker Space to help our son learn to navigate that process and contribute to a growth mindset. My son is not naturally prone to a growth mindset (and to be honest, neither am I!). Giving him the opportunity to fail in a safe environment has helped him develop greater creativity and persistence.

How to get a Maker Space started in your home:

For young children, dig out your craft supplies. My son was about three years old when we really dove in. By four, he was using a hot glue gun under close supervision. Now, at age five, he uses it on his own. You know your children best – guide them, teach them, and train them to use various tools.

CAUTION: Don’t stand in their way. When Finn was really young, my dad scolded me for doing something for him that he could figure out on his own. He struggled, but he ultimately got it. It was the most difficult lesson of parenting that I have learned. In fact, I’m still learning it. Often I have to ask myself, “Is this something that he can do for himself? Or learn to do for himself with training?”…and more often than not, the answer is yes. Parents let go of the control. Seriously. It has given Finn confidence, motivation, and drive. He is a better person for it. He is more engaged and curious because I allow him to go!

Back to the craft supplies…Make materials available and accessible. Some ideas to get you started:

  • clean recyclables
  • cardboard
  • duct tape, masking tape, scotch tape
  • glue
  • scissors
  • pipe cleaners
  • straws
  • craft sticks
  • string
  • beads
  • wood
  • paint

Start with materials that you already have. Don’t feel the need to run out and buy anything until you get a good feel for what you have. You may not even need to buy anything (other than duct tape and hot glue. I’m perpetually restocking these!).

Alternative resources:
I don’t always know how to do what he is imagining, so we use the internet to search for tutorials and videos. Sometimes, I give him a challenge, other times I let him explore on his own. We generally come back to testing and improving, but sometimes we just have fun. The trick is letting go of controlling the process. Allow your child to drive the project and do the work! That’s where engagement and learning are at their best.

Growing with your Maker Space:
Older children continue to enjoy creating with the materials listed above, but can learn additional elements. You may have a child who loves to help in the kitchen. Challenge him or her to create a series of more difficult recipes. Begin with an easy recipe, maybe three or four ingredients and a few steps. Let your child do it! Am I getting point across yet?! It is very difficult to let go of control. It might get messy. It might not taste great. But one recipe at a time, your child will develop and improve. Before you know it, you might get a day off from cooking dinner (#momgoals).

Older kids can also explore more in-depth concepts. We build cardboard and duct tape boats and test them on a local lake. We love circuits and use inexpensive SMD LEDs and copper tape from SparkFun. Explore coding through a free program: Scratch, from MIT. Teach how to use tools and give your child access to wood, nails and screws. Encourage your child to plan by sketching and listing required materials before building. If your kid is into LEGOs, give stop-motion video a try. The possibilities are endless.


Maker Spaces don’t need expensive equipment. They do need adults willing to support through trials, the freedom to try something new, and a bit of grace when things get messy. Join in the fun once in awhile! Everyone can benefit from making.

Check out our guide to Designing a Maker Space – it can be used in both a classroom or home setting!

Creating an Authentic Learning Environment in Your Classroom

What does it mean to have a Maker Space in your school? There is not a standard definition of what a maker space, maker lab, or tinkering corner should be. It can be as simple as a corner of your classroom where students can tinker, disassemble a broken computer, make a truss bridge with craft sticks, or just experiment with some safe chemicals. Making, tinkering, hacking are all terms tossed around liberally. But what does it mean in your classroom? The challenge is to allow your students to explore something that peaks their interest. Something that causes them to be engaged and ask questions. Allow your students to try something new and unknown. When you allow a child’s curiosity to drive his or her education, he or she will blow through barriers and boundaries that they’ve set on themselves and sometimes even that you’ve unknowing held.

The whole premise is to get ideas flowing, to fail and find solutions through trial and error, to answer the question what if? Or, it can be a dedicated room where there are many high tech machines that can create almost anything you need or want. The two primary factors are cost and space. You can make it what you want based on funding and space and your own comfort zone. The important thing is to get students tinkering, creating, being curious and making connections to real life….authentic learning. Just do it!

Take the first step. Get out of your rut, step into a world where you learn along with your students. Your students will love the experience and will benefit in ways that you couldn’t imagine.
Once I challenged my students to design a cardboard and duct tape boat that could hold two of them. The finished boat could have only one layer of water-proofing on the exterior. This simple challenge excited them so much that they were doing research on designs, building prototypes and discussing the best way to build their yachts. Of course, some just dove in and started building without any idea of how to do it, but isn’t that what it is all about?
Learning by doing, failing, trying again, and finally reaching success.
Too often, as teachers we want students to follow our guidelines because we are the “experts”, and for purposes of efficiency we can save time. But by making things easier for our students we are missing an important piece in the learning puzzle. Two key ideas, choice and trial and error, are critical to creativity and learning.
Check out our FREE Makers Space resource to learn more about how you can incorporate making in your classroom! Looking for some inspiration? Join our Facebook collaboration board for educators!

Confessions of a Maker Space Volunteer: Day 1

I started volunteering in the Maker Space at my son’s elementary school a few weeks into the school year. The students had already begun their projects. Their challenge? To design a toy. They had researched and designed their projects on paper and had begun the building phase using engineering design principles. My first morning, the Maker Space teacher/hero, Mrs. H, introduced me and then set me free to the kids. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was in the risk taking zone. And in that moment, I was afraid of failing.

I knew some of what a Maker Space is because I had been in my dad’s Maker Space at his school a handful of times before he retired. I knew and understood and completely agree with the philosophy of a Maker Space. I had never actually been the one to troubleshoot with students. My own son, yes. My niece and nephew, yes. But to troubleshoot a classroom full of kids? Field their questions? Prioritize requests for help from what felt like ten groups at once!? Everyone needed something from me (or Mrs. H) and I dove in.

Let’s back up a bit. Mrs. H made me out to be waaaaay more of an expert than what I really am. I mean, look at me! I’m a mom in my 30s. Sometimes I wear glasses to make me smarter. Did Mrs. H really think that I should be in this room helping innocent children!?

do-these-glasses-make-me-smarter

Do glasses make me smarter?

I looked at those fourth graders and fear swelled inside my soul. I dove in. I started looking at projects. I began troubleshooting. My first intimidating task: a student needed a hole drilled in wood. I’ve never done that on my own before. Always with the help of my dad or my husband. But I knew how to put a drill bit in. And I knew how to use the drill. So I tackled it. And I did okay. And the student was thrilled!

Before I knew it, 50 minutes was gone. Mrs. H rang a bell, and the kids reluctantly gave up their work and started furiously cleaning up every surface in the room. {Side note: Impressive, Mrs. H. Impressive.} The floors swept, the tables cleared, students lined up and filed out.

Five minutes later, a class of third graders filed in, pulling projects from their silver rack. And we began again. This time, I had a touch of confidence. I had just drilled a hole. I know, pretty amazing. I was feeling good. Until a kid came to me with a 10 foot piece of wood, two inches thick, and 10 inches wide and asked me to cut it.

I had no idea how to use the clamps right, so I asked Mrs. H. She showed me how. I started sawing. The line was crooked. I stopped sawing. I showed the student how to measure to create a straight line (now, that, I taught like a boss!). And I started sawing again. Soon the only sound in the room was the little hand saw chewing through the wood. All eyes were on me. If you’ve never spent time in a Maker Space, it’s NEVER QUIET. But it was silent. Back and forth. I sawed. And sawed. And sawed. Kids started making noise again. Finally, the board hit the tile floor. And the kids started clapping.

I can’t make this up. They clapped. I laughed.

I’m still laughing while thinking about it.

I was hooked. I spend four hours each week in the Maker Space. I wish I could spend the entire day there. My confidence is growing.  And so are my skills. But what’s even better, I’m watching the confidence increase in the students. I’m watching them wrestle with a problem and work through solutions. It’s an exciting place. Terrifying at times, but it doesn’t take long to get past that.

These are the Good Old Days

Exciting times. Kids today get to hang out in Maker Spaces and Maker Labs, smartphone in one hand and an Ipad in the other. Educators recognize that students need creative and curiosity-enhancing activities to develop problem solving skills and grit. Failure is acceptable. “We learn from failure.” “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t doing anything.” If you make a typo, you hit the backspace or let autocorrect take care of it. Life is good!

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

It’s Mrs. Brainiac and today’s subject is about how kids today have it made.

A few decades ago, schools had something called “home economics.” Girls took that class. It was all about cooking and sewing. Boys had “shop.” They used tools to make little wooden toys with wheels that you could pull with a string. And birdhouses. Sure, that’s all good. But what if the girls wanted to use a drill or saw? Or the boys wanted to whip up a fabulous cheese tortellini with sage and browned butter sauce? Wasn’t going to happen on that teacher’s watch! So many limits imposed on kids. Today, if a second grader wants to use an electric saw and cut up some wood and build a mini roller coaster to launch on the school grounds, just ask Brainiac Jerry. A girl wants to build a trebuchet and launch pumpkins and bowling balls on the playground, no problem.

Educators today identify that the creative process is a good thing to encourage. Kids that engage in engineering design process creating a Maker Space project can grow up to be engineers. Or chefs or app writers or whatever they want. The sky is the limit when it comes to the opportunities available to students in today’s world.

I’m not saying today’s world is perfect, it’s far from it. But we seem to have a raised social consciousness that makes me feel a bit hopeful. In spite of all the scary stuff we see on the news and hear on social media or even experience ourselves, there are still a lot of positive improvements that have come about over the last few decades.

Old boring food pyramid

Old boring food pyramid

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

 

Some examples from my lifetime…when I was a little girl, female teachers had to wear dresses and stockings to school. Girl students had to wear dresses. What’s the big deal, right? Ask me that in January while you are walking to school in 10 degree weather.

School girl circa 1965

School girl circa 1965

If kids were cognitively challenged, they could end up in a special class or a special school or in an institution of some kind. Now, we try to find ways to help them learn and develop skills to become a productive and happy member of society.

Until the 1970’s, there wasn’t much of a foster care system or a social services agency. Emergency Medical Services barely existed. Most areas might have an ambulance but there were no training requirements and barely any real first aid performed. It was just a vehicle to drive you to the hospital, sometimes equipped with just a driver and no other personnel.

Okay, I know you are arguing in your head with me that the good old days when Mrs. Brainiac was young were better, safer and more innocent then today. If that is the case, then how do you explain “The Art Project Every Child Made for Their Parents.”

Gather round while Mrs. Brainiac tells the tale of a classroom full of fresh faced little cherubs excitedly molding doughy blobs of clay into a gift for their parents. Each day, they would carefully wrap it in wet paper towels to keep it moist, working on it day after day until the exciting day that we fired up the kiln. The kiln would heat up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (KilnTempChart) while emitting fumes including carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, hydrogen fluoride and toxic metal vapors. So, stay with me, kids….we have a kiln going at 2,000 degrees in an art room with dangerous fumes permeating the entire school ventilation system, all to bake a lovely gift for mom and dad. Yes, kids risked their lives to make an ASHTRAY for their parents. A lovely little poop-colored clay carcinogenic ash receptacle that now has cooled off enough to coat with a lead-based glaze.

Fortunately for the teachers, they could retreat to the “smoking lounge” to take a break from the heat the kiln generated.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

“And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days. These are the good old days.” Anticipation, sung by Carly Simon.

An Experiment in Growing Hydroponic Tomatoes

GrowingHydroponicTomatoes

Gardening has been a hobby of mine for a very long time. In fact before moving into the condo that I currently live in, we lived on 5 acres and I had a gigantic garden and greenhouse. Gardening can be a great maker experiment. From planting in the ground to raised gardens to pots. Choosing the seeds or plants. Watering systems. Tilling methods. It requires using the engineering design principle. Trial and error. Taking a risk. And then if your garden fruits, you have to determine what to do with the harvest. Crack open your cookbook and pull out those jars, you can learn to can your produce. Or freeze it. Or use it up. Or sell it. Or give it away. Or trade it. Moving into the condo required me to downsize my quarter acre garden and get creative. At the same time that I moved, I had been dabbling in hydroponics in our Maker Space at school. I got excited about doing hydroponic gardening at home and that’s what I did this past winter.

With the weather warming, it is almost time to shut down the hydroponic operation in my basement and focus on planting outdoors. One experiment I’m trying is to compare the growth of tomatoes grown hydroponically with those planted in soil. I began the tomato seeds on March first and have since transplanted them once. Three tomatoes were transplanted in deli cups and a fourth was transplanted in a five gallon bucket with perlite as the growing medium.

I have tried to treat the four plants the same with keeping them outside and giving them water. The difference is that the plant in the five gallon bucket receives a nutrient solution 4-5 times daily poured from a reservoir. As the unused nutrient solution flows down through the perlite it returns to the reservoir through a drain so it can be re-poured at a later time.

I expected that the hydroponic plant would do much better than the plants in soil, but this has not happened. As of this morning, the plants in soil are about two times as large as the plant in the bucket. In about a week, I will transplant the soil plants to the outside. My guess is that they will experience some transplant “shock” and their growth will be slowed.

I am also wondering if the nutrient solution should be tweaked for the hydroponic tomato. I used the same formula that I used for growing lettuce in my basement under lights during the winter. I believe that because tomatoes need green growth as well as fruiting growth that it may be necessary to add more phosphorus. The nutrient balance I am using is 19.5 – 18 – 38 so all of the nutrients are there. I am also wondering if the concentration is correct.

I just got an E.C. meter to test the conductivity so I will need to learn how to use that. I’ll keep you posted but for now, more study is needed. See what I mean about making and gardening as a perfect maker experience!

Child Labor Laws-Repeal Them NOW!

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

My sincere apology. Mrs. Brainiac, the long-suffering better half of Brainiac Jerry, is here today to offer a huge apology. I promised Jolene Brainiac I would faithfully write a blog every Friday about creative tinkering, maker spaces, science, engineering, STEM or other engaging hands-on learning activities. Whoops. The last two weeks I neglected this important duty and Jolene Brainiac is on my case to get it done, so here goes.

See Finn Fold

See Finn Fold

I don’t want to make excuses for why I didn’t post my blogs, I just want to EXPLAIN. I’m not sure what the difference between the two is, seems like explaining why I didn’t do it is the same as making excuses but in the interest in getting this blog on the road, let’s continue on.

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

I’m busy. Really busy. I know everyone says that, but I really am busy. Yes, my four kids are grown up and on their own so that should save me some time. And I sold my house and bought a condo so my yard work is done for me. And I don’t volunteer for the fire department since I moved to my condo. I work more regular hours than I used to, not so much overtime.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac's work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac’s work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy. She should use a stopwatch to keep on schedule like Finn does.

So, why am I so busy? Don’t know. Seems like the fewer activities and events I’m involved in, the more busy and frazzled I am. I’m guessing there is a math lesson here somewhere, like “if volunteering (V) plus working (W) plus kids (K) plus overtime (OT) plus cleaning (C)  plus husband (H) equals busy (B), then having less V, W, K, OT and C but the same amount of H should equal less then B.” And yet it equals 2B.

So, what is the common denominator here? And why am using a math metaphor in a science blog?

Let’s look at those equations again.

Equation one: V+W+K+OT+C+H=B

Equation two: H=2B

Comment on this blog post if you think you can explain how these two equations correlate to Why I’m Too Busy to Post My Blog Every Friday Like I Promised.

The explanation will be published in my blog next week. If I’m not too, well, you know.

When Buses Fly

I arrive home to a school bus parked in my driveway. The tow truck that brought it is just pulling out. Mrs. Brainiac is here again to share a little more about Jerry Brainiac’s deep rooted craziness. I know the presence of this bus means we are getting involved in another STEM type project. Something creative, scientific, engaging and, yeah, crazy. Another activity designed to instill curiosity about science and technology coming right up. Oh boy. So fun! My mind races with thoughts about what hands on tinkering we will engage in now. In my yard. And driveway. Guaranteed we will learn about technology and science and engineering with this project.

Here we go! A fire truck is pulling in and the guys are bringing out the Jaws of Life to tear out the bus seats. Not as easy as it looks. And Jerry Brainiac is bringing out gallons of white paint and a pile of brushes. And the kids. Of course there will be kids, kids with paint brushes on my driveway. Ahhhh, it’s starting to take shape. It’s a Space Shuttle!

After weeks of this space craft sitting in my parking spot, it now has a big control panel installed, lights, a microwave (astronauts gotta eat), an Apple IIe computer and a bunch of other stuff.

I anxiously await the big day. Not launch day. The day the big shiny tow truck comes back and gets the space shuttle and tows it to the school where the astronauts are waiting in their little space suits that look suspiciously like the paper suits that surgeons wear.

And today is the day. After it arrives at the “launch pad” at “Cape Canavereosho” (if Canaveral and Neosho School were a couple) the astronauts run a giant extension cord out the window of the fourth grade classroom and plug in the shuttle. All systems are go. Ready for lift off. Start the countdown and hope that extension cord is long enough to make it to outer space.

 

The ‘nauts have a great time. They do some experiments with plants, make space meals, eat dehydrated astronaut ice cream which actual astronauts don’t really eat. They play video games on the Apple IIe and generally live the life of an astronaut for the day. Don’t forget to workout, living in low gravity can cause muscle atrophy.

The space shuttle was a huge hit. Everyone in town had watched it evolve from a school bus without an engine to a launch-ready space shuttle. The fourth graders loved planning it all out and took pride in finishing such a huge project. Hands on science and technology is more fun than just reading about it. And when you have fun, you retain more knowledge about the subject and have a greater understanding of the concepts used.

Mrs. Brainiac has many fond memories of the space shuttle school bus and all the weeks it sat in her driveway. Her favorite memory is the day the tow truck came to take it away and blocked the driveway. At the exact time she had to leave for work. What fun it was driving her car across the yard and ditch to get out that day and onto the road! More exciting (and probably more dangerous) then getting to ride in a real space shuttle. Good times!