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!

Introducing LEDs and Bright Fun to Your Students!


LEDs, or their long name, “Light Emitting Diodes” offer a great deal of cheap, impressive fun in a classroom or Maker Space. We’ve used LEDs with students as young as third grade with great success. Students can explore and create incredible projects once they understand the basics of LEDs. Using SMD LEDs offers many learning opportunities for exploring circuits, trial and error and persistence. Plus, they’re inexpensive…a bonus when you get big results without blowing your classroom budget.

When first exploring LEDs, I was intimidated. My first order from Sparkfun arrived and I couldn’t get the LEDs to work. As it turns out, I didn’t have the LEDs removed from the packaging correctly {true story!}. The first time I placed the LED onto the copper tape it lit up like magic. I was hooked. I wanted to light up everything in sight. It was like a new toy. What else could I make glow?

Completed 3D Washington Monument. It glows red like the real one {Safety first. I think so planes don’t hit it!}.

We’ve been using these powerful little lights mostly to enhance paper projects. We enjoy using them because of their low power consumption and long life span. They have great luminosity and can brighten a dark room. LEDs are great for teaching polarity because the energy can only flow one way through the light. They’re powerful and impressive. And kids love them.

Even Leprechaun’s are rumored to love LEDs!

After my own trials {ahem, having fun}, I was ready to bring them to the Maker Space. I started the students off with some holiday cards that had a template to follow. We created one where Rudolph’s nose glows and the other a Christmas Tree. Then we got crazy. We created a light-up, pop-up 3D glowing Valentine’s Day card. We built a 3D Washington Monument that lights up like the real deal! We made a simple St. Patrick’s Day card for younger students. And we keep exploring…most recently we created a Spring Card that has two switches. So.Much.Fun.

 

Experimenting with LEDs. How many can you light up at once and for how long?

The kids enjoy it as much as I do! I have had middle school students have great success. Once they grasp the basic understanding of parallel circuits, how to make switches and comprehend what a short circuit is, they incorporate them into their own projects.

We’re now experimenting to determine how long 14 LED lights will stay lit off of a coin cell battery. They were still glowing after an hour. With this new information, we hope to incorporate these LEDs into light up constellations that can be made into an interactive bulletin board where a student can press a button and see the constellation light up! We’ll keep you posted!

Aquaponics 101

Adding-Tilapia-to-HS-Hydroponics

I’m assisting Oconomowoc High School with the aquaponics system in their greenhouse. So far we have set up two systems with 50 tilapia in one tank and 50 perch in a second tank. We are facing some challenges with our systems from the heat that is building when the outside temperature reaches 70 degrees or above. Tilapia need a water temperature of about 80 degrees, while perch need a water temperature of about 70 degrees. Our greenhouse reaches over 90 degrees and can see temperatures of 110. Before the weather gets too warm we need to find a way to keep the water cool enough for the fish to survive. Enter Travis. Travis is a second shift custodian at the high school and has significant experience in building aquaponics systems. I sat down with him over lunch the other day and was very impressed by his knowledge and experience. Travis has a high school diploma but has so much knowledge that I thought he had a college degree. Travis has had much hands on experience fabricating and problem solving over 150 aquaponic systems. I asked Travis if he had a degree. His response was that he just had a high school diploma but he picked up a lot of money and expertise doing side aquaponics jobs. He also has sought out many experts and used collaboration to build his knowledge.

Our discussion just reinforced my belief that we need more individuals with the ability to fabricate, and to use their hands to build projects that solve problems. I’m very impressed by his ability to think out of the box. After about an hour of talking, we had a solution to our overheating problem. It struck me that what Travis is doing is just the thing I want my students to do. Think out of the box, collaborate, seek expert advice, problem solve. The world could use more people like Travis!

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!

Transform Your Teaching by Thinking Backwards with Seth Godin

Podcasts

I have recently become a podcast addict. I use the app Podcast Addict which just feeds my hobby. Yes, I now call it a hobby. It’s feeding my mind in a way that books used to {pre-kid days}. I still read, but not with the voracity that I used to. Now, I can fill my brain with quality words and ideas all while scrubbing my dishes or working on my design work. It’s another way to boost my creativity and inspire me.

I have a few podcasts that I’ve really begun to love, but in an effort to avoid getting in a rut listening to the same four podcasts, I began exploring other options.  I began with Creative Mornings and speaker Seth Godin.

Friends, are you trying to make a dent in the world? Are you trying to do work that matters? Work that fulfills you? Then watch the videos linked below now. I realize they are marketing and design focused, but these matter to you as a parent, an educator, a human being who is wanting to create or encourage the children in the world or yourself to create.

As I began listening, these two quotes from Seth Godin in these talks struck a me deep in my soul – and not in a good way:

…What they [industrialists] needed from workers were people willing to sit still for 10 hours, use a number 2 pencil, and follow instructions.

We were trained from the time we were three to ‘Do what we were told’“.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that. I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want that for our classrooms. I don’t want that for teachers teaching. I might have lofty goals  to #takebacktheclassroom and #takebacklearning but I believe our teachers and students have the right to learn in creativity-fostering, safe environments. It’s why we believe in Maker Spaces so much here at Brain Brigade. It’s what we live, think, breathe, feel, make, do. We help other teachers build Maker Spaces in their classrooms. We help homeschoolers build Maker Spaces at home. We make at home in our spare time and encourage our children and family members to ask, think, question, explore and more.

Watch & listen to Seth Godin here and then listen closely to his Q&A, and then if you can’t get enough, check him out on this podcast station. While in the Q&A a person asks a question specific to education at 16:50. LISTEN to it. {Here’s the manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams he refers to}.

Create an environment where not only is it safe to fail, but it is required to fail.” Seth Godin

Are you doing that for your students? Are you allowing them to fail? That is what a Maker Space is all about. Students must fail. They must take risks. And our job as educators is to create an environment that is safe for our students to fail. That’s it. It’s why we do what we do.

It’s how we’re taking back our classrooms. It’s how we’re exchanging those number two pencils for hands on learning. It’s how we’re breaking the mold and how we want to help you break that mold in your own classroom and world.

What’s keeping you from scary work? What might get you fired? Run out of town? Encourage you to take risks? If you don’t know where to start, then contact us using the form listed on the About Us page. We want you to you be confident in changing your classroom and changing your world.

Hydroponics 101.4: Light Requirements

Hydroponics-101

I’ve been growing plants using hydroponics for a few years now, both at home and in the classroom. For the first several years of doing hydroponics and aquaponics systems, I used a bank of T-5 fluorescent bulbs and they worked okay. But in this last planting, which I have set up in my basement, I purchased a bank of LED lights. I am passionately green and I read that LEDs are much more energy efficient and last much longer than any other type of bulb. I also read that LEDs can be tailored to provide the exact wavelengths of light for plants and flowers. You see, plants love light from the blue and red ends of the spectrum. While fluorescents provide some of that light, much of a fluorescent’s light is white and that is a waste of energy because plants use very little white light.


We’re currently in a series exploring Hydroponics {read our previous entries 101.1, 101.2, 101.3}.


The bank of LEDs was about $275 dollars. This was comparable to the cost of a T-5 bank of fluorescent bulbs, but I was astounded at the small size of the LED bank!

T5-and-LED-Light

I was blown away by the light though! What the LED bank lacked in size, it more than made up for in intensity. The instructions stated that the light should be hung at least 24 inches above the plants. I was able to hang it at about 22 inches. I was stunned that the light covered an area of about 2×4 feet where the plants were located. This from a bank of lights that is five inches wide and 18 inches long! My fluorescent bank was 22 inches wide and 46 inches long.

I left the light on while I worked in the basement. After about 15 minutes I started to see everything in a green aura. The intensity and wavelength of the light was affecting my vision. I decided to turn off the light and construct an enclosure around my plants that had Mylar reflective material on the sides to reflect the light back on to the plants.

HydroponicsLED

My plants are now bathed in blue and red light and are growing wonderfully.

Oh, and my vision is back to normal.

Hydroponics 101.3: The Circulation Method

Hydroponics-101

Picking up where we left off in our Hydroponics series… The circulation method of hydroponics is ideal for you if you have a few more dollars to spend (as compared to the more limited Kratky Method) and you would like your students to make a hydroponic system in the classroom. It is a great way to integrate the engineering design process and STEM into your curriculum as well as offer authentic learning to your class. It also offers you a way of integrating principles of chemistry and physics into your curriculum.


 

We’re currently in a series exploring Hydroponics and Aquaponics.
{Read the previous entries here Hydroponics 101.1 and Hydroponics 101.2}


 

In the circulation method, you need to provide a nutrient trough for the plants to bathe their roots in. This can be done in many ways. Two methods that I have worked with are a floating bed system and a rail system. With both systems I had great success.

Circulation-Method1

With the floating bed system, have your students construct a sturdy box of 2×4 lumber about two feet wide and four feet long. Attach a piece of plywood on the bottom and drill a hole for a bulkhead attachment to allow water to drain from the bed to a reservoir below the bed. Next, place a rubber pond liner inside the box and cut a small hole in the liner to match up with the hole you drilled earlier. Screw down the bulkhead and tighten it so that water will not leak out of the box. Now cut 2 inch holes into a piece of ½ inch thick pink Styrofoam insulation board. I used a 2 inch circular hole saw in a drill bit and ran the drill BACKWARDS so that the Styrofoam was not shredded.

Circulation-Method2

Now you are ready to fill the reservoir with water. I use a large plastic container (about 25 gallons) with a small aquaponics pump on the bottom and a hose running up to my growing bed. I fill the reservoir with water, add my nutrient solution, turn on the pump and circulate the water. Monitor the water height in the bed so that when you add your plant cups their roots are touching the water. I also would recommend you add a PVC pipe below by attaching it to the bulkhead with a PVC fitting so that water flows back to the reservoir.

Next we’ll explore light requirements, planting and monitoring your system.