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!

Being Too Busy is Really Being Greedy

Spring Fun

Spring Fun

Mrs.  Brainiac back with the answer to last week’s math problem. Last week, we discussed how Jolene Brainiac has been nagging Mrs. Brainiac to post her Friday blog updates. “Come on, Mom. It’s not that hard to share some creative thoughts about Maker Space and science projects, maybe something about turning failure into success or how to engage kids’ natural curiosity about science by providing meaningful activities that spark enthusiasm about learning.”

Blah, blah, blah, Brainiac Jolene.

Summer Fun

Summer Fun

The common denominator is “H” which stands for Husband Brainiac Jerry. So, even though I freed up a great deal of time by eliminating a bunch of other activities, I still have the Head Brainiac around. So, we have been traveling, working on Brain Brigade projects, bike riding and pretty much just having a good old time.

I hope this explains why I was too busy to post my blog. I was having Too Much Fun.

The blog wasn’t the only area of my responsibilities that was neglected due to having Too Much Fun. I forgot to empty the kitchen compost container and it sort of took on a life of its own.

Compost Fun

Compost Fun

So how do we get away from all this talk of being too busy and overwhelmed by all our activities and responsibilities? How do we slow down and smell the roses?

Part of the problem is we need to “learn to say no.” We all know that already but yet we continue to say “yes.” Let’s delve into that. Why is it so hard to say “no” when someone asks for help with a project, or to volunteer for an activity or even just to meet up with the girls and have coffee? We say “yes” and then spend the next week complaining or stressing that we should have said no. We even say, “I need to learn to say “no.””

Revelation coming: We don’t say “no” because we really do want to do whatever it was! True! We want to do those things, whether volunteering for a worthy cause or visiting with friends. What we don’t want to do is spend our valuable time doing these things. Confused?

Let me say that again. We actually do want to volunteer at the local charity fundraiser. But we want to sit around and watch TV or read a book more than we want to work at the fundraiser. And, you can’t have it all.

The reason you can’t say “no” is because it’s stuff that matters. So, we need to “learn to say no to the things we want to do.” Not all of them, but enough that we can de-stress and relax a bit.

It’s sort of like wanting too many things (being greedy). I think we can probably agree that it’s okay to want things, a nice car, decent home, a meal out once in a while. But can we all agree that we shouldn’t get everything we want? If we get everything we want, we would have nothing to look forward to. We already have it all. It’s GREEDY.

It’s the same thing with wanting to do all the activities that are available to you (again, being greedy). So go ahead and do some volunteering, read some books, hang out with friends or family. But realize that sometimes you have to say “no” to the things you want to do in the interest of getting to ENJOY the other things you are doing. Don’t be GREEDY.

And right now, I’m enjoying writing this blog. And I said “no” to something else I wanted to do (which was making myself a snack). And next time I tell you I’m too busy, feel free to tell me to quit being greedy.

Florida Fun

Florida Fun

 

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.

Friday Follies: Lego Love

Legos®. Those colorful, creative little bricks that kids love to tinker with. It takes grit and persistence to build a project out of these little guys. It’s all the stuff kids enjoy. Problem solving, trial and error, risk taking. They use their own special engineering design process, they make mistakes, have failures that set them back and then, success! Tada! You made a robot. Or a tractor. Or something that looks awesome even though I have no idea what it is. The important thing is that you know what it is. And what it does.

It’s Mrs. Brainiac back for some Friday Fun! Today, she will share some Lego® love. Note that Jerry Brainiac loves Legos®, Mrs. Brainiac’s relationship with Legos® is ambivalent.

The most fun thing about creating with Legos® is actually a secret. A secret that only adults know. The odds of a budding Lego engineer reading this blog are slim to none so I feel confident I can reveal that secret here. Ready? Kids don’t know that when they are having fun with Legos® it’s actually a learning experience. Yes, just like school. And kids like learning. And math. And science. Yes, kids like math and science if it masquerades as fun.

Kids don’t know that it takes grit and persistence to build a project out of Legos®. They don’t know they are using problem solving, trial and error, risk taking. They don’t know they are using an engineering design process.  They don’t even realize that they’re making mistakes, learning from them and that’s why they successfully complete a project. They think they are just “playing with Legos®.”

Bonus “fun” is making a robot out of Legos® and then programming it to function. Make it go frontward and backward or speed up or turn. When a kid has “fun” programming Legos®, it’s possible that when that kid grows up, he or she might get a “fun” job programming computers. And that’s the secret some adults don’t know. You can have fun at work if you do something you enjoy that challenges you and offers variety and keeps your brain exercising.

But Legos® aren’t always fun. Jerry Brainiac has thousands of Legos. These Legos are all over Mrs. Brainiac’s house. Mrs. Brainiac doesn’t wear shoes in the house. You see where this is going.

Sometimes Mrs. Brainiac helps Jerry Brainiac at school events. Hundreds of kids attend and they learn to make and program Lego® robots. Thousands of Legos® and hundreds of kids. Kids with colds during the winter. Billions of germs on the thousands of Legos®. Mrs. Brainiac didn’t have Legos® when she was a little girl and doesn’t understand the attraction. All she thinks about are the germs. But she helps the kids anyway. Sometimes the kids have to show Mrs. Brainiac how to put them together right. And that’s good because you retain more information when you teach it to others. So teaching Mrs. Brainiac how to build Legos® helps you retain information. You’re welcome, kids.

Now let’s program the Lego® robots. The program uses pictures instead of words so kids that don’t read well can still do great programming. Once a little boy fresh from China was visiting and he picked up programming right away even though he didn’t know any English at all. So if a child is struggling with reading or language barriers, gaining some success and confidence from programming Legos® can be a good thing.

Computer Programmer!

Computer Programmer!

If Mrs. Brainiac can find educational value in Legos® then EVERYONE should be able to. So, get the kids going and have some fun with Legos®.  Your brain will thank you. And when your child grows up to be an engineer, you may thank Mrs. Brainiac for sacrificing the soles of her feet to the Lego® brick gods.

 

Friday Follies: It’s All Fun and Games Until….

Saturday morning. Spending some time challenging a couple hundred kids with fabricating foam rockets. They are loving getting out of the classroom and into the cafeteria for a hands on experience building foam rockets and then launching them. They persistently brainstorm ways to get the rockets to go farther and higher. Through trial and error, mistakes and occasional failures, they achieve success! Rockets are flying everywhere. Bouncing off walls and garbage cans, other kids and the occasional unwary instructor who happens by. The curiosity, creativity and risk the kids take with the engineering design process are inspiring. If through this activity we can connect to real life applications and get them into Maker Spaces and Maker Labs, it will all be worth it. Worth the drive to the city early this morning to set up. Worth the exposure to all the kid germs and sticky hands grabbing hot glue guns from my helpful hands. Worth the parents hogging the supplies because they are as excited as the kids to engage in novel learning. And definitely worth the experience of having these wild ones use me as a target to aim the rockets at. “What if we hit Miss Sue? Do we get a prize?” No. No, you don’t. Rockets

Yes, it’s me, Sue Brainiac. The Head Brainiac Jerry’s long suffering wife. Brainiac Jerry loves offering events for poor underprivileged inner city kids that have never had the opportunity to torture Mrs. Brainiac with their attempts at foam rocket building. Yes, I understand that offering STEM activities encourages collaboration among students and sparks excitement about learning that may lead to a little girl becoming an engineer or a boy realizing he COULD go to college and do fun stuff for a living. It’s novel learning at its best. Developing synapses in the brain through presenting challenges to solve. Showing kids that tenacity and grit and hard work can actually be fun and rewarding. Blah blah blah. Okay. Kids learn to love science and math and make it applicable to everyday life. How nice for them.

But on a lovely Saturday morning , Mrs. Brainiac could be enjoying coffee on the deck and instead she is supervising kids from ages five to, well, whatever age the oldest parent is. Using scissors and hot glue and rubber bands. All her favorite things for kids to play with. And now the finished rockets are bouncing off her in spite of the oath to “not aim at anything living” that we made them take prior to launch.

How about we go back to the traditional education experience? Worksheets. Lectures. Videos of other people making things. Kids love watching other people have fun in videos. Tests! What about tests? Those take up lots of time and keep kids busy. And why aren’t these kids playing video games? That would keep them out of Mrs. Brainiac’s hair.

The worst part is all the questions they have. What if we use an extra rubber band? What if we angle it? How about if we make the fins longer? Shorter? More fins? Less fins? I have no idea! I’m not a scientist! But I am smart enough to let them figure it out themselves by trying it. And then when they figure it out and tell me, I smile knowingly as though I knew the answer all along and say, “There, now aren’t you glad you figured that out by yourself without me telling you the answer?”

Augh, the kids found me hiding behind the waste baskets writing this blog on my Ipad. “We want to make rockets, we want to make rockets.” Well, when do I get to make one of these rockets? I’m sure I can find a way to hit that top window they are all aiming for.