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!

My Season of Hydroponics

If you’d like to try hydroponics in your maker space or classroom it is a great way to get kids to fabricate, problem solve, make mistakes and experience authentic learning. Many designs for simple hydroponic systems exist online with inexpensive materials. The activity is a perfect STEM activity and integrates math, science and a bit of chemistry into a unit or lesson. You also don’t need a lot of room and can even do it on a windowsill!

Sue and I have also moved from a small condo to a ranch home, so these past three months have been hectic to say the least! We are now in the middle of a full scale remodel. As I type this, carpenters and electricians are working. Jolene and her husband, Phil, also moved. The entire Brain Brigade Team has been shaken up. We’re finally settling back into our Brain Brigade routine and it feels good to be back!

My winter season has been devoted to growing my greens hydroponically. I have also just completed a hydroponic strawberry tower. I can’t wait for spring to get here so I can get  the strawberries growing! I will grow the strawberries outside using my system.

My lettuce is doing great but my spinach is not so great. As you can see by the photo, the spinach is in the foreground and is quite twiggy. I think the pH may be off for the spinach. I’ll do some small adjustments to see if it responds. I began the lettuce and spinach about three weeks before transporting them into my hydroponics system. The floating bed has nutrient solution flowing past the roots. My system is about 24 inches wide and about five feet long. It is made of 2x4s with a bottom of plywood. In this box a pond liner coats the bottom and sides and a hole is bored through the bottom on the plywood at one end. The nutrient solution is pumped up to the box and flows past the roots and down the drain back to the reservoir. I’ve been enjoying lettuce all winter, picked fresh right from my basement. It doesn’t get better than that!

This can be done in a classroom, too! We have highlighted some steps in a series on hydroponics earlier in the blog. Start here to begin learning more!

You Want to Start a Maker Space. Now What?

You’ve read some blogs, maybe even read a book or two, you follow some insta feeds, and everywhere you go the term “Maker Space” seems to pop up. Hands-on learning is your style. You might even be a little out-of-the-box. Maybe you’re a lot out of the box! You desire to help your students learn how to problem solve and think creatively and be curious. You’re ready to jump in and start a Maker Space in your classroom or school. But where do you begin? Do you need a 3D printer? How big of a space do you need? The beauty of a Maker Space is that there are no rights or wrongs. The challenge of starting a Maker Space is that there are no rights or wrongs! Get my drift? It’s your first Maker Space challenge andyou haven’t even started it up! Get ready, because you are about to grow!

Creating a Maker Space can be something as simple as a small table or desk in a corner of your room. A Maker Space can be as elaborate as a dedicated room or bigger! If you have the space. Determine who will be using this space. Is it your classroom only? You might be collaborating with your other grade level teachers so a dedicated location like a commons area or maybe multiple small stations in multiple classrooms might be the solution. Don’t be afraid to think creatively and be flexible.

Once you have a location figured out you can start it up! It’s okay to start small.  You don’t need a 3D printer make your Maker Space come alive.  Collect clean recyclables and get some bins to sort them in. In fact, if you see a sale on bins, buy more. {You can thank me later!} Make tools available to your students {glue, scissors, a hole punch, scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape, maybe some small hand tools, hot glue gun}. Other materials such as string, craft sticks, pom poms, pasta,  straws…. Let your students start exploring when they have some down time or indoor recess.

Teach your students how to use tools responsibly. Wear safety glasses if needed. We have a five year old who uses the hot glue gun to glue and an eight year old who also uses a hot glue gun to glue and weld! Know your students and let them take on some responsibility and calculated risk. Chances are, many other students will quickly display their ability to be mature when the reward is good!

Once your students are familiar with the Space, offer them challenges. How tall can you build a tower? Build a bridge and see how much weight it can hold. Build a car and see how far it can roll down a ramp.

Need more help? Check out our guide to Designing a Maker Space. We include a huge list of ideas for stocking your Space, funding your Maker Space, four pages of links to incredible resources to help you to spur creativity!

Source: I find some amazing work at Freepik.com. The rockets on my image are from there!

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.

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.

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!

Maker Spaces: Appleton Maker Space Tour

Last week I traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin and visited the MakerSpace located there. It was located in a small building behind a hair salon. It is a great place for members to tinker, fabricate and collaborate in making projects that appeal to them. Each month members pay a fee to have access to all of the equipment, materials and storage located in the space. The president of the organization, Chris, gave me a tour. There were several large work areas for woodworking, metal work, electronics, planning and storage. All were equipped with the machines for an inventor to do hands on learning.

A maker space is a great space to have access to all of the various machines needed to invent at a fraction of the cost of purchasing these on your own. There were lathes, saws, planers, welders, drill presses, and many more machines that could be useful for anyone wishing to be creative. I really liked their planning room that had a floor to ceiling whiteboard that was 12 feet wide and 8 feet wide. Members can use the board for drawing, creating lists or planning a project.

Chris introduced me to one of the members who is building an airplane in the space. He had the frame and wheels already made and was working on the wings. It reminded me of the old days when early flight pioneers made airplanes in their garages.

Craft Stick Truss Bridgeu

These are the kinds of spaces that we need in schools! We don’t need
all of the fancy and expensive equipment, but we do need areas where students can invent, create, fabricate, and experience failure and success. A corner of a classroom with craft sticks, glue guns, wires, light bulbs, and any number of inexpensive items helps children use their hands and minds to invent. Let’s get away from this culture of constant testing and get back to the real world!