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!

Experimenting with Hydroponic Gardening to Grow Strawberries

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

If you’re new to our blog, welcome! We generally talk education topics like STEM, STEAM, science, hands-on learning and maker spaces. But in our spare time, we tinker! And now that Jerry of Brain Brigade has officially retired from teaching…he has MORE spare time! We have been involved in many hydroponic and aquaponics projects in the classroom and maker space, but we have been diving in to various hydroponic methods of growing plants at home.

Last summer I visited Iowa and I noticed a really clever hydroponic tower that was growing lettuce. It was made of PVC pipe that wound around a central tower. I thought that the idea was great. It was compact and allowed for maximum use of growing space for sunlight and circulation of nutrient solution. This winter I began to wonder if something like this could be used to grow strawberries hydroponically. After a bit of research, I decided that I would try to make a tower similar to the one that I has seen.

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

This is a photo I took in Iowa of lettuce growing on a hydroponic tower.

As I looked at 4 inch PVC pipe I soon realized that it was very heavy and expensive. I decided to use a lighter plastic pipe that I found at Home Depot. It used the same 90 degree elbows that the heavier pipe used. I first constructed the frame that I would mount it on using 1 ½ inch PVC, elbows and a cross piece at the top to connect all of the frame. I mounted this frame on a wooden base and drilled holes to secure it with bolts. Next, I determined that the PVC pipe surrounding the frame would have to be cut at 25 inches. I bored 3 inch holes in the pipe using a circle drill and mounted the pieces to the frame using plastic straps and bolts. I also purchased a 10 gallon tub for my nutrient solution that sits inside the bottom middle of the frame.STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

I ordered 50 strawberry plants from Jung’s called Tristar that is ideal for hanging baskets and produces a crop in summer and in fall. I also ordered strawberry nutrient from Amazon. My only concern, is that the pipe connections at the elbows will leak because I have not cemented them with PVC cement. I will use my pump from my hydroponic system in my basement to pump the nutrient solution to the plants. I won’t be using the pump during the summer, so it’s a nice way to utilize my materials all year long! Now. We just need it to get warm around these northern parts!

Maybe you’re thinking, “this is cool…” but aren’t quite ready to take on The Tower quite yet. You could give windowsill hydroponics a try to get your feet wet! It’s an excellent classroom project too.

How to Light Up Your Classroom with Bright LEDs

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

In this step-by-step tutorial, we show you how we used SMD LEDs and copper tape to create a parallel circuit. The result is a glowing spring card to share with a friend! This project is easy. A perfect beginner activity for introducing LEDs as a STEM or science concept in your classroom. Students will be deLIGHTED {pun intended!} to see their project glow. Get the full download here that includes the printable card and copper tape diagram and information on where we purchased our inexpensive supplies!

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 1:
You will notice that the SMD LEDs come in a black strip of 25 small compartments. The tiny lights  can be removed by peeling the strip of clear plastic off of the back of the black strip. As you do this, the small lights will fall out of their containers. Make sure to catch them and place them in a container that you can label and seal so you don’t lose them. I separate by color.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 2:
Print out the card templates on cardstock or heavy paper. Choose two-sided print so that the two pages prints to one sheet of paper. You can also design your own card by drawing or using a computer program to create your desired design.
Step 3:
Fold card in half so that the flowers (or your design) are on the outside. The card will open at the bottom and you should be able to see the inside of the card. This includes the circuit template and personal message lines.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 4:
Open the template back up. Punch holes in the center of each of the flowers. You can use a long hole punch, a paper piercing tool, a sharp pen or pencil, or any other tool you have around.
Our paper punch wasn’t long enough to reach, so we used a tiny screwdriver. We placed our card on a stack of scrap paper to protect the table. Next, we carefully scored around the circle with the edge, pushing firmly but not through the paper. Then we gently pressed around the edge, once again following the edge of the circle and the center circle popped out leaving a
small hole.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 5:
Once you have created a hole in each of the flowers, fold the card back up. Mark you hole location using a marker. The marker will leave a dot on your card template that will show you where to place your LED.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 6:
Locate the dark gray lines on the diagram. You will be placing copper tape strips on the lines. If you are designing your own, simply look where you have marked your LED placements. We had three flowers, and used three LEDs. This is where you will need to map out how you run your copper tape.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 7:
Begin placing the copper tape on the negative (-) side of the diagram, peel off the backing so that the sticky side adheres to the paper.  For your personal design, begin placing the copper tape on one side of the LED dots, keeping one long piece of tape that will run to the battery. The negative side will go under the battery and make contact with the negative terminal on  the battery.
TIP: When making a turn with your copper tape, first fold the tape in the opposite direction of the way you want to go. Then fold it back into the direction and smooth when you are complete.

 

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 8:
Use the side of a pen or marker to smooth the copper tape to the paper.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 9:
Locate the positive side of each circuit and place the copper tape. Place the battery positive (+) side up in the circle. If designing your own, you will once again locate your LED marks and run the copper tape parallel to the first copper tape you placed.
TIP: Place the positive (+) tape VERY close, but not touching the negative (-) side of tape. The strips of copper tape must be very close so that the tiny LED can connect to both sides, but if the tape touches it will short circuit!

 

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 10:
When you get to the battery, stick the copper tape to the positive (+) side of the battery which should be facing up. See photo for close up details.
Step 11:
Using scotch tape, adhere your battery to the cardstock so that it doesn’t move around.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 12:
Time to get out your SMD LEDs! Take a closer look at your LED bulb. You’ll notice a clear side, and if you turn it over, a flat side with a green “T”. This is important for knowing which side is the positive (+) and the negative (-). Energy can only flow through an LED one way, so you must put it on the copper tape the correct way so that it lights up. The top of the “T” attaches to the positive (+) side of the copper tape. When you place your LED, look at the “T” before sticking to the tape!

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 13:
To place, we use a small piece of scotch tape to “grab” onto the top of the LED (the clear part). Then lift the tape and LED up and look at the “T” on the bottom. Use the tape to adhere the LED onto the mark that you made in Step 5. If you have the LED on the correct way, it should light up!
Step 14:
If the bulb doesn’t light up, remove the LED, rotate it 180 degrees. You may have had the positive and negative connections placed wrong. Test again. If it still doesn’t work, review our troubleshooting guide.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 15:
Place the other two LEDs following the same process.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 16:
Build a switch! To turn off your card, simply slide a small piece of paper under the battery to disrupt the current between the negative terminal of the battery and the copper tape!

Check out the full tutorial with the download here!

 

Here’s the same card, but with two switches! Check out the tutorial for this advanced LED project here.

How to Troubleshoot LEDs Like a Pro

LEDs STEAM STEM Maker Space Classroom Science

A huge part of our teaching philosophy is to help students develop persistence and become proficient at problem solving. But developing those skills isn’t always easy. We live it out around here so that it’s easier to teach in the classroom. We tinker in our spare time. We encourage the kids {actually, everyone} in our family to ask questions and work out solutions. We often ask for help and work together to solve a problem. We recently finished a new light up project; a greeting card that celebrates spring. We designed a cover with three flowers and put our tiny LED lights so that when the card is closed, the LEDs light up and illuminate the flowers. This particular circuit had two switches that were activated by a finger push. Since we were operating two switches from the same battery, we needed to hard wire the battery into the circuit and place different circuits for the lights. It was tricky to say the least, and since I had not tried this before, it took some time to think it through.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

I’m still not convinced that I have the best circuit path for this project. My plan had a small finger push button for each light. When I pushed down on a spot, a piece of copper tape that was stuck on the inside cover of the card made contact with the broken circuit of one light and completed the circuit thereby causing the light to come on. Needless to say, much tweaking was needed.

First, I had to make sure that the copper tape that completed the circuit was positioned exactly above the break in the circuit, so when I pushed down it contacted both ends of the broken circuit. Next, there seemed to be a problem with the LED lights that were in the circuit. I just could not get them to stay on. I finally determined that the copper tape was too close together and the lights were actually shorting themselves out.

Next, the circuit began to act up again and would not consistently light the bulbs. In checking and rechecking the circuit I found where the copper tape touched the battery, it was making contact with both the positive and negative portion or the battery and shorting the circuit.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

At times, it can be very frustrating troubleshooting whether it is circuits or programming. What I have learned from this is that there are many ways a circuit can fail. Hopefully, in the future it will help me problem solve more quickly.

You can try this card – we have two tutorials – a beginner version with no switches and an advanced version with the two switches!

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!

Maker Space Tour – Visiting an Elementary School Maker Space

Maker Space Cart Summit School

Yesterday, I visited some old friends who began a maker space in their school building. Jodi and Wendy visited me to get ideas about creating a space in their school three years ago. I was very impressed by the progress they have made while taking maker spaces to a whole new level. The excitement and enthusiasm they have generated in their school is really remarkable.

Not only have they created a maker space room off of the library, but they have also invested in four movable carts that can be wheeled into any classroom so that teachers can bring maker spaces to their rooms (see the photo above). The four carts were designed and built by a volunteer and are themed around building, electronics, creating and crafts. The carts are in use every day as the classroom teachers have integrated making into their grade level curriculum. Each cart has a built in storage cabinet with a foldable tabletop that essentially doubles the working space of the cart. Teachers are using the carts in reading, language arts, math, and social studies to help bring their subject matter alive.

Wendy told me about one teacher who read about caterpillars and had her students design and build caterpillars of their own. She also mentioned how non-English speakers are able to excel with creativity even though they may be struggling with the language. Learning disabled kids are also thriving because they can make connections to real life that they could not make before.

We spoke about how to generate interest in other buildings in the district. It seems that there is a fear that if they move away from the dictated curriculum that test scores will drop. I believe just the opposite will happen. As children become more engaged in learning, it becomes more fun and students learn with less effort. We need to take back our classrooms from the politicians and testing companies!

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!