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Makerspaces: Fitz Creek, Alaska, educator says, 'Go for it'

Process is more important than specific equipment

Published April 7, 2017

At a glance

  • The creativity that happens in a makerspace doesn’t ultimately depend on any specific equipment. The process is what matters.
  • Students naturally are makers. That said, there are excellent resources available to help you get the most out of your makerspace.

(Editor’s Note: Pitsco TAG member Sheryl Sotelo shares some of her insights about makerspaces in this piece adapted from a blog post she authored originally for NSTA Blog.)

FITZ CREEK, AK – All students can benefit from the maker mind-set, which encourages them to believe they can learn to do anything. As you likely already know, the maker movement is a resurgence of creating and making things by people of all ages and backgrounds. Learning through making can happen across a range of contexts and curricular areas and can be leveraged for inspiration and powerful student engagement.

I have been a special services teacher and a regular classroom teacher for 31 years. I worked as an Einstein fellow in Washington, D.C., at the National Science Foundation in 2013-2014 and became very involved with the maker movement at that time. I now work as a STEM outreach specialist and help students and teachers doing STEM activities with a maker emphasis, sharing all I learned in my fellowship as well as in my classroom practice. I work mainly in Alaska, traveling to villages and rural schools.

Getting back to making, it can happen in a variety of places that often are labeled makerspaces, such as libraries, classrooms, museums, homes, and garages. But it doesn’t have to be a labeled space. Innovation and creating can happen on a table in a classroom. Some makerspaces might have the newest technological toys such as a 3-D printer or laser cutter, but this is also not necessary. The focus in this design learning is not on the tools but instead on the process.

This approach is related to the constructivist and constructionist design work that focuses on engaging participants in learning content and process. This work provides students the opportunity to experience the hands-on intersection of critical thinking, engineering, computer science, circuitry, art, math, technology, and innovation.

In my experiences, I have witnessed reluctant students engaged and as successful as any other learners. They often have unique and innovative perspectives and solutions to the design task at hand. Classroom teachers are excited to see their students’ involvement and investment in this learning as well and comment on how these activities develop problem-solving and collaborative skills.

Students appear to think of themselves as capable thinkers and makers. In working with the teachers and students, I offer ideas and resource lists for teachers to follow up with and also give students sources where they can get materials for continued making. It is amazing how contagious learning through making can be for everyone!

There are many ways to do this in a low-tech, low-budget environment, with an easy-access on-ramp to making. Two books I would highly recommend to get you started are:

  • Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, PhD
  • The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich

I have also used some Pitsco products that lend themselves to the iterative design and engineering process. One of the students’ favorite projects is the Straw Rocket Launcher; students redesign their rockets over and over trying to improve the performance. It works well for a classroom lesson or a special maker event station.

The AP Bottle Racer and launcher is a longer project but also very engaging to students. By adding parameters such as weight requirements, students work hard to engineer the best design they can. Pitsco also carries a timing gate, so students can quantify the results of their bottle racer and redesign based on numerical data and then carry out related calculations.

Both of these systems are reusable and portable, so I am able to take them with me on my travels. I have teachers save bottles ahead of time, although empty bottles, axles, wheels, and other building materials are all available from Pitsco.

Maker education is a fantastic way to ignite learning in our classrooms and beyond. The intellectual development that happens through design thinking and direct hands-on experience with creating and tinkering is empowering and something we should offer all students!

“One student was carrying his structures project home when he met his mom. He explained what he did and what we would be doing all week. Then, he said, ‘Mom, this was so fun. I can’t wait to come back to school tomorrow.’ In all my 15 years of teaching summer school, I’ve never heard that.”

– Mario Dicarlo, Taylor Elementary, Santa Maria, California

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