Our First Makerspace = Fueling Student-Led Design

By Kristilyn Oda

I never quite know how or what curriculum will be taught until I understand the unique students in my classroom. This year started like most as I carefully observed interactions and values that bubbled up as they created a “We Are” poem to ground us in our collective identity.

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Thirty percent of my students are multilingual and nearly all have a great need to develop literacy skills. Patient support is needed as we work to achieve proficiency of the fourth grade standards. As students read new texts and incorporate writing strategies, important instructional access points lie in their existing strengths.

I reflected on the mindsets and interests highlighted by foundational activities such as discussions and block tower community constructions. The activities selected early in the year uncovered the students’ superhero power: DESIGN! These fourth graders came to me with the seeds of design thinking experience. Project-based learning has been a complex-wide initiative since these students were in first grade, and it showed. Next Generation Science Standards call teachers to address engineering practices, such as generating solutions that meet constraints and criteria and improving a prototype.

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The Makerspace, our Makerspace, started quietly and ended noisily. I had seen glimpses of Makerspace on my Twitter feed and was curious about a place students could use materials and tools to develop creative projects. Was Makerspace just hype? Will clutter overrun my class? Am I going to waste materials and money? It was so open-ended and so many unanswered questions ran through my head. I started with the idea that the space didn’t need to be high-tech and well-funded. I would just try it out with a Makerspace mindset.

I filled several baskets on a cart with supplies that I had on hand, such as clay, tape, rubber bands, markers, and paper towel rolls. Next, I made a sign, an invite to get moving! We had computers at the ready and freedom to explore. I was pumped. But now what?

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Glen Morden, Patagonia’s VP of Innovation said, “If something didn’t work, it’s because we didn’t know things we would have known, had we involved more people. We succeed when we stay open-minded and collaborative, by having the humility to invite others to help.” I considered tapping more teachers and websites for resources but then I realized the students could experience authentic learning as a group of organizers. If I had all of the answers, then they would jump through artificial barriers and miss out on learning. They would make the cart materials into a useful place, on their own. The making of the Makerspace, in itself, would be my students’ first engineering design project.

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So I asked one student who had been deeply engaged in the collaborative Keva block challenge to envision this cart transformed into a Makerspace for student-created inventions. He chimed in that he would think of ideas of what we could include in the area. The list languished and we only had two items days later so he partnered with a friend. Together, they came back to me with a huge list to present to the class who added even more ideas. They created a little “maker mascot.” Then, another teacher donated a cubby organizer that was soon filled with donations brought in. The seeds were sprouting but not without a few weeds.

Because this was still unknown territory to me, I timidly did a soft launch of our Makerspace with just a few students who had finished work early. First, the chaotic flurry of papers and tools. Sharp scissors threatened students who surrounded sticky workspaces.

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“If nobody takes care of it, it will be gone. We will close this whole thing down.” The warning came out of anxiety, rather than love. I practiced my mindful breaths and prayed for thoughts higher than mine. It’s only going to be messy a short while, I told myself. The scissors cut could have happened during any subject time. We talked about the problems that came up and found solutions together. The shared norms that evolved addressed each issue. Put the half-completed projects in your personal bin. Review scissor safety training. Share materials. Respect that others can’t drop things right away to hand you a marker if engaged in deep concentration. Take initiative and problem-solve. We must give others space and use more tables if needed.

A week later, students earned the privilege of holding a Grand Opening Makerspace Lunch. Choosing to skip lunch recess, they flew into a 90-minute flurry of action. I circulated to hear the entire Maker Room transform into a buzz of engagement, resourceful making, and planning. Seeing their drive to design and determination to succeed was an all-time career highlight.

“How did you find those things?”

“How did you make it stand?”

“I’m so focused!”

“Can someone help me on this?”

“I know what makes it better!

“Do you think I need to add anything?”

“What happened to yours and what is it now?”

“I want to present first. I am brave.”

As new issues arose, students spoke up about what they would like to include in our Makerspace Wisdom poster, which included:

  • Don’t use so much expensive clay for one project unless absolutely necessary.

  • Low noise level to respect our neighbors.

  • Making weapon-like items is forbidden by school policy.

  • Clean up at the end of the work period is OK because clean-ups along the way interrupt the innovative process.

  • Send a message to parents about materials used that may pose a possible choking hazard for kids under 5.

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My students proposed we use the last 30 minutes to showcase favorite creations. Some of the first products were items designed for loved ones such as a desk organizer, a toy for a sibling, suggestion box for the class and a paper clip holder. Another made a set of gifts for a large family. Students created a canoe, a cup, a sign, string telephones, a toy kendama, a magic trick, a sculpture, a hat, and a corrupted robot. One group of children collaborated to form a band and performed a song with their musical instruments.

After each presentation, students gave positive feedback and the engineers described the most challenging part of their design process. The skills and character that came with generating, directing, solving and presenting an innovation defined a world-class learning experience. Ownership of learning can’t be taught and it is developed with an opportunity. The fruit that had blossomed was joy, patience, confidence, and community while even more seeds were planted that day.

And this is just the beginning.

Real life has NO curriculum. We get to design our lives based on our personal values, needs, and goals. For students, “Follow the Directions” must eventually become “Lead the Direction.” The more we can allow space for that, as educators, the more we are serving our students’ true needs. We now have a Makerspace for students who come through my class, where they can dream, explore, invent, problem-solve, and connect. I will give safety procedures, space, and storage containers. Most importantly, I will give them guidance, encouragement, and what they need most…opportunity and space to explore.

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Kristlyn Oda is a National Board Certified 4th grade teacher and NBCT candidate mentor in the Campbell-Kapolei complex in Hawai’i. A current Hope Street Group Hawai’i Teacher Fellow, Kristi was awarded a spot at STEM focused Mickelson Exxon-Mobil Teaching Academy and helped to launch the K-12 PLTW engineering program in her complex area. Follow her via Twitter @KristiOda.