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Making makerspaces that work

March 13, 2018

This past summer, Design Concepts had the pleasure of working with Lincoln Elementary School on improving their makerspace and program.

Lincoln’s principal Deborah Hoffman, instructional coach Ellen Franzone, and librarian Jim Igielski believe in the power of making to teach their students a variety of skills and keep them engaged and excited about learning. Jim had mostly spearheaded their efforts, but had struggled with low supplies and projects that needed more than one class period to complete. He also wanted to help classroom teachers have a sense of the resources they had access to and how they might integrate into their curriculum.

Since no two makerspaces are the same, how could we help Lincoln create a makerspace that worked for them? We started by talking to students, teachers and the leadership team about what they needed and wanted to make and what the space should allow them to do. Our feedback included some amazing drawings from the kids and a list of a whole bunch of things that the kids wanted to make.

From the teachers and leadership team, we learned that the diversity of projects and interests, along with contexts in which making could be used, are part of what made the problem difficult. For some teachers, making was a time for the students to practice their social skills and learn to work with others. For others, making was an outlet that let individual students dig deep into an area that excited them and helped keep them engaged at school.

As we researched, we also found an abundance of existing resources and activity ideas. So Lincoln had a variety of ways they wanted to incorporate making and we could offer them plenty of resources, but the array of ideas and options was overwhelming. Our challenge was to make it manageable. 

Since no two makerspaces are the same, how could we help Lincoln create a makerspace that worked for them?

This challenge was split into two key areas: the physical space and the wealth of online resources. For the physical space, we leveraged our own office move as a chance to repurpose materials. We had dividers on wheels that didn’t make sense in our new space that had both whiteboards and cork boards that didn't make sense in our new building. Like all good makers, we also wanted to make the space individual for Lincoln — the chance to customize is one of the most fun things about the maker movement. And we know from our design strategy work that internal projects need branding. Jim had already come up with “think, make, improve” and so we branded the dividers to help create a special space to store making supplies. The dividers also allowed us to design for the makerspace to open and close, so that students would know when it was time for making.

The other challenge was aggregating and organizing so many online resources. In this digital world, we were immediately drawn to the format of a wiki because tagging systems allow for cross-referencing. Together with the leaders at Lincoln, we created a set of tags that included grade level, activity type, number of kids involved, resources needed, and skills developed. Rather than build another website that teachers would have to visit and maintain, we used part of their existing library portal. There, we were able to add links to outside resources and arrange information on a Pinterest-like tile layout for easier browsing. One of the most exciting and powerful parts of our work was creating this resource space with which teachers could interact.

We had a blast helping Lincoln Elementary and ever since, they’ve been making up a storm! The maker movement gives students wider access to the opportunity to think through a problem, create a solution, and improve it in the real world. 

We can’t thank Lincoln Elementary enough for the chance to be involved in their space. We’re looking forward to continued partnerships with them and others in the Madison community to spread the joy of making.