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7 tips for creating a learner-centered makerspace

By Team ISTE 5/11/2016

Three years after implementing a makerspace at their San Francisco school, Michael Matthews and his colleagues realized the space had a fundamental flaw. 

“Students were creating amazing pieces of work and then assembling them on the floor. The space was defining what we could do rather than the other way around,” said Matthews, director of curriculum and program innovation at Katherine Delmare Burke School.

They decided to tear it up and start over, which was a big challenge considering their tight budget and narrow timeline. But last summer Matthews and his colleagues transformed the space — essentially two tech labs with 25 desktop computers — into a dynamic, flexible makerspace.

Looking for inspiration to redesign a school space? Matthews offers these tips for creating a makerspace on a shoestring.

Make sure the space is student friendly. Put materials in students’ hands. Kids need to play, brainstorm, touch, tinker, grab a material and try it or put it back. At Burke the cornerstone of the redesign was lots of bins packed with materials situated right in front of the students.

Give students ownership of the space. You don’t need brightly painted walls or high-end supplies. Just create lots of places to display student work to inspire more great work.
Above all, Matthews wanted students to feel like they were in charge of design and upkeep of the space. Using staple guns, students gave their old swivel stools a makeover by reupholstering the seats with colorful fabric.

Address safety and efficiency. Label makerspace bins with red and green dots. A red dot means the material is scarce, comes with safety rules or is expensive and therefore requires teacher permission to use. A green dot means students can use these supplies without permission. The system saves teachers’ time while ensuring students are careful and conscientious.

Put it on wheels. This allows you to define the space based on the learning rather than vise versa. Tables can be in the center of the room for group work or moved out of the way to create a big open space. At Burke, even 3D printers and TVs are on rollers, and wheeled garment racks hold dry erase boards that nest together to save space when not in use.

Focus on curriculum. A makerspace isn’t about pricey tools or even technology. Laser cutters and 3D printers are always at the top of people’s lists when they create a makerspace, but it’s more important to have a great curriculum. Buy those tools only when you need them for a project. This helps your space evolve at a natural pace.

Start with your staff. It’s not unusual for faculty to be timid about making. Combat this by inviting the leery to come in and play. Set up a mini-maker fair on campus during a workday and asked teachers to bring something they made for an informal show and tell. At Burke, staff brought in photography, baked goods, paintings, a surfboard case, wedding invitations, crafts, even a miniature ship. It was a great way for teachers to share their talents and create collaborations down the road.

Build in time for unstructured play and tinkering. Open your makerspace at lunch and recess and schedule time for faculty and students to bring their families to play in the space. Matthews follows the genius hour philosophy of setting aside time for students to pursue their passions. “It naturally becomes a genius hour when you build in time for unstructured play,” he says.

The maker movement is a hot topic at ISTE 2016! Matthews will share his ideas in one of dozens of sessions dedicated to the maker movement in education.

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