Making A Makerspace: Top 10 Tools in a Maker’s Classroom (2012)

This year was a big year in the STEaMworks (STEM focus, art driven, work/project centered: the STEaMworks), my self-styled Maker classroom.  We (and the Math/Sci Team) built a lot of projects: rockets, rocket cars, derby cars, catapults, simple robots, box-making, bench-making, bridge-building, sail-testing, music making, spirographs, pendulums, 3D prototyping, CAD models, Arduino projects, Alice computer programming, Art Cars, shed construction, a digital STEM Fair and more.  I’ve just typed that up and still can’t believe it!  Nine months and so much sweat, math, science, art and tears.  How did we (my co-workers and rock-solid team, my students and my very understanding family) do it?

With these ten tools!

10.  A bank of computers

Computers don’t actually make a Maker classroom, computer access does.  In the past to years, I’ve developed an instinct, capability and ability to integrate the technology into our science and math-based classroom activities.  Not every project needs computer (for example, the spirograph build) but many projects can be enhanced with its use.  My students use a computer almost everyday;  researching the day’s project, finding working examples and interactive demonstrations online or better yet, actively engaging with their small corner of the online world.  A Maker’s classroom without computers can still work, but becomes harder to facilitate.

9. Alice Programming Environment 

Currently in beta, developed in part by Randy Pausch and sponsered by Electronic Arts, the Alice Programming Environment provides a free, useful sandbox for students to learn the basics of computer programming.  No, its not a  powerful, high-level language like Python, nor does it have many applications outside of a the program itself (like say, Arduino’s sketchpad) but students learn logical thinking, loops, conditional structures and the like.  This high-level of abstract thinking immediately transfers to other areas of life.  My students often have to use conditional structures when planning a get-together (if I invite John and he doesn’t like Stacy then I can invite one OR the other) or completing multi-step, sequential projects (finish step 1, move on to step 2, check during step 3, go back to step 1).  This type of abstract thinking comes naturally with age and cognitive development.  When you teach a population challenged by exectutive functions like I do, any tool which allows students to practice these skills in an explicit way gets on my personal top ten.

8. Google Sketch Up

If you are looking for the most bang for your buck, find a way to incorporate Google Sketch Up in your room.  I use GSU8 as a baithook, as a reward for strong academic performance, as a product creator, a academic break activity, as a curriculum enhancer, as the “cool” homework, as “can you believe this, parent?  Look how competent your child is!”-bragging rights maker.  I bait the kid with computer time and hook’m into learning geometry concepts, I reward twenty mulitplication problems with five minutes of worktime.  My students create castles and learn spatial skills placing firing arcs from the catapults.  My students create designs for headphone holders and houses and Borgian libraries.  My students thrown tantrums and ten minutes designing furniture calms them down.  My students turn in homework when I say the fateful words, “build it on Sketch Up”.  My parents shake their heads in disbelief and new wonder.  Familiarity with a program like GSU translates to coursework in college, into certificates in industry, into a career.

Perimeter/Area/Polygon Exercise in Google Sketch Up

Bang for your buck.

7.  The support of community experts

Despite what my students may think about me, I don’t know everything.  But I know a lot of people who do, and if I don’t, I know people who know a guy.  Community experts mean I can do more with less and I can do more than I know how to do.  I just have to ask and listen.  I just become a facilitator, rather than a traditional teacher, for my own kiddos.  I get the opportunity to occupy a different, more equitable and just as powerful space.  My classroom thrives.

For those in Houston, look out for my Community Watch tag.  I try to give credit when credit is due.

6.  The woodworking tool box

Last summer, I started working on this toolbox.  It holds various hammers, chisels, squares, sliding bevels, saws, tools and supplies for four to six students to build nearly anything with wood.  This box contains magic.  Absolute magic.  If I can’t make it with the contents of this box…

…then it is beyond the scope my middle school curriculum.

5.  A blog

Once a student is done listening to a lecture, performing an experiment, finding a solution and wrestling with a problem the student must process their new-found knowledge.  Communication – whether short answer on a test,  long essay on a bulletin board or oral presentation – provides the best opportunity for a teacher to evaluate their student’s learning progress.  Student-centered blogs provide a quicker turnaround, leverage a student’s love of technology, allow practice zones for literacy skills, support multimedia integration and boost parental engagement all at the same time.  The Math/Sci program produced roughly 80 posts this year.  Some 2000 page views.  We had twenty students contribute to these articles.  That’s four essays on math/science learning per child.  I teach science…but my kids can write.  That’s a whole lotta communication.

4. A team of expert, engaged, bad-mamma-jamma professional educators

In the words of Arlo Guthrie – “One man singing a bar of Alice’s Resturant, then that man’s crazy.  Three men singing it…that’s a movement”.  Teaching is an art, a craft and a sweet science.  Artist need muses, craftsmen need tools, sweat and wood.  And boxers need to be knocked around a little to “season them”.  If you do this alone, you burn out.  You do this with a crew of people you can rely on, you change the world.

And I’ve gotta helluva movement marching with me.

3.  Eyes and Ears

I carry a camera with me at all times.  The camera records my students’ smile, my students’ learning, my students’ simple moments of success.  If I don’t record it, I don’t share it, I don’t put it in my students hands and say “Remember this.  This is important,” then it didn’t happen.  The camera preserves my students’ success.

My colleagues use the discontinued Flip cameras to record video.  We edit the video in MovieMaker and move it over to a YouTube channel.  Other teachers can see our work, parents can look over our shoulder, the boss-upstairs can say “this is what our teachers do.”  My eyes and ears give context and visual ooomph to any project I can develop.

2.  WD-40, Hot Glue, Vice Grips & Duct Tape

Use them in this order.  Always works.

1.  A school which provides the space, curriculum and materials for exploration

My plea for you – especially if you are not already engaged in education – is to find a school which promotes Maker values and Maker projects and support those programs the best you can.  Lend your expertise, donate used tools, put your dollars and voice behind hands-on education.  Individual teachers, like myself, can only do so much inside a classroom.  We need support on the streets, on our speed-dial and in the hearts of our parents.  Hands-on, project-based, maker-centric education works and we need your help to get it to the next level.  Keep talking, making and setting things on fire until our principals, superintendents and school boards sit up and take notice.

Make it safe & keep the rubber side down this weekend.

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