Toolbox Feb 2016So you want a school makerspace? You want something that’s significant, powerful, transformative and more than just a nifty workshop with the latest tech tools? Terrific! But first, put down that shopping list, gather your stakeholders and start a conversation. Like, now.

When we began our makerspace journey we had identified some available space — an old middle school computer lab. We had a rough idea what we wanted to do — bring back shop class, but make it digital. We set a deadline — September, 2015. We’d done some research, read many articles, and even visited a few ‘makerspaces.’

We were ready!

Or so we thought.

In his book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, leadership expert Simon Sinek explores the “biology of human decision making.” In his view, “...people don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” Sure, we could purchase the necessary equipment, furniture, and supplies, arrange everything in a thoughtful manner, and then announce the availability of our new ‘makerspace.’ But to be successful, we knew we needed more — starting with the WHY.

Enter the manifesto

Outfitting a new learning space, traditionally, is a catalog-driven exercise: these desks, those chairs, this technology, that service. We wanted our space — and program — to be different, not at all like a classroom. So, we started differently.

We invited key people involved with the process to a conversation. You can, too.

Teachers, administrators, school board members, community representatives, technologists, and parents gathered on a day in July for a “design charrette.” A charrette is an intense planning session. It was led by David Jakes, a professional learning space designer, to explore how the design process could be used to develop an irresistible invitation into making and learning.

The daylong event culminated in the development of the "Life Ready" manifesto that provided a declaration of the types of experiences required to create a mindset capable of improving the lives of others through caring, thinking, designing and acting. The manifesto guides the work we do every day. It is the why behind our maker-fueled initiative.

Why build a makerspace?

So, why build the makerspace? We wanted to do more than provide an engaging environment for students to explore, play and inquire. The manifesto makes it clear: our mission is to help our learners become “Life Ready,” developing a mindset defined by the qualities of caring, thinking, designing and acting. Those four words adorn the giant whiteboard wall in our space, the first thing visible when entering the room.

Considering a makerspace in your school? Consider taking the time to develop a manifesto of your own. You will learn more about your school community’s needs in the process, and I am willing to bet the results will be worth the effort.

For more about manifestos, check out these resources:

Design Thinking: Our Foundation

Toolbox Feb 2016Manifestos are great, but what makes our program truly special is the focus on design thinking. Design thinking is a process that helps people discover and implement solutions to problems. It is a way of problem solving that relies on individual creativity, effective teamwork, and a willingness to fail and try again, repeatedly, until the optimal solution is identified. To learn more about design thinking, watch this video: http://bit.ly/DesignThinkingforEducators or this one: http://bit.ly/MaximizingStudentCreativeTalent.

How did we catch the design thinking bug? It was all because of “If You Build It,” a 2013 documentary about an innovative design-based high school program. Designer Emily Pilloton and architect Matt Miller led the initiative, culminating with construction of a student-designed farmer’s market pavilion in the town of Windsor, N.C. But there’s much, much more to the story than that. The movie had a profound effect on my worldview, our program, and the creation of our space. Watch the preview of “If You Build It” at http://bit.ly/IfYouBuildItTrailer.

In the movie, Pilloton asks, “What if you could bring back shop class, but orient the projects around things the community needed?” and “Are the things you are doing making a difference in anyone’s lives?” This became the basis for the transformation from building a “makerspace” as a stand-alone experience and a discrete entity to something destined to have much greater impact.

Design thinking gives our program purpose and meaning. It’s not just about what you can make. It’s about what you can make that makes a difference in the lives of people. In our program, design thinking isn’t part of the curriculum — it is the curriculum.

We have identified six distinct design experiences all of our middle school students, grades five through eight, will get in 2015-16. Students come to my studio with their math teacher for 40 minutes, five days in a row. After that, I do not see them again for six weeks, allowing other classes to rotate through.

Each of these design experiences is unique and builds towards a “capstone experience” all students will have at the end of the year. They will use design thinking to solve real problems for real people in our community and elsewhere. I’ll talk about those in a moment.

Ready to begin thinking about how design thinking might work in your school? Terrific!

Here are some resources to get you started:

Spice racks, no! Capstones, yes!

Many people may remember a shop class where they crafted an item or items for themselves or their family with their own hands. I still have the trivet I cast in the Carl Sandburg Middle School metal shop in the mid-1970s.

Typical projects included things like spice racks, lamps, and bookshelves. These classes imparted valuable knowledge, and were highly relevant for their time. We wanted digital shop to be similar but more than just a modern version of shop class. In keeping with our focus on design thinking, we wanted our students to make things that matter, challenging them to solve real problems in our community. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

  • One of our fifth graders has a brother in second grade who wears a hearing aid. His mom does, too. After learning about our program’s unique focus at Back-to-School night, the mom approached me, relating how her youngest son gets frustrated when playing sports because he can’t hear the coach’s instructions. The design challenge: how might we improve the sports experience for a person who needs to wear a hearing aid?
  • We have a teacher in our school who lives with multiple sclerosis and has an assist dog. One of my colleagues noticed that she sometimes has difficulty carrying her belongings into school and to her classroom. The design challenge: how might we make it easier for this teacher to transport the materials she needs to and from class every day?
  • 3-D printed prosthetic hands are increasingly more common these days, thanks to the work of eNABLE. Once recipients are located, production is relatively straightforward. Still, they are amazingly powerful devices that can transform lives. How might student teams create customized prosthetics incorporating the recipient’s personality and unique interests into the final design?

The connection between makerspaces and design thinking

So it might be easy — and fun — to create a free-wheeling ‘tinkering’ space in your school or classroom, and there’s little stopping you. Get some materials, invite the kids in, get out of the way, right?

Great, but…not so fast!

A makerspace would undoubtedly be a great addition to your classroom or school, but its value to your learning community will be determined not by what gadgets it includes or what 3-D printer you purchased, but by how your students use that space to make things and solve problems that matter.

That’s where design thinking comes in. Sure, a makerspace can — and usually does — operate without a specific ethos or focus, but without a doubt, our program is stronger and more powerful because we’ve addressed a larger goal: embracing our ‘manifesto,’ challenging our kids to think beyond the assignment and incorporating empathy into the core of what we do.

Ask yourself this question: do you want students that can find the “right” answer, or, do you wish to develop lifelong learners who can find the best possible solution in a world full of uncertainty?

A design-thinking-powered makerspace may be just the ticket.

The last word: network!

There are many great books, articles and other resources available for those interested in makerspaces, but nothing beats a human connection.

“Resources for K-12 Fab Labs and Makerspaces” is, in my view at least, the best place to meet like-minded educators. Find it at https://sites.google.com/site/k12makers. The website is a companion to the main offering, a free “Google Group” with knowledgeable, helpful, passionate educators with interests ranging from the most basic to the most sophisticated, across the curriculum. It’s where I’d recommend those interested in makerspaces go first.

I hope this article and the resources I’ve shared will prove useful to you in your pursuit of a makerspace for your school. Remember, it’s not about the tools — or the space. It’s about the learning, and even more importantly, about making a difference in people’s lives. Design thinking can provide the ideal frame for that work.

Kevin Jarrett is a Grade 5-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math) teacher at Northfield Community Middle School in Atlantic County. He is a Google-Certified Innovator and one of the co-founders of EdCamp (edcamp.org). He can be reached at kevin.jarrett@gmail.com.