Makerspace Roots

The Origin Story of Makerspace

Students working on computers in our makerspace–using Makey Makey– and creating perler bead pixel art

If you’re reading this, you probably already have some ideas about what a makerspace is. However, you may not know the origin story – how makerspace came about, and the ways in which the history of makerspace influences what we see today. To supplement my own five-year journey with makerspace, I did some research. This is what I discovered.

If you sensed a hint of the subversive in makerspace, you’d be right. Makerspaces harkens back to the late-1990s with hackerspaces. These were preceded by hacklabs, which first came on the scene in the mid-1990s. Both hacklabs and hackerspaces were a result of the proliferation of personal computers. Both also have computers and hacker culture at their respective centers. However, hacklabs are usually associated with some sort of political agenda, whereas hackerspaces are thought of as community organizations for learning and collaboration. What hackerspaces and makerspaces share in common is the focus on community and the use of technology.

So how did makerspaces branch off from hackerspaces? The answer, put simply, is Dale Dougherty. Dougherty is the founder of Maker Media, MAKE magazine and inventor of the term makerspace. Legend goes that Dougherty was originally going to call MAKE magazine HACK. When he proposed HACK as the name of his magazine to his daughter, she purportedly said that he should call it MAKE instead, because ‘everyone likes making things’.  The first issue of MAKE was published in January, 2005. Dougherty likened it to “Martha Stewart for geeks” and with this single publication, the maker movement was nudged into the mainstream.

The term makerspace didn’t come into play until several years after the launch of Make magazine, in 2011, when Dougherty registered makerspace.com, and started using makerspace to refer to spaces for designing and creating (often with kids). This was the point at which the maker movement started really taking off.

MAKE has always had its finger on the pulse of what’s trending in makerspaces and although some of the content is more applicable to professional making, it also contains some practical, kid-friendly projects, often complete with images, project completion time estimates and materials cost. MAKE also publishes a desktop fabrication guide with reviews of tools such as 3D printers, CNC and Lasers. This is akin to the Consumer Reports car buying guides, but for desktop fabrication. If you are considering making something, there has likely been an article written about it in MAKE.

Makerspace vs. Hackerspace

Makerspaces and hackerspaces currently exist all over the world. So, how do we differentiate between them? Honestly, it depends a lot upon who you ask. From my experiences, I tend to think of them in contrast to each other. Hackerspaces tend to be edgier, makerspaces a bit friendlier and more welcoming. Hackerspaces have a heavy tech focus, makerspaces tend to blend in more of the D.I.Y.

Makerspaces are usually more kid-friendly. Of the hackerspaces that I’ve encountered, I would not send a kid to any of them without a trusted adult (although I’m sure there are exceptions where that would be perfectly fine). This is partly because in hackerspaces, often the activities aren’t something a kid could do without help, either the materials or equipment are too dangerous (using lead solder, for example) or the skills are too advanced for kids, at least those younger than high-school aged.

If you’re wondering if there are any makerspaces or hackerspaces near you, there is a directory you can check. You can also register your makerspace or hackerspace in this same directory, once you have it up and running. You might be surprised by how many you find. Go check them out!

Music, Utilizing Your Makerspace

Music Making is the Perfect Makerspace Activity for Kids (with Resources)!

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love music, and if I did, I wouldn’t trust them. Music is such an integral part of the human experience. It is a universal language that has existed in all cultures, throughout history. It’s something we experiment with – clapping, drumming with our hands and feet – before we are even old enough to talk. Music can calm us, bring us to tears and make our hearts race, and there are so many different ways music can be integrated into makerspace. Here are some ideas.

Drumming is an inexpensive, straight-forward place to start. There are a plethora of online sites that will show you how to create an entire drum kit from trash. You can use easily find objects for drum sticks too, including; pencils, chop sticks and sticks just found on the ground. If you are looking for inspiration for how to use everyday objects as percussion instruments, do a quick online search for the group Stomp. I was particularly impressed with their composition done entirely with brooms.

If your goal is to create music with unusual instruments, there are plenty of intriguing examples. The Vegetable Orchestra performs music on instruments that…as you may have guessed from the name…are made entirely out of vegetables. You can do this yourself! Just watch Linsey Pollack’s Tedx talk where he shows you how to make a clarinet out of a carrot, in less than 5 minutes, and then plays it beautifully. This video, and other resources, are included on the kid-focused badging site DIY.org, in an entire section devoted to instrument making.

Synthesizers are really cool but might seem intimidating at first, especially if you are working with younger kids in your makerspace. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Kids as young as 3 years old can learn about how synths works by playing with Blipblox, a synthesizer designed specifically for kids ages 3 and up (although out-of-stock right now, they will be available to purchase this May, 2019). Blipblox even has MIDI input for an external keyboard or sequencer controller, so although it looks like a toy, if you add a keyboard and a computer with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as GarageBand (on an Apple device) or Cakewalk (if you are using Windows), Blipblox can actually can be part of a fully functional, professional studio.

If you are working with older makers, you might look into the littleBits Synth kit. LittleBits are great for creating complex objects, quickly and easily, since the pre-made bits fit together using magnets. Their synth kit even has a well researched, concise history of synthesizers included in the booklet.

With older kids, if you have a small group, are feeling adventurous, and you really want to go down the rabbit hole, you can have them solder together an oscilloscope (that you can use to manipulate the pitch of a sound). The one that I made (which actually works!) is pictured below. But be warned – it took me two, focused hours, to put together.

If you want your makers to try music composition, Finale Notepad is a free (Windows) download that’s worth checking out. If you don’t use Windows, Sibelius is good too, but it isn’t free.

You might also consider giving your kids an opportunity to live code music using multi-platform, Ruby-based, Sonic Pi. Sonic Pi is easy to learn and fun to use. I spent an afternoon laughing with some kids over the different synth sounds and effects that you can produce with one.

Whatever you decide to explore, make sure to include music in your makerspace offerings. There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching kids dance to music, that they made all by themselves.

Exploring Makerspaces, Makerspace Management, Utilizing Your Makerspace

Exploring Makerspaces for Kids: Brain Monkeys – A Makerspace That Comes to You

For this second segment of my series on exploring makerspaces, I interviewed Katie Tilton, owner of Brain Monkeys. Brain Monkeys is a makerspace that has been around for several years and has a unique model – it’s mobile and it’s just for kids. As owner Katie Tilton puts it, Brain Monkeys is “A makerspace that comes to you”.  I met Tilton a decade ago when I brought her in to do a program for teens, at a local public library. I’ve always been struck by her energy and enthusiasm. She is truly a pioneer in kid makerspace programming.

Her company, Brain Monkeys, facilitates and offers programs as part of after school enrichment, summer camps and home schooling groups. These activities include Arduino programming, electronics, LEGO Mindstorms, ballistics, Maker Design and Create and much more.  

Brain Monkeys is an established company that does some very solid makerspace programming for kids and this, having a traveling makerspace, is another way that you could consider doing makerspace. This certainly adds a convenience factor for your members and could allow you to create a business model like Tilton’s. If you are contemplating creating a makerspace for your public library, or school, this could also enable you to provide programming for all of the library branches in your community, or buildings in your school district, in one fell swoop.

A specific way in which you can take your makerspace on the road is with traveling carts. A group of middle school librarians in Knoxville, TN were able to do this successfully with thematic carts (STEM, production, art, 3D printing), that rotated between their buildings.  Another model that has worked for some is to put makerspace equipment onto a bus and drive it to different locations.

Regardless of how it’s done, having a mobile makerspace opens up a lot of possibilities.

Brain Monkeys Images reproduced with permission.

Exploring Makerspaces, Makerspace Management

Exploring Makerspaces for Kids: Think Tank at Impression 5

The biggest influence on my makerspace management and design has absolutely been made through visiting other spaces. Although nothing beats visiting a space in person, hopefully this, which is the beginning of a series, provides the next best thing.

On Monday, a day we all had off of work and school, I dragged my whole family to Impression 5, the kids hands-on science museum in Lansing, to check out their appropriately named makerspace “Think Tank”. Think Tank, located on the first floor near the main entrance, is open for limited hours and for special programming.  

One of the most intriguing aspects of this space was that it was developed with input from a Youth Action Council, a diverse group of youth from the area. The names of the Youth Action Council line one of the walls, each name plaque uniquely designed by the council members themselves, using tools from the makerspace.

Youth Action Council name plaques above tool storage cabinets at Think Tank.

My first thought upon entering was that Think Tank is one of the cleanest makerspaces I’ve ever encountered. Tools for today’s project were out, but other tools and materials were neatly put away in storage lining the walls.

Pegboard with hanging tools and cardboard storage organized by size.

Although Think Tank occupies a small space, it’s utilized for interesting and innovative projects, many of which could be seen on display.

Projects on Display.

Within Think Tank is the Think Space, something that I haven’t encountered in any other makerspace before. The Think Space is connected to the rest of Think Tank, but set back into a cozy nook. Inside the Think Space is a comfy couch with throw pillows, some bean bag chairs and a coffee table with several issues of Make magazine. The idea behind the Think Space is to provide an area for kids to sit to take a moment to…well…think. Perhaps their project isn’t working the way that they had intended, and they need a break. Maybe they want to use the space to work with a small group. They could peruse the magazines for inspiration if they feel stuck. Regardless, this seems like a wonderful addition, especially for a kid-focused makerspace.

In the span of about an hour, my kids, with some guidance from the incredibly knowledgeable staff, were both able to create their own “flapping flyers”, an eagle and a dragon, respectively, out of cardboard, yarn, nuts (for weight) a popsicle stick and fishing line. Overall Think Tank at Impression 5 was a great experience, we can’t wait to go back!

Getting inspiration for their Flapping Flyers designs.
Makerspace Management

The Argument for Teaching Kids to Make Things Bad on Purpose

Working with kids isn’t simply about walking into a space and teaching. It also requires navigating the invisible baggage brought in by each kid –  from friendships going sour, to bullying, and other issues that you may not be aware of such as homelessness, food insecurity and abuse. You can’t look at kids and tell what their lives are like. Which is why I believe that it’s critical to be kind, and to try and make things less stressful, whenever possible. Adults are in a position of power over kids, and that’s an important thing to remember. As an adult, you have to be cognizant about how your words and decisions might make kids feel.

Maya Angelou said it best: 

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. 

-Maya Angelou

Several years ago I started teaching kids how to put together loops in GarageBand to create a unique conglomeration. I was pretty excited about this. It seemed like a great way to teach some solid skills and have fun in the process. Once we had a couple of sessions, the students were required to share 30 seconds of their piece with the class. Naturally, some of them were a little nervous. It’s scary to share your work with a group of peers.

However, one of my students was several steps beyond nervous. He was petrified. He was so worried about how the other kids would receive his piece that it was spilling into the rest of his life. He was having trouble sleeping. He was practicing with GarageBand during all of his free time. He wanted to come in to spend extra time outside of his regular class. Normally, kids wanting to come in for some extra time, to learn something, is a good thing. This wasn’t that. This kid was practically in tears when we talked about sharing his piece.  When I checked in with the class, he wasn’t the only one who was worried. Clearly, I needed to do something to help.   

When I talked with him about the way that he was feeling, what I garnered was that he was trying to make a perfect piece of music, which he perceived to be an impossible task. I think that a lot of our kids feel pressure to be perfect at everything. I recently attended a professional development workshop given by the author of At What Cost , a book that addresses this overall perfectionism trend (and is very a worthwhile read). The objective of the GarageBand lesson was not to create perfect music. It was simply to learn how to use the software, and hopefully have some fun in the process.  I came up with a solution to try and alleviate some of the stress – what if I gave the kids permission to make their music bad on purpose

When I presented this as an option to the class, the relief was visible on their faces. Some of them were even delighted. Making things bad on purpose feels subversive, which is appealing to some kids. From that point forward I’ve always presented this as an option – the students can experiment, make their music bad on purpose or try and make something beautiful. When they play their piece for the class they can opt to share which way they went with this, or they can simply leave it up for speculation.

Once the students were given permission to make their music bad on purpose, not only did they seem to be having more fun with the project, they also started trying out everything. Giving them permission to make a bad piece of music made them explore GarageBand more thoroughly, and learn more about the software, than ever before.  Obviously, not every assignment should have a – bad on purpose – option. But it worked very well for us, with this.

In fact, I think this has wider applications in the realm of makerspace, and teaching in general. For some kids, especially those prone to perfectionism, giving them permission to make things bad on purpose gives them a reason to explore things more deeply than they otherwise would. It allows students to not worry so much about making mistakes, which in turn leads to taking more risks. Risks are really important in school and in life. Taking some calculated risks allows innovation to flourish. If you are teaching, or running a makerspace, it’s critical to get students to a point where they are comfortable taking some risks and making some mistakes (assuming it’s not compromising safety). I would encourage you to find ways to give kids the option of making things bad on purpose.  You never know what happy accidents will result.

A Student’s In-progress GarageBand Piece

Sustainability, Tools, Woodworking

Woodworking and Tools in a Kid-Friendly Makerspace

For the past two months I’ve been asking the questions – how do you teach kids woodworking? How do you teach them to work with tools? This hasn’t been quiet contemplative research. It’s been more of an all-consuming, ask everyone who crosses my path, read everything on the Internet and risk bodily harm from toppling stacks of library books, endeavor. I’ve been interviewing construction workers, hobbyists, engineers, Home Depot employees, teachers and makerspace coordinators.

Despite casting such a wide net, I have encountered several common themes. One of which is the idea that you don’t actually need power tools. You can make amazing things and have an incredible program with just hand tools. Moreover, teaching kids exclusively with hand tools gives them a much better understanding of woodworking. This is a relief, as I am secretly afraid of power tools. My first priority in makerspace is safety and when you are using power tools an accident can very quickly turn into an emergency. But beyond safety considerations, using hand tools when woodworking gives kids more input. With hand tools, you can’t force things the way you can with power tools. You have to think about the hardness and grain of the wood. You have to take your time. 

A second pattern that emerged was a path for teaching woodworking in such a way that you can start working with kids as early as pre-school or kindergarten and build from there. With these little kids, you could have them make a project by teaching them how to assemble and affix pieces of wood that are pre-cut to size. This could mean using wood glue and clamps, or nails or screws with pre-drilled holes. You can create a project for them or you can buy pre-made kits, for example the classic Tool Box Kit. If you are more interested in skill building, you can teach really little kids how to, for example, use a hammer by starting the nails for them and having them hammer those nails all the way into a piece of scrap lumber. You can even buy them a lighter, kid-sized hammer, if a regular hammer is too big for them to use.

The next step up is to have kids pre-drill their own holes, start their own nails and begin figuring out for themselves the ways in which to put pieces of lumber together in order to make something. You can even cut wood partway through and have them finish the cut using a hand saw. This is where you might consider purchasing a lightweight (easier for kids to handle) cordless drill. However, if you wanted to stick with hand tools, you can also have them use a hand drill

Once kids are a bit bigger, around age 10 and older, and they’re comfortable with  using hand tools for woodworking, you can consider bringing in more power tools and machinery. All you really need for kids to create original projects is a drill and something that they can cut wood with. All of my sources agreed that the table saw is dangerous, and you may not want to have kids using that until high school, even if you invest in a SawStop (which I would STRONGLY recommend). At this point you can also still stick with hand drills and hand saws and still have a strong woodworking program.

The main consideration when deciding what tools to introduce is the age of your makers, since this correlates to their motor skills, coordination and strength, all important factors in being able to use a tool safely and effectively. If you wanted to engage students across a school district you could create projects by having high school students design and cut wood, middle grade students assemble and affix the pieces and elementary students paint and decorate them. The finished project could be sold as a fundraiser at a craft fair, farmer’s market or table at a school event.

Halloween, Tools

Frankentoys for Halloween

There are so many maker activities that you can engage in during the days leading up to Halloween.  Kids can make their own costumes, there are lots of really interesting projects with lighting, for example these cool options for under $5 and the crafting ideas are endless.

However, if you are into twisted and creepy, which in my opinion is a perfect match for Halloween, maybe you want to try making Frankentoys. The idea behind Frankentoys is to create a “new” toy out of a mishmash of different parts, just like Frankenstein (which is where the name comes from) or like the Mutant Toys from the movie Toy Story.

Middle school kids love doing this. It’s twisted enough to interest them and it feels a little bit naughty to pull (or hammer) toys apart. It’s appealing because they get to do all sorts of things that they aren’t allowed to do at home – cut the toy’s hair, pull off their arms, apply glue to their faces. Even though they have permission to do this while making Frankentoys, they feel like they are getting away with something. Some of them actually giggle while they are working. It’s adorable.

If you’re interested in facilitating a Frankentoys making event, it’s helpful to plan ahead. I start at the beginning of October with an old and discarded toys drive. There are plenty of parents, who have toys in their play room or basement, that they can’t wait to get rid of. It’s particularly fun to have toys that move, light up or make some sort of noise and the added bonus is that these types of toys will help kids learn about electronics, too.

The only tools and materials you really need to create Frankentoys are scissors, safety goggles, a multi-bit screwdriver a hot glue gun and, of course, lots of old toys to choose from. Likely you will have kids whose first choice for taking things apart is a hammer. This is a great opportunity to teach them about the right tool for the job (hint: unless you are hammering in a nail, a hammer should not be your first choice).

Once you have collected everything that you need and you’ve introduced the concept of Frankentoys to your makers, you just need to step back and let them do their thing. Our 6th graders even made a haunted house to use to display their Frankentoys.