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.
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.
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.
Although Think Tank occupies a small space, it’s utilized for interesting and innovative projects, many of which could be seen 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!
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.
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.
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 withjust 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.
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.
Every makerspace is different. They all have similar elements – they are spaces for making things – digital objects, physical items or if someone is being really innovative perhaps a combination of these. Since makerspace can cover a lot, it can also end up being a catch-all for any activities or programs that don’t neatly fall elsewhere. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I think that most people running makerspaces want them to be utilized. As often and creatively as possible. Our makerspace has been used to create a digital sundial for our garden, for making cupboards to support a book tie-in project, for student passion projects and to teach colleagues, both locally and from other districts, about makerspace. We were also recently invited to participate in the Washtenaw County, Paint a Plow program. We, of course, accepted.
Before I get into the details, I should confess something. I usually outlaw paint in my makerspace. We have so many other options, I just feel that the mess added from including paint in our offerings overshadows the enjoyment. At least for me. I’m sure that the kids would tell you differently. Since we operate on a barter system for consumable materials, sometimes paint gets snuck in as a trade which means that I will occasionally look over and go – gah! Where did that paint come from?! I let the student working with it finish their project, then I sneak it into my back office. Also, I never let anyone work with anything that isn’t water-based. Until now.
Water-based paint won’t work well on a snow plow. After a little research, we (myself and my partner teachers Sharon Norris and Eileen McCallum) purchased a few different colors of Rust-Oleum paint. This worked very well. It also drove me slightly crazy. We took precautions – we all wore gloves (vinyl in order to avoid any allergy issues), we bought Rust-Oleum mineral spirits for the clean up, we ordered A LOT of paint brushes and we put a note in the school newsletter to remember to bring in clothing that the students wouldn’t mind getting ruined. There were students from several different classes participating, so this seemed like the best way to get this information out.
The gloves worked well, we had plenty of brushes for everyone, the colors were beautiful…and no one brought in clothing that they didn’t mind getting ruined. I was able to get two oversized shirts from a P.E. teacher (thank you again Fred!) and that helped a bit…until kids were kneeling on the ground to paint the bottom edges, right in the paint that they had dripped there. Paint got in hair, on skin, shoes, pants…I’m not even sure where else. We were able to fix a few things with the mineral spirits or scrubbing with soap and water. Some were beyond fixing.
Here are my lessons learned. Paint a plow is a really fun program. It’s worth doing. Gloves are key. Rust-oleum worked well. Getting a lot of cheap paint brushes that can be disposed of, if need be (if you can’t get them clean), is a good call. Next time I think maybe we should skip painting the entire background. Sending home notes in planners, about clothing, would likely result in more kids bringing in clothes that they aren’t worried about. Having only a few kids work on the plow at a time and only using 1-2 colors in a session also makes things go more smoothly. If you happen to live in Washtenaw County, keep an eye out for our plow and if you see it, tell me about it in the comments. The kids would be delighted with Snow Day Buster spottings!
Me – pointing to the grassy spot for the snow plow to be painted. Photo Credit: Tammy Reich
Snow Day Buster! Credit for the name and design go to Sharon Norris.
Sometimes people don’t differentiate between a full-blown makerspace, makerspace stations and Genius Hour. They use all three interchangeably. Personally, I think it’s good to differentiate between these, as they really do mean different things. When we talk about a makerspace, we are referring to the actual, physical space with all of the stuff in it. Stations and Genius Hour can both be used as constructs within that space.
Utilizing stations can be a great management tool in that instead of kids blowing up your whole makerspace, they only have access to the materials at each station (that you’ve set up in advance). The stations could be thematic, with different making opportunities at each station. You would need to have rules about how many students can use each station at the same time, and how you go about deciding which students can use each one. In the interest of safety, there might be only two people at one station, soldering for example, and ten at something like bracelet making.
You could assign students to a starting station and rotate them through the other stations. This works well if students spend roughly the same amount of time at each station. If there is one, or even a few stations that take longer, students could stay through two or even three rotations. You could also have sign-up sheets for more popular stations or you could have students choose two or three stations total, and then you would assign them to one of these choices, or maybe you manage stations a completely different way that works best for you. That’s great too.
Genius hour was adapted from something that Google has done with their employees, Google would allow a percentage of workday time to be devoted to a project of personal interest. Several well-known Google projects originated from this. Having a Genius Hour for students means that you are doing something similar, allowing them to devote a certain percentage of their school day to a project that they are interested in (as opposed to an assignment or project that you have given them). This is a wonderful thing to do! I have found that when students are given this choice, to pursue something that they are interested in, or maybe even passionate about, they work much harder and take the project much further than they ever would within the constraints of a project defined for them. The advantage of combining Genius Hour with makerspace, is that with access to so many tools and resources kids can explore their ideas further and push the limits of their creativity.
You can have a makerspace without organizing it into stations or using Genius Hour style programming. You can run a Genius Hour without access to a makerspace. When you have maker stations instead of a full makerspace, I usually call that a mini makerspace. However, if you have the space and funding, having all of the tools and materials that best suit your community, available in a thoughtfully developed makerspace, can give kids incredible opportunities. From there, you can have the flexibility and resources to take your programming whichever way best fits your community.