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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Makerspaces: A Tool That Can Transform Learning

By Nicholas Provenzano — March 22, 2017 3 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Nicholas Provenzano, high school English teacher, author, speaker, and consultant.

I sat around the Makerspace in my school and just looked around at all the students working on different projects. One student was working on a maze to program a robot to traverse, a pair of students were trying to create a student ID scanner system using Raspberry Pi, others were designing 3D objects, and some were just sitting and drawing.

Setting up this space was not an easy task, but it was awesome to see the students taking charge of the Makerspace and using all of the different passions they have. I had no idea where to begin and ended up creating an amazing space and sharing the process in a book I wrote in the hopes that others can have the same feeling I had watching those students create.

And while there’s no one way to bring makerspaces into your classroom, I do have a favorite way to get started. When possible, I prefer to ask students what they want to learn. Finding out their passion will help guide what it is they want to make. If the students are given a task to complete, they might do it, but they will not be as engaged as they would be if it was something they cared about. Student ownership is key when it comes to learning - and making is all about learning.

Once you know what your students really want to do, finding resources for your makerspace is the next step. Because so many classrooms and schools are underfunded and short of maker materials, I advise teachers to reach out to the local community and fellow teachers to see if there are things in their homes or classrooms they might want to donate to a makerspace. These can be simple things such as bits of string, glue, fabric, or anything at all. Sometimes asking staff members to save cardboard boxes and others things can really help stock a space.

I am also often asked about expertise and skills need to run and manage a makerspace. I say all the time that I don’t think you need to be an expert, but you do need to be willing to try and fail in plain view of the students.

With makerspaces, it’s the trying and doing that helps us learn.

And I’m no exception. I’m a high school English teacher and I dove into Raspberry Pi because I saw some students playing with one, so I thought I’d check it out. I was always told that STEM would never be for me. All the math and science would be outside my area. And I believed that for a long time. Once I sat down with a Raspberry Pi and started to tinker, I realized that I could learn this language and do some fun things. I focused on things that interested me and that is why I wanted to learn to code and hack. Following a course or something similar would not have worked for me - like many students, I need to see and do something to really learn it.

In doing the hard work to understand coding and how to use tools like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, I failed often. And in front of my students. But when persistence turned those failures into successes in front of them, it was awesome. They saw the hard work it required to make something new. In some instances, the students offered possible solutions and we worked together to solve challenges.

The skills we acquire by learning through making are even more essential than they were just a short time ago. It’s one of the reasons I think all students should be exposed to computer science. The more students who are exposed to coding, the more likely it is that we will see a more diverse computer science community and leverage diverse approaches and creative solutions to common problems.

With coding specifically, there are some great makerspace, education-focused resources like Tynker’s programming courses that are designed to engage students ages 7+ in various learning paths for both physical and virtual making. Students can learn to code through modding Minecraft, controlling Sphero and Ollie robots, creating games with LEGO WeDo 2.0, and programming Parrot drones. And just giving kids the access to try coding that also teaches soft skills - like critical thinking and creativity - can make a huge difference in preparing students to succeed in a 21st century workforce.

That’s really the only secret to makerspaces - trying. That, and getting started. Makerspaces don’t require a ton of experience or an abundance of resources. You just need the same learning spirit you want in your students - a willingness to try, curiosity, persistence, and a dash of creativity.

Nicholas is the author of Your Starter Guide To Makerspaces. Connect with Nicholas (the Nerdy Teacher) on Twitter.

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