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How do we reconcile the freewheeling spirit of makerspaces with the traditional sit-and-get, control-freak management of most public schools?

Makerspaces are trendy at the moment as evidenced by articles like The ‘Maker’ Movement is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right? and The Nerdy Teacher’s new book. The Education Week article reminds us that many K-12 teachers are turning towards “making” and away from standardized curriculum and testing. I’ll be getting the book soon to see what Nick has to say as well.

But what exactly does “getting it right” look like in a K-12 setting? Should we enable student-driven learning and a “do-it-yourself, only-if-you-want-to ethos” like the Maker movement? I won’t claim to be doing it right, but I am trying out something. You can judge for yourself and perhaps take away some ideas to try.

Since 2011, I’ve been creating a makerspace in my high school that goes by the official course title “Physics” but sometimes gets referred to as “Phunsics.” Basically, I allow students to design and build whatever projects they want to, within some constraints of budget and safety. We’ve built everything from boats to rockets to Arduino-powered pianos. Students and I have had our fair share of successes and failures with the course, but it has grown immensely in popularity and I now run two sections of the course during the school day.

If you are thinking about getting onboard the Maker movement, here are the challenges that I’ve faced in building a DIY makerspace inside a traditional public high school physics course:

Lesson planning: A DIY philosophy does not co-exist with lesson plans that tell students what to make. I’ve started the year with some pre-planned projects like the Marshmallow Challenge or the Physics 500, but after the first week students are on their own and no lesson planning occurs. Instead, my role becomes that of coach and advisor and my primary job is to help with technical questions, keep students focused on their projects, provide materials, and maintain a safe construction environment for all. If your school requires you to turn in daily or weekly lesson plans, be prepared to explain why you don’t have any.

Multiple simultaneous projects: A DIY makerspace will allow students to follow their own interests. This means that with 18 or so students per class and two class sections, I’m looking at managing around 10 unique projects, and that assumes that students only work on one project at a time. Be prepared for a lot of mental gear-shifting as you help manage a diverse set of projects.

Lack of teacher expertise: I quickly found that student interests do not always line up with my strengths. This pushed me into uncomfortable territory at times. But I have had a huge opportunity to model real learning for my students as I tackled my lack of knowledge and skills along with them. A makerspace allows (forces?) you to model your skills as a lifelong learner for students. Several alumni of Phunsics have reported back that they appreciated the makerspace because they learned how to learn by taking the class.

Physical space: With 5-6 projects per class period, I have run into the lack of physical space in which to operate. This is especially true if students build a full-scale trebuchet or go-cart (been there). To solve space issues, I have had students working in no fewer than four different classrooms simultaneously (my room, chemistry/physics lab, outside, and shop). Be prepared to run around like a crazy person to keep track of where students are and what they are up to. You’ll need to think about the tools required, where they are located, and storage of the projects themselves. Chances are you’ll need to be very flexible in terms of what constitutes the makerspace “classroom.”

Behavioral issues: With great power comes great responsibility. Not all students will play nice with the departure from their normal classroom jail cell, especially if said jail cell is now spread out over two or three workspaces with one teacher. Typical teacher management strategies like busywork and pop quizzes don’t work when the content of the class is student generated. Instead, relationship-building and the occasional behavioral intervention are the tools of choice.  My general sense is that I have the greatest behavioral issues with those students who are either unwilling or unable to develop projects on their own and expect me to feed them projects. I usually deal with such situations by pointing students to Instructables and having them pick two or three interesting projects to mimic. Generally though, student groups form around one or two strong leaders that can usually pull the weight of project creation and implementation and keep everyone in the group busy. I also use the Google model of 80:20 time (80% work, 20% creative play) which works pretty well, especially when students are reminded that they are over their 20% goof off limit.

Supply shortages: A makerspace is student-driven, which means that student projects will be varied in their material needs in both consumables and in equipment and tools. From week to week, I don’t necessarily have a clue as to what materials we might need down the road for projects, because students have not communicated a need for them yet. We are in a constant cycle of brainstorming, materials purchasing, and production, and often times its the purchasing step that is the delay. If the project requires hardware and lumber then students or I can get to the local hardware store pretty quickly. But if we’re building an Arduino-powered weather station, then we are going to have to wait until parts arrive in the mail. This is especially problematic for schools like ours in a small rural town with few major stores and relatively limited budgets.

Non-traditional assessment for traditional grades: Given that my makerspace exists inside a traditional school, letter grades need to be issued to keep admin and parents happy. My grading scheme for Physics resembles an interview in that when end-of-term grades are due (and along the way for sports/activity eligibility) I ask students to defend what grade they think they deserve. They are required to explain which projects they have worked on and what their individual contribution to group projects has been. We also have a set of grade criteria that are negotiated at the beginning of the school year. This year’s grade level criteria can be found here.

Documentation of work completed:  I was challenged early on to keep everything that we do in the class as public as possible, and we’ve mostly succeeded in keeping up with our social media responsibilities. At first I kept a separate blog on the trebuchet project. Some years students have kept a class blog like but lately we have moved away from blogs. We currently have a blog or two (here’s one) but the major posting of student work is happening at LJHS 3rd Hour Physics and Sausee Phyx on Facebook.

I’ve learned a lot over the years of running this makerspace and have become a much better Maker myself. While its frustrating sometimes that student motivation can be an issue even in the most student-powered course on campus, I’ll continue to keep on offering this space where students can learn how to learn. Keep an eye on our Facebook pages for details of our future shenanigans.

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