What’s the best way to define a makerspace? For Laura Fleming, library media specialist at New Milford High School in New Jersey, a library makerspace is a unique learning environment that encourages tinkering, play and open-ended exploration for all.
Fleming, who also runs and manages her own business, Worlds of Making, says too often schools build library makerspaces just for the top engineering students or the gifted and talented students.
“When makerspaces really work, they are open to the entire student body,” she says. “It’s really a mindset and a philosophy of education.”
Fleming says whether the district sets up a makerspace in an elementary school library, in a middle school classroom or in a high school cafeteria, each makerspace has a unique quality.
“Here in New Milford, we set aside a part of the library for our makerspace,” Fleming explains. “But much of this depends on a district’s budget and the resources they can bring to the project. A makerspace should be offered as a voluntary educational activity that the students want to participate in. We’ve found that when it’s required, the students will just do ‘what the teacher is looking for’ and much of the innovation and creativity gets lost.”
Here are five ideas to follow from Fleming on how to set up a library makerspace that will foster creativity and expand on your STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum:
1. Understand the Needs of Students in a Library Makerspace Project
So much of the success of a library makerspace depends on identifying the needs of students. Start by seeking student input. Some schools send out formal paper surveys, while others hold informal discussions in the classroom. Find out what activities they have done before, what they would like to learn or if they have attended any special science and math camps.
2. Assess the School’s Existing STEM Programs
When Fleming did an assessment at New Milford High School she found that robotics was only offered to the top 25 or 30 engineering students, the majority of whom were boys. Why not offer robotics in the makerspace to the entire student population? A school she worked with a handful of years ago didn’t offer any computer science programs. The school then started offering computer science and coding skills in the makerspace, and over the last several years integrated computer science into the curriculum. School officials can also take a close look at how the students score on state assessment tests and decide which areas for the makerspace to focus on.
3. Incorporate STEM Trends into Your Library Makerspace
There’s so much innovation in education today that teachers and administrators have to look beyond the walls of the school. One good example: The more Fleming read about technology, the more stories she saw about drones. In the past year or two, educators have had students do research and build small drones in the makerspace.
4. Constantly Learn from and Evolve Your Library Makerspace
Based on Fleming’s research, certain patterns and themes began to emerge. At New Milford High School, she opted to develop makerspace themes on engineering and design, computer coding, robotics and molecular gastronomy, a science-based approach to diet. One elementary school she worked with took all the offbeat and childish ideas from its students and designed a “whimsey” theme. It was based on the students saying they wanted to do more projects with slime or they like to make things out of mud. It sounds childish, but it’s what the students wanted to do, and Fleming says the school developed learning activities around those themes.
5. Leverage STEM Program Supplies in Your Library Makerspace
Once the team finishes all of its research and planning, it’s time to buy the supplies. One of her more successful ventures at New Milford High School was with the littleBits Arduino Coding Kit. Fleming’s high school students beta tested the product and wound up writing code for learning environments for elementary school students. The high school students coded games and developed environments that let the elementary school students compose music and create digital art using the littleBits coding techniques.
Above all, Fleming stresses that it requires proper planning for a makerspace to succeed. Do the planning, and school officials will find that when it comes time to make purchases, they will have planned programs and bought equipment that students can put to the best use possible.