3 Key Factors for Creating a "Maker Culture" at Your School

Maker CultureAs the way we learn and work has evolved, teaching styles, curriculum and classroom spaces must change as well. Our students need to think “like innovators” in order to solve increasingly complex, global and multi-disciplinary problems. These problems require skills like flexible thinking, resilience and curiosity — skills that are not nurtured in today’s traditional educational models. As architects, we know that design can profoundly affect and enhance teaching and learning. School design must not only accommodate 21st century learning methods, but also reinforce the skills students will need for an evolving society. Thoughtful, creative and flexible design of these spaces is critical in realizing the learning goals.

Thinking — and Learning — Differently at School

Decades ago, computer labs replaced wood and auto shops in schools across the country. Today, schools are looking to create makerspaces — a modern day shop with new technologies like 3D printers and laser cutters, where “making” is infused back into the curriculum through hands-on STEAM or engineering activities. Research shows that when students are engaged in the act of physically making things, they develop spatial problem solving skills, the ability to grapple with open-ended questions and a sense of resilience–because they must keep reiterating their design until it works. Both public and private schools are discovering how this hands-on type of learning makes a difference.

Based on input we have gathered from principals, teachers, school boards and superintendents, several key points must be considered in planning a makerspace — indeed, a maker culture — because this type of learning truly represents a cultural shift in how we educate and design learning spaces.

1. Curriculum

What does STEAM/Maker learning look like? Perhaps the biggest shift is in how the learning takes place. No longer a “sage on the stage,” the teacher becomes more of a “guide on the side,” facilitating learning and allowing curiosity, creativity and collaboration to drive students. Learning is no longer linear instead it becomes cyclical as students work both individually and collaboratively to solve problems, literally going ‘back to the drawing board’ when solutions need refining and reiterating.

At Kent Place School in Summit, N.J., an all-girl, preschool-12 private school, Head of School Sue Bosland describes how the curriculum is taking shape for a makerspace addition currently under design. “We envision students solving math problems all over whiteboard walls, using saws, drills and wood blocks in the room (under supervision, of course!) as well as other materials including components for robotics, because engineering is a huge aspect of this approach,” she says. “Students will do research in our library, then take their ideas to the maker space to create it, a sort of library for making things.”

2. Culture

Even when curriculum, furnishings and spaces are all in order, shifting the learning process in a school from a traditional model to a maker culture can be a challenge. “We have teachers who are eager and excited to embrace the idea of this,” says Bosland. “But integrating the new strategies and approaches takes time.” Champions are important to help encourage the team and professional development for teachers is crucial in helping shift their practice.

Bosland goes on to add, “In what we’re calling our ‘Innovation Lab,’ we will have glass walls so that this area is both transparent to the whole school and positioned right at the entrance so teaching and learning are front and center,” she says. “This will communicate to students, parents, teachers and the community what we’re all about. We believe this is one of the most vital shifts in education our generation will experience.” Emphasizing the importance of Maker education through this type of design statement goes a long way in sending the message to your community.

3. Physical Spaces

What does a makerspace look like? The answer is different for each school and evolves out of the culture and interests of the community. The right type of furniture and storage are key. Furniture on castors that can combine and change, different size spaces for large or small group work, and corridors that become extensions of the learning space are a good first step. A dedicated makerspace contains vertical spaces for notes and brainstorming, exhibition spaces so work can be easily shared, and transparency so that noise can be controlled while supervision is maintained. Sufficient power supply and tools–both conventional and contemporary — are often readily available, and the working environment itself changes with the students’ projects and passions.

Bosland views hands-on learning as particularly important for girls. “When it comes to educating girls — whether in a coed setting or in an all-girls school like ours — we know that they simply do not have as many images in their mind, in our culture today, of women making things,” she says. “And next to our makerspace will be a technology lab, which will be something like the ‘Genius Bar’ in Apple stores with students working at a help desk. This provides the opportunity to layer in leadership training.”

Integration of curriculum, culture and physical space is imperative in creating a successful Maker culture. Makerspaces empower students, boys and girls alike, and enable them to imagine themselves as agents of change. Students learn habits-of-mind in these spaces that make them leaders and designers of the future.

Preparing students for the ever evolving world they will someday compete within is the goal of schools both public and private. Helping them think and learn like innovators will require a shift in what we teach and how we teach it — and reimagining the spaces and tools we provide to get them there.

Planning your makerspace? A dozen items to consider.

Makerspaces are being discussed, planned and implemented in public, independent and private schools around the nation. What should this space include? Our experts agree it should be a shell that can change and morph as curriculum, technology and student needs evolve. Below are a few key considerations when starting your plan:

1. A variety of furniture types to facilitate various learning and work styles/needs. Flexibility is created through furnishings that move and stack so that teachers and students can change the space to fit their specific needs.

2. Project and material storage (at least 40 percent of the space) to accommodate the different scale of activities. Some storage needs to be labeled and easily accessible so that students can help themselves, other needs to be locked for tools and materials that require supervision. Different size storage for projects in process that is easily accessed by students.

3. Electric plugs and computer drops every four feet along the walls so that machinery can be moved and changed.

4. Vertical whiteboard surfaces throughout the space for students to easily brainstorm, collaborate and work through designs/problem solving.

5. Varied lighting – natural, overhead and task – depending on the project need.

6. Materials and colors that inspire (this will be different depending on grade levels and school culture).

7. Dedicated computers for specific machinery and laptops for research.

8. Both high and low-tech maker machinery and tools. Depending on the space and needs, these can include everything from a laser cutter (the workhorse of most Makerspaces) to hand tools.

9. Ventilation for machinery and dust collection for wood working activities.

10. Floor space for robotics and other activities which might be created by rolling furniture out of the way.

11. Design statements that identify the different areas and types of activities, i.e. the brainstorming area should look different from the electronics area.

12. A teacher’s station located near the entrance so that attendance can be monitored. The teacher will have the ability to shut off any tool in the room as safety is a primary concern. In addition, a board (either high or low tech) that identifies who is in the room, their level of experience and what project they are working on helps teachers keep track of the different activities happening at any given time.

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