Every school leader has a culture they are working to create or grow. Many times, building this culture relies on the tangible materials or ideas we emphasize, and the particular attributes we want our learners to reflect.

At South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, we promote a maker culture based on creativity and innovation. We want to provide multiple opportunities to “make.” One sign associated with Stanford University’s d.school resonates with us: “There’s Only Make.” To facilitate this culture, we created a makerspace in our library. 

What Is a Makerspace?

A makerspace is a combination of tools that allow you to make creations in a designated space. Laura Fleming, who many consider the pioneer of the makerspace movement, says, “A school makerspace is a metaphor for a unique learning environment that encourages tinkering, play, and open-ended exploration for all.” For South MS, it is an opportunity to make a dream or passion come to life. 

Makerspace resources range from technology tools to inexpensive materials. We encourage a lot of collaboration in this space, which is our library. A majority of makerspaces have sprouted in a library/media center. To make this jump in a library setting, you need leaders of this space to embrace noise and, at times, messy learning. We still have books in our library, but there are restructured areas to promote making. 

Starting a Makerspace 

Our makerspace began with humble beginnings with easy-to-use STEM/STEAM tools. I remember Makey Makey, an invention kit, was our first purchase. Over the next few months, we added other tools such as snap circuits, littleBits, and 3-D printers. Then, we added coding tools and robots: Osmo, Spheros, and Ozobots. Learners flocked to the library! They tinkered and experimented with these new STEM materials. They also came before school and stayed after school to continue projects, which they still do today.

Eventually, we realized we needed a designated area for our drones. In the Drone Room, we have a collection featuring driving, jumping, and flying drones from five different companies. The goal is to bring learners to this space to enjoy an experience, and now coding drones has never been easier. Every Wednesday morning at 7:00 a.m., I run a Drone Club meeting. During this 45-minute fly or drive time, learners can operate drones for the first time, obtain a license (an idea from one of our student experts), or compete in challenges. 

If money is on your mind, there are maker tools you can purchase at low cost. Actually, the most-used materials in our makerspace-donated cardboard and PVC pipe-cost us nothing. Our learners love to create prototypes with cardboard. We have also discovered that our kids will use whatever is at their disposal. Keva Planks are popular, along with K’NEX. As I write this, a group of eighth-grade boys just finished an 8-foot wheel made out of K’NEX. Check out my YouTube channel, Darren Ellwein, to see how they moved the structure to place it in a dark room so LED lights could be visible. The possibilities are endless!

Girls are also migrating to this space. We have been intentional with the addition of sewing machines (also donated) to draw them. In general, though, our numbers for female attendance have increased greatly by just having a prototyping cart that allows them to craft and create. And this is not limited to girls—most of our students use the prototyping cart for project creation. 

Building a Makerspace Into the Curriculum

I know what a percentage of school leaders may be saying: Is this a good use of public funds without a correlation to the curriculum? My response is simply, “Yes!” I believe that any time we empower our kids to be passionate, we all win! Maker tools do align with the content being taught; we just need to take time to see the connections. Since we began developing our makerspace, we have been working to find ways to incorporate these materials into the curriculum. I believe the greatest value of these tools is in our learners seeing the connection between the tool and the curricular objective. 

When do staff find the time? I have utilized in-service time to allow staff time to “play” and find connections to their curriculum. The school leader, library-media specialist, and/or technology integrationist need to work side by side with the content teacher to create the maker fit. Be intentional. If you desire a maker culture, you have to be intentional about creating time. Here are some of the results in various content areas:

  • Math: Parrot jumping drones and the Pythagorean Theorem 
  • Spanish: Spheros and explaining directions on a large town map 
  • English/language arts: LittleBits and expository writing
  • Science: Stop Motion With Lego and journey to the center of the Earth

Making It Mobile

It is also possible to have a makerspace that is not static. There are many schools that have made their maker materials mobile because they do not have the room or space for them. Another reason for a mobile makerspace is time—teachers do not want to move students to the space and lose instructional time. If you have a basic cart, the maker materials will move to the teacher. Almost any maker tool can be transported to a classroom. Our most recent example includes our tear-apart station. Kids love to take apart old computers, speaker systems, or towel dispensers. Our maker kids even harvest parts, such as motors, to use with their creations. To explain the steps of a writing process, our maker cart might feature this equipment and drones that need repair. In English/language arts, students will then work on expository writing, explaining the process or steps to take the items apart and put them back together. 

As a school leader, you need to assess your comfort level with this environment. It is important to find staff to embrace a culture of “make.” I recommend you follow Twitter accounts in the makerspace world, along with #makerspace, #makered, and #stem.  

Darren Ellwein is principal of South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.