“The pedagogical practices applied to today’s learners are in desperate need of a paradigm shift. We are charged with the responsibility of fostering innovation and curiosity in our students. We must provide students with meaningful opportunities to think outside the box.” —Year-end reflection of Chris Regini, science teacher, West Hollow Middle School

Four years ago, the discussion at our weekly building administration meeting turned to the issue of cafeteria overcrowding and the increase in lunchtime misbehaviors. We had talked previously about students having fewer opportunities for natural play and creativity, and the collaboration that can emerge from it. “Makerspace,” I asserted, hinting at an initiative that I had lobbied for ever since learning about the concept at an ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. I was inspired and armed, ready to embrace a maker mindset.

In 2015, using technology as the catalyst, I embarked on a journey which has transformed our building’s culture and energized my career. West Hollow Middle School of the Half Hollow Hills Central School District in Melville, NY, is a diverse suburban school of 1,250 students, grades 6 through 8. Like many schools, we were searching to find ways for students to better interact with technology and with each other. Drawing on my experience as a member of the Technical Working Group for the 2106 ISTE Standards for Students refresh and the 2017 Educators refresh, we began converting a room attached to our library into our makerspace.

So Much More Than a Workshop

Our plan was to provide students a place to tinker and interact. What began with cardboard grew into small electronic kits, green-screen animation, higher technology, and so many creative ideas. But the greatest outcome was not the cardboard creations, or personalized, 3-D-printed pens. It was having a place for students to go where failure is not judged or graded-where ideas are not bound by a teacher’s assignments or a rubric.

Positive social interactions have become the makerspace’s greatest output. Two strangers worked tirelessly to build a cardboard dragon and used code to control its movements. Four girls spent almost every day making arcade games. What they’ve really done is learn to negotiate, compromise, and build strong, enduring relationships. A socially awkward student had a rare opportunity to interact with his peers as he taught mini-workshops on wiring. An honor student and a special education student designed and delivered fidget rings to students with special needs. These students later demonstrated their skills to educators at a county-wide technology conference.

Getting Started

We adopted an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. We quickly discovered that children are in such need of this less-structured environment. You don’t need to get it right from the start; the space is always evolving.

  • Embrace trial and error: Some “adult” ideas work, but allow for enough flexibility to let the students’ ideas drive the room. During our first year, we used chalkboard paint to make a “wish list” wall. Students listed all sorts of items that they wanted/needed to continue creating.
  • Get donations: The faculty, staff, and PTA were instrumental in getting the makerspace started. We collected paper towel rolls, LEGO blocks, K’NEX, and cardboard boxes that kept my students going. Check out http://cainesarcade.com for ideas and inspiration.
  • Keep the “customer” in mind: Look for items that foster creativity and collaboration. Many “maker” products amount to simply following assembly instructions and downloading code. Our students are capable of so much more. You will quickly find a few students that can act as ambassadors for the space, accelerating its progress.

Lessons we learned:

  • Hold students accountable: While there have been fewer behavioral issues in the makerspace than other areas, someone needs to hold students accountable for keeping the space orderly. We now have a paraprofessional or a technology teacher in the room during all lunch periods. Additionally, having someone to encourage students to stop and reflect on their progress before moving forward lessens student frustration and increases perseverance.
  • Don’t dwell on barriers: In three years, the physical space has more than doubled. If we could double it again, it would be filled. On the other hand, don’t let lack of space stop you. Makerspace on a cart or in a bag is better than nothing.
  • Create multiple entry points: Some students are not self-starters. After all, some haven’t had much unstructured playtime. Consider creating challenge cards or open-ended idea cards.
  • Use websites for ideas to get started: Check out https://makezine.com and www.pinterest.com.

Changing the Culture of a School

Tech-savvy teachers have become early adopters, and many have started to shift their thinking to include a maker mindset. Teachers have hosted mini-workshops during faculty meetings, presenting ways to incorporate technology and/or the makerspace into their curricula. With a “maker mindset,” teachers and students openly explore and create without the rigid guidelines of the traditional education environment. Teachers have incorporated this maker mindset in recent lessons and activities, including:

  • Students using Aurasma, an augmented reality app, to create review videos
  • Exploring various countries and landmarks using virtual reality glasses
  • Students coding to monitor and adjust the temperature and humidity for student-grown hydroponics
  • A teacher using Plickers, a mobile app that instantly scans student responses and provides real-time formative assessment data
  • A world language class using stop animation and green screens to record newscasts

If you want pedagogical change from teachers, administration must lead by example. Administrators need to look for methods by which to embed technology in meaningful ways. Last May, our faculty meeting gave teachers an opportunity to attend various technology workshops given by their colleagues. The email they received about the choices was a Gami, an animated video created with the Tellagami app, featuring my avatar explaining the afternoon’s activities. Afterward, the app and information from the workshops were utilized in several classrooms. Or, as another example, when we introduced a schoolwide recycling program, the cafeteria’s recycling pail included a digital counter. Students were eager to recycle just so they could see the counter function.

Today, West Hollow has three physical spaces that allow students to take a break from their rigorous classwork in this hub of creative thinking, problem-​solving, sharing, and learning. Administrators should nurture and promote ideas and foster a risk-taking school culture. The outcomes can be immeasurable.

Steven Hauk is principal of West Hollow Middle School in Melville, NY. A member of NASSP and ISTE, he has contributed to the Technical Working Groups for the ISTE Standards and presented “The Maker Mindset” at ISTE 2017.

NASSP Policy Recommendations

To express the association’s concern regarding the state of the nation’s school facilities, NASSP released several policy recommendations for modernizing learning environments, including two specific to the use of technology and makerspaces:

  • Authorize a federal grant program for states to modernize, innovate, renovate, or repair public school facilities to be safe, healthy, high performing, and technologically up to date.
  • Reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act to ensure that schools have resources to create makerspaces, upgrade CTE and STEM facilities, and provide professional development for leaders and teachers to make school a relevant and engaging experience for all students.