A Checklist for Designing Makerspace Experiences


Students use a checklist to get our sewing machine started.

How might we better design student Makerspace experiences?

It’s exciting to think that 7th graders who first accessed our pilot Makerspace in 2012-2013 will be 10th graders this year.  In that time we’ve learned a lot about how students best learn in a Makerspace – but collecting, consolidating, and applying that learning can be tricky.

In The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right Atul Gawande proposes (and validates) that a simple checklist can help externalize the explicit tasks associated with complex activities. He explores the history of checklists, development of the World Health Organization Surgical Safety checklist, and even offers a Checklist for Checklists.  Gawande acknowledges that craftspeople often shy away from checklists due to the perception that they diminish one’s expertise and creativity, but provides evidence that they help to enhance one’s quality of work.  Upon piloting in eight hospitals globally, the Surgical Safety Checklist reduced patient deaths and complications by 1/3rd!

I finished reading Gawande’s book yesterday, and thought that given the unique nature of Makerspace learning, it would be helpful to design a Checklist for Designing Makerspace Experiences.  Gawande writes that the best checklists offer opportunity for tweaking, and so I plan to test/iterate when students return this fall.

A .docx version of the checklist can be accessed here.

An Ethic of Excellence – Five Takeaways

Student critique sessions can help establish an ethic of excellence.

Student critique sessions can help establish an ethic of excellence.

This spring I had the pleasure of attending the Maker Educator Convening & Maker Faire Bay Area.  I plan to reflect on my experience at both, but my learning started on the flight there as I read Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship. It was the perfect appetizer to the Maker festivities that week, and I highly recommend it for any parent, teacher, or administrator. It is particularly relevant to the field of MakerEd.

In the book, Berger merges his passion for carpentry with his role as an educator. Centered upon the idea of fostering a “culture of craftsmanship,” Berger explains his mindset, vision, and approach for guiding students to work that they are proud of – and that is worthy of pride.

Here were my five main takeaways, and how they’ll be applied to the Makerspace classes this year:

1) All projects will have a user or audience of more than just me. The idea here is that a having a public audience gives students a “reason to do well.”  At the end of each semester, this will culminate in an Makerspace Exhibition night.

This drone battle at Maker Faire had a large audience!

Designers of the drones in this battle at Maker Faire had a large public audience!

2) Students will document & reflect upon their projects in web-based portfolios. I’ve starting prototyping an exemplar portfolio. The focus will be showing the multiple iterations of a project and the “story of getting it right.”  Our focus is not creating innovators more so than innovations.

3) Each new project will begin with a “taste of excellence” or exemplar. As often as possible this will be something that has been created by a student. As Makerspace teacher, my role will be to “archive excellence.”

4) Project critique will be guided by three expectations: “Be kind, be specific, and be helpful.” Often times this critique will be completed gallery style and anonymously.

5) One last line from Berger that will guide Makerspace classes this year: “It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.”

Makerspace Class Procedures

As we ramp up into the school year, I thought it’d be a good idea to iterate & #document the procedures associated with Makerspace. It is common consensus among educators that effectively implemented classroom procedures help maximize learning time. For students to follow procedures, teachers must have them clearly spelled out.

While some of the procedures listed below are specific for Makerspace and the unique experiences associated with it, others are tied to school policy or learning that occurs in the briefing room.

Josh from Pixel Press teaches students in the Makerspace Briefing Room.

Josh from Pixel Press teaches students in the Makerspace Briefing Room.

Briefing Room Entrance Procedure

Students arrive to the briefing room, find their Catalyst Sheets on the desk at the front, and then have five minutes to answer the question that is posted on the board. There is a timer next to the question to signal time remaining.  Questions are aligned to our goal of building creative confidence. For an excellent source of creative questions, check out WriteAbout.

When the timer goes off table captains collect the sheets at their table and stack them along the aisle.

The main purpose for this procedure is to allow me time to take attendance.  As a bonus, this gets students writing about something creative every single day. Reading this writing helps with building relationships.

Next iteration: How might I transition this procedure to laptops without the time it takes to unplug & start-up?  This way student writing & feedback could be archived throughout the year.

Makerspace Entrance Procedure

Class starts each day in the briefing room, with transitions to the Makerspace typically happening after 5-10 minutes of instruction.  To prevent a traffic bottleneck, this transition is accomplished with an entrance ticket.  The entrance ticket is a half-sheet of paper with a few questions that either assesses the content of the instructional time or preview the work that will be happening in the Makerspace.  I check over answers as students enter the Makerspace to make sure we are on the same page with project progress.

Examples of prompts on an entrance tickets include:
“Explain your project in two sentences.”
“How might you validate that potential customers are actually interested in your product?” and
“Write a Pixar Pitch explaining the problem and solution your product addresses.”

Next iteration: Could these entrance tickets be collected in a journal?

Clean-Up Procedure

The process of designing an effective Makerspace clean-up procedure could probably be its own blog post. Though our process has been iterated dozens of times, the current form is definitely still in beta.

Sometimes the clean-up procedure isn't the most effective.

Sometimes our clean-up procedure isn’t the most effective.

It works like this:

With 5 minutes remaining in class, an iPad alarm signals students that we are now in cleanup mode. Each student cleans up her area, completes an assigned job that rotates each quarter, and then re-enters the briefing room.

Jobs include tucking in chairs, unplugging the glue gun, organizing our cardboard corral, vacuum duty, tucking in the boxes on our supply wall, managing the supply closet, and even serving as “Briefing Room Bouncer” to make sure jobs have been completed.  We track how much time clean-up takes and work to maximize efficiency throughout the year.

Next iteration: The 5 minute signal requires “immediate clean up.”  Could there be a 10 minute warning signal to prompt students that cleanup is on the way?

Project Storage Procedure

It’s crazy to think that in Year 1 students would simply stash projects on various shelves throughout the Makerspace and hope that everything would be there next time.

Now in Year 3 we have a designated storage closet that is managed by a student as part of the clean-up process. Students tag their projects with name, date, and current status (in progress or complete). Upon arrival to the storage area, the managing student places the project on a shelf by class period.

Next iteration: The supply closet manager has the huge task of storing all student projects.  How might we reduce that workload while storing projects effectively?

Ten Makerspace Curriculum Wins from 2014-2015

This past year was swamped with curriculum design for four new Makerspace courses. Though there are many aspects in each of the courses that need to be tweaked, some of our projects were immediately and massively successful. For a GCAA Makerspace project to be successful, it should engage students while furthering their understanding of design thinking.

In the spirit of my guiding star for 2015-2016 being #documentation, here are my top ten curricular wins from 2014-2015.

User-testing of a cardboard carnival game!

User-testing of a cardboard carnival game!

1) Caine’s Arcade Unit

Guiding Question:  How might we engage 6th graders in a carnival atmosphere?

Resources: To build empathy we watched Caine’s Arcade, this CBS News clip, and interviewed each other about previous carnival experiences.  7th & 8th grade Makerspace students validated their projects via visiting 6th graders who spent “tokens” for their games and provided feedback on a post-carnival survey.

2) Pixel Press Unit

Guiding Question:  How might we make the most fun game level?

Resources: Lesson plans for a 1-day and 5-day experience can be downloaded here.  Projects were validated by publishing the levels on the Pixel Press Arcade and monitoring the play count.

Testing a prototype of the lost item finder.

Testing a prototype of the lost item finder.

3) Invent It Challenge

Guiding Question:  How might we design a product to solve a personal, school, community, or global challenge?

Resources: Guidelines, PowerPoint slideshows, and submission templates can downloaded here (scroll to the bottom).  Students designed inventions and accompanying presentations to submit to the ePals judges.

4) Shark Tank Challenge

Guiding Question:  How might we convincingly pitch a new product?

Resources: Students proposed designs using this form, then developed their products, and pitched them in a Shark Tank style to the class.  Sharks evaluated pitches using this rubric from Startup Weekend.

5) A Crash Course in Design Thinking

Guiding Question:  How might we improve the gift giving process?

Resources:  This is a tried & true challenge designed by folks at the Stanford d.school.  I use it during the first week as an introduction to the space.  It is documented well here.

S.G. tests her chip package.

S.G. tests her chip package.

6) Chip Challenge

Guiding Question:  How might we efficiently ship a single Pringle chip in the mail?

Resources: These constraints guided our project.  We started building empathy by watching these Journey of a FedEx Package and So You Want to be a Mail Carrier videos.  We then prototyped, tested, and exchanged chips with students at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood.

7) Scratch Programming

Guiding Question:  How might we use computers to creative?

Resources: This curriculum guided our work.  We started with the Getting Started tutorial, then did the About Me Project and Maze Game before students proposed & created their own project ideas.  Before starting Scratch, Twine served as an effective tool for designing choose-your-own-adventure style games.

8) Thingamabob Challenge

Guiding Question:  How might we use material constraints to enhance creativity?

Resources:  This is an exercise in ideation based of of the Thingamabob show.  Students were given a random item and worked with a partner to generate a list of ten radically different useful devices that could be made with the item.  Students then refined, prototyped, and tested their ideas.

A two motor art bot!

A dual motor art bot!

9) Art Bots

Guiding Question:  How might we autonomously create art?

Resources:  The Tinkering Studio has wonderful documentation for their Scribbling Machines project.

10) Business Design Challenge

Guiding Question:  How might we market a product to GCAA students?

Resources:  Similar to the Shark Tank Project, students proposed designs using this form.  For this project, the constraint was that the user had to be GCAA students.  Students completed an empathy map for a “GCAA student,” proposed products, developed business plans, applied for loans, built their products, and then sold them in our Makerspace store.

2014-2015 Makerspace Wrap Up


On the end-of-year survey, students were asked to list six adjectives to describe Makerspace.

Whew!  It has been another incredible year in the GCAA Makerspace.

Highlights include:
-7th & 8th graders in our Make, Hack, Play class designed games & hosted a Caine’s Arcade-style carnival attended by GCAA 6th graders.
-7th grader James S. designed & presented his game, The Neighborhood Ninja, at the STL Global Game Jam.
-8th grader Renny M. was awarded honorable mention in the Global Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge for her Melt Top invention!
-In May, Makerspace students exhibited over 100 different projects in the first ever GCAA Makerspace Demo Day – which was covered by Alive Magazine.

Caine's Arcade Carnival (Fall 2014)

Caine’s Arcade Carnival (Fall 2014)

By nature of four new courses being piloted in the Makerspace, my primary focus this year was prototyping new curriculum.  Skeleton outlines for each course can be found here, though because design thinking guides all of our work these will definitely be iterated upon for the upcoming year.

As we kickoff 2015-2016 and iterate the Makerspace curricula, my guiding star will be #documentation (HT: Steph Grimes at the Digital Harbor Foundation). There are so many incredible things that happen each day in the GCAA Makerspace, and design quality soars when students have an authentic audience for their work.  Stay tuned for new initiatives in 2015-2016 that will include digital student portfolios, student guest blogs on this site, and a GCAA Maker Faire!

The #MakerEd ecosystem is thriving in St. Louis.  Three years ago, the GCAA Makerspace started as the first school-based Makerspace in St. Louis.  Now there are over twenty-five in the region, with the St. Louis Science Center cutting the ribbon on its Makerspace last week.  The energy here is palpable.  I’d bet that St. Louis has the highest density of #MakerEd facilities in the country.

Click for an interactive map of K12 MakerEd in St. Louis.

Click for an interactive map of K12 MakerEd in St. Louis.  (c/o: Drew McCallister)

It takes a village, and building the GCAA Makerspace has been a team effort.  We’re so fortunate to have amazing support from students, staff, administrators, families, and community members.   To our GCAA families – thank you SO much for keeping our shelves stocked with your perpetual Makerspace Junk care packages delivered to the office almost daily, including invites by Dianne Gray to “shop till we drop” our way through vacated houses full of potential maker supplies.  We’re also grateful for the financial support from The Disruption Department that allowed us to upgrade the space to version 2.0 this past October.  Special thanks to Erich Vieth who two years ago said, “We need to make a video to explain this Makerspace concept to parents better!”  That video now has almost 10,000 views!

Grand Center Arts Academy is a grades 6-12 public charter school open to students throughout St. Louis City & County, and still has openings for 2015-2016.  For application materials or to schedule an arts demonstration call 314-533-1791 or visit our website.

“The Neighborhood Ninja” featured at STL Global Game Jam


Congrats to James for his excellent work on “The Neighborhood Ninja!”

This weekend, GCAA 7th grader & Makerspace Student, James participated in the St. Louis Global Game Jam at UMSL.  249 participants designed a total of 42 games.

The theme, “What do we do now?” was unveiled on Friday evening.  James brainstormed ideas and worked on his game for a total of 26 hours.  He led all aspects of the project, including the game development, programming, and art asset design.

Perhaps more impressive is that at the conclusion of the event, James presented his game in front of a packed UMSL auditorium with over 200 people!


“The Neighborhood Ninja” is a platformer designed in Scratch.

Special thanks to Wes Ehrlichman, Jonathan Leek, UMSL, and the many STL Game Jam volunteers for putting on a great event!

Here’s more info about James’s game: “The Neighborhood Ninja.”