Three Models for Makerspace Learning


Learning in the Makerspace is different than in a traditional classroom.  Rather than learning a concept first and then demonstrating their understanding on a test, students in the Makerspace synthesize background knowledge and apply their skills to learn and create.

As we iterate to GCAA Makerspace 3.0, I’ve been reflecting upon the ways in which students learn.  Here, I propose three models for Makerspace Learning: Tool-Centered Learning, Learning by Tinkering, and Design Thinking.  Lately I’ve been hooked on these 6-word Manifestos, so I offer one for each learning model below.

Tool-Centered Learning

6-Word Manifesto for Tool-Centered Learning

A not too friendly 6-Word Manifesto for Tool-Centered Learning

Many folks are initially drawn into the Makerspace by the whiz, buzz, and beeps of our 3D printer . . . and rightfully so!  Those noises are a byproduct of students rapidly prototyping their ideas!  However, learning makerspace tools is simply scratching the surface.

Think back to your schooling – did you ever have lesson about how to set up a dot-matrix, inkjet, or laser printer?  Most likely “no.” If you needed to set up a printer today, you would apply your problem solving skills (and if things don’t go well) technical reading, research, and troubleshooting skills.  You may even build a bit of grit along the way.

The tools associated with the new industrial revolution are super cool.  As such, educators have a natural tendency to want resort to teaching these tools.  Upon starting a makerspace, many educators believe that these tools are at the paramount of the design.  3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC routing and can each empower students to make their ideas a reality, BUT does it benefit students to teach via direct instruction the nitty gritty of specific tools that may be outdated within a few years?  As an analogy, should students learn Arabic, Mandarin, AND Russian, or take classes in the language that is most relevant and interesting to them?

Yes, it is true that students don’t know what they don’t know, and learning about tools is a necessary component of learning in a makerspace.  However, learning that is rooted in tools is not as valuable as teaching the skills to understand, utilize, and even make new tools that don’t exist yet.

6-Word Manifesto for Learning by Tinkering

6-Word Manifesto for Learning by Tinkering

Learning by Tinkering

In Learning by Tinkering, students explore concepts via curiosity-driven hands-on investigations. This model of learning has been documented extensively by folks working out of The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA.  Educators (and others) can even take an online Tinkering Fundamentals course to learn more.

In the GCAA Makerspace, Art Bots has been our most successful learning-by-tinkering project.  Students are provided with a motor and are tasked with designing something that automatically creates art.  They struggle with and overcome challenges to learn fundamentals of circuitry.  It’s based off of The Tinkering Studio’s Scribbling Machines project, with the added open-endedness for students to create “art” in domains other than drawing.

6-Word Manifesto for Design Thinking

6-Word Manifesto for Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that is (and always has been) at the heart of our makerspace.  Using the framework of design thinking, students empathize with a user to identify a challenge, brainstorm solutions, build a prototype, test it, and solicit feedback to iterate.  Here’s an example:

Project:  Hall Pass Redesign

Empathize:  Students interview other students, teachers, administrators and research hall pass systems at other schools.

Define:  Based on their research, students propose a “How might we . . . “question.  Example: “How might we design a hall pass that is quickly issued, standard throughout the school, and minimizes germ transfer?”

Ideate:  Students participate in a divergent ideation activity to come up with as many ideas as possible, and then narrow down based on interest and other constraints (cost, ability, time).  Examples: Hall pass app, tracker bracelets, restaurant buzzer system with timer, etc. . .

Prototype:  Students make a physical model or representation of the idea.  Note – not all ideas are products, many are processes.  A prototype could be a role play of the proposed system, how a student requests a pass, how the teacher issues it, and the timeline/consequences associated with it.

Test:  Students deploy the prorotype and solicit feedback from key stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators).

Iterate:  Based on the feedback students build more empathy, redefine the problem, brainstorm additional solutions, or tweak their prototypes.

A majority of Makerspace projects are rooted in design thinking.  The ten most successful makerspace projects from this year can be accessed here.


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