Creating a makerspace on a shoestring

You don't need to spend top dollar to fill this new learning space with tools that engage elementary, middle and high school students
Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. She is a featured speaker for FETC 2020.
Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. She was a featured speaker for FETC.

Today’s schools are increasingly creating makerspaces—hands-on, innovative learning spaces inspired by the maker movement, a global revolution combining futuristic technology, such as 3D printers, with the resourcefulness of the DIY community. A mix of crafts and engineering, these spaces give students creative opportunities for exploring important STEM concepts. 

Makerspaces can be filled with expensive, high-tech equipment, but it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to provide students with a space that encourages them to create, tinker and play as they learn. What’s important is that students have good ideas and, with the right guidance, turn those ideas into interesting projects that support their learning in any subject. It’s not essential to have a special room. In fact, a makerspace in a classroom, library or computer lab builds on the creative, student-centered elements that already exist.

Here are five important elements to consider when designing and building a makerspace:

  1. At every grade level, look for tools that have a low threshold and high ceiling, or things that are understandable and immediately useful, but have long-term value. 
  2. Look for extendable usability. As students use the makerspace tools, they will gain fluency and make increasingly complex items. Avoid purchasing toys that give students a one-time experience but don’t provide lasting value.
  3. Focus on tools and technology that offer students agency—not just choice, but control over the process and outcomes. Can you make things that aren’t pictured on the box, for instance?
  4. Items you purchase should be elemental, or able to return to their original states, and flexible, so they can be used for many different kinds of projects.
  5. Acquire a combination of craft materials, technology and tools that are age appropriate. Real tools allow students to measure and construct real things, and adding computers and high-tech tools increases learning potential. Even if you are not sure how to use certain technology, learn alongside your students. Modeling an attitude of “if we don’t know, we will figure it out together” is step one for joining the maker movement.

Modeling an attitude of “if we don’t know, we will figure it out together” is step one to joining the maker movement.

What should I buy?

First, take stock of what you already have. Raid your closets and storerooms for underutilized equipment, science kits or technology. Next, see what you can get from parents and the community. You may be well on your way in no time with storage, craft and building supplies; tools; and a supply of old toys and electronics to take apart. Supplement all of that with a few well-chosen maker essentials based on the age of your students. Leave some money in reserve once you see what works—and what consumables need to be replenished.

Here are some suggestions for makerspace supplies and ideas to try based on student age:  

Elementary school

Creativity, safety and long-term value are the most important elements of a makerspace for your youngest students. You don’t have to start from scratch. Think of your maker budget as a way to add interactivity to what you already have and the creative projects you already do. Following are a few ideas to implement:

  • Include electronics: Toy motors, buzzers and LEDs are three elements to have on hand. And don’t forget batteries! Buy in bulk and save.
  • Connect your electronics: For this age group, there are several ways to connect electronic components. Use sticky copper tape or aluminum foil to make connections between batteries and electronic components. Students can also use metallic office and craft supplies, such as paper clips, brads and pipe cleaners, to connect batteries to LEDs and motors, for instance.
  • Offer coding: Scratch is a free programming language used by millions of students worldwide to easily create stories, games and art. Based on developmental research on how children learn, Scratch builds confidence and computer science skills. 

Read: A school makerspace inspires STEM invention everywhere

Middle school

Middle schoolers are makers to the core. They are inventive and curious, and their logical thinking and planning skills are starting to take shape. Middle school makerspaces can introduce tools that offer a bit more risk—with the reward being greater precision and the capability to make real things. Give students opportunities to try new things, but also provide time to return to favorites. This encourages fluency and new ideas. Consider these recommendations:

  • Offer 3D design: Even if you can’t provide a 3D printer, students enjoy creating 3D graphics. Tinkercad is a free and easy-to-use option.
  • Expand your electronics: For this age group, sewing machines, soldering irons, power tools, and more complex electronics can be added to the elementary school list. And include stepper motors and sensors. Old school tech, such as button makers, can be paired with digital design software. Ask students what they are interested in and follow their lead.
  • Include a vinyl cutterThis low-cost digital fabrication tool will be a popular addition to any makerspace.
  • Provide a micro:bit: This microcontroller board with onboard sensors and lights is powered by easy-to-use block-based software. At less than $20, it’s a cost-effective way to add smarts to anything from robots to wearable technology.

High school

Many of the elementary and middle school recommendations for makerspaces are still valid here. Older students need inspiration and playful materials as much as younger students. As your budget allows, add more complex technology and tools. Many good programming languages are free, including Python, Processing, and Snap. Creating opportunities for making with innovative new materials and technology brings learning to life.

The best part of joining the maker movement is a return to the importance of fun in education. Fun and play are important factors in learning, and figuring out inventive ways to do more with less is part of the fun. The interesting tools of the maker movement combine well with lessons in STEM and other subjects, giving students the ability to create and shine regardless of the budget.

Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called “the bible of the classroom maker movement.” She was a featured speaker at DA’s FETC.

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