Don’t Let Makerspaces Be A Passing Trend

In 21 years in education, I have seen many trends come and go. I am on a mission to keep makerspaces from being added to that list. That’s at the core of everything I do now. Makerspaces are an educational philosophy, foundationally solid, and we can’t allow them to be cast aside by cynics who might suggest they were just a fun fad that has run its course. We must work to secure the future of makerspaces. Their fundamental purpose is too important, the impact on students too significant.

A true makerspace offers student-driven opportunity for open-ended exploration for everyone. Makerspaces are a mind-set, a culture. It’s about the pedagogy. A great makerspace has seven key attributes: It is personalized, deep (allowing deeper learning), empowering, equitable, differentiated, intentional, and inspiring. If you have all of that, you can call your space a makerspace—maybe even a great makerspace.

So what’s next? What is the key to the future of makerspaces? Sustainability. That requires proper planning. I am not just talking about the initial planning that is vital to creating the right makerspace for your school. This planning is for the future, and it requires looking back.

Reflection is so important: What works, what doesn’t, how can I refine my space so that it continues to grow and evolve with my students, the school community, and the wider world that we’re living in? I think about the makerspace almost daily and revisit the planning formally at least once each school year. Everyone should. You must sit down, and collect and analyze the data. Reevaluate. Talk to the students. Drop themes, add themes. Your kids change, your makerspace should too. This is about creating a space that is unique and meaningful to the students in your school community, as well as meeting every single one of their needs.
As you maintain and attempt to sustain your makerspace, never forget the underlying purpose, which is an educational experience that allows students to lead and extend their learning in whatever direction and way they choose. It moves them to identify problems and create solutions. It is not about the stuff.

When we first launched our space, we had every kit available. It was great. We had wonderful experiences, but something never felt right to me. It was because students were creating 10, 15, 20 of the same thing. We were just following the directions. It was when we didn’t have the money, and I couldn’t go out and buy those things, that the real making began. Kids started looking around at whatever we had and saying, “OK, that’s a paper towel tube in there, what else could it be? What else could I use that for?”
I think that’s probably been the most powerful question: What else can that be?

When that curiosity and creativity combine with storytelling, makerspaces can be at their best. When people hear “storytelling,” they automatically think fiction, but it could be an informational narrative or a message. Creating a narrative, especially around STEM, provides meaning and context. Transmedia storytelling is the future for makerspaces. It is about how you can expand what you’re doing with the kids across multimedia platforms. Instead of a one-and-done project, it’s an experience.

There are many different points of entry. For one project, I used the picture book Westlandia by Paul Fleischman. Students looked for omissions in the story, which gave them opportunities to extend the tale. On one page, the main character is playing an unidentified musical instrument. There are no words accompanying the picture. The kids thought about what instrument he was playing, what song. Some of them made instruments based on those ideas.

From there, students can extend it further across multimedia platforms. Making that same instrument on a digital platform replicates what they have done. It does not extend the story. Instead, use an app and compose a song the character is playing. Next, create a virtual reality experience. It is transliterate making. It takes students deeper into the story.

As makerspaces move forward from a movement to, hopefully, a staple in the education world, it’s also important to know what a makerspace is not.

Makerspaces are not only for “gifted and talented” kids. They are not “rewards” for those who complete their academic work early. They are not meant to be a special club. An important aspect of the makerspace mind-set is opening up a world for kids who might not otherwise enjoy or excel in traditional academia. It’s about creating that chance for exploration and discovery for everyone.

Makerspaces are not STEM labs. For some reason, STEM has become almost synonymous with makerspaces. That’s something that I fight against. People create a STEM lab and call it a makerspace, but they run it like a typical class with teacher-driven specific assignments. Students come in, sit and listen to directions, then create 30 identical little robots. That is not a makerspace, it’s a STEM lab. STEM labs are fantastic, but they should be called STEM labs.

A makerspace can have a STEM theme—ironically, our makerspace is STEM-heavy because that is what our school needed—but it doesn’t have to include any tech at all. There are makerspaces that are created around literacy, and around health and wellness.

Makerspaces aren’t a place for coloring, knitting, or gardening, in and of themselves. But a garden, for example, can be a makerspace if run with that opportunity for open-ended exploration.

Let’s say a group plants something. Next it should be, “What else can we do in that space?” Maybe someone notices the plants aren’t getting enough water and decides to 3-D print an irrigation system to help water the plants. Then what? The opportunities are endless.
Makerspaces don’t have to be in the library. They can be in a classroom or hallway or cafeteria. But since the beginning of time, libraries have democratized information with accessibility to materials, resources, and supplies—and the opportunity that comes with that access—to all. Why not the materials, resources, and supplies that have to do with making?

So take a cue from my students, extend the story of your makerspace. Ask yourself, what else can it be? What more should it be? Allow it—help it—to evolve. The second that you say it’s done, you’re doomed. That’s when your space becomes irrelevant. That is what will turn makerspaces into a memory, abandoned for the next trendy educational idea. We need to come together as an educational community to keep that from happening.