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T³: A makerspace in your school?

The case for formalizing free exploration opportunities

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Don't worry, I'll be back on the blog with updates on my current project but today I wanted to draw attention to the work that our education, sales and marketing folks have been doing to demystify "maker" culture for educators.

I don't have a formal education in electrical engineering (a fact many of you find painfully obvious). In fact, much of my educational background is unconventional. I attended public schools but was able to pursue a wide range of elective subjects, often arguing with counselors and rearranging my schedule to take on less conventional combinations. I wasn't an "advanced placement" student, or even a particularly good academic-level student. I was training to fly planes in high school and my most effective studying took place in a Beechcraft C23 Sundowner which, for a person who didn't have a driver's license, was a thorough distraction from academia. But, access to classes such as metal shop, musical theater, painting and technology (and, most crucially, the combination thereof) helped me develop a skill set that eventually defined my professional life.

Often, the difference between these elective classes and my core curriculum was more than just subject matter. Elective classes, not beholden to any rigid standards, tended to allow much more free exploration. This free exploration time was huge during that time when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Unfortunately, a lot of my free exploration was not officially sanctioned. I made deals with teachers, skipped classes and generally played cat and mouse with the administration. For a teenager like myself, that came naturally, but I knew a lot of people who didn't want to scheme their way around campus. That's why it's so important to formalize free exploration in school, and the most effective tool for doing that in a way that supports the core curriculum is with a makerspace. If you're having trouble getting started, check out our white paper on the subject!

What was your experience like in school? Did you take shop classes? Did your theater teachers let you skip class to build sets? Does your school have a makerspace or some other type of lab for free exploration? I want to know how things have changed, both before my entry into the educational system and after my graduation! Let's discuss!

Comments 11 comments

  • Our local Middle School built a Makerspace that is for the kids during the day and for the community after school hours. Once the kids leave, community members can swipe their makerspace badges and access all the equipment for their projects. The cool thing is that the adult members pay a small monthly fee to be a member, which is used to purchase, update and maintain the equipment that everyone, including the kids in class, use. It has been a HUGE win/win for the community and the kids.

    Here is a video about our space: https://youtu.be/L0glo7P66Dw

    Here is an article that was recently published about our space: http://www.concordmonitor.com/granite-geek-amherst-nh-makerspace-4264617

    We have also been on our local NPR station: http://nhpr.org/post/granite-geek-makerspace-amherst-middle-school

    Here is another article, however they do have a pay wall: http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/1084263-469/makerspace-opening-in-amherst.html

    We have been purchasing from SparkFun for equipment for classes and space management. (Thanks Guys!)

  • While attending middle school/high school in the early 80's classes were available in drafting, wood shop, metal shop, auto repair, home economics and electronics. I remember making my very first PCB and learning how to use an oscilloscope. Everything I learned in those classes has stuck with me throughout my life, even more so than college classes. It's really disheartening that so many of those classes have been phased out.

    At my oldest son's school here in Lafayette, CO (Angevine Middle School- my wife also teaches there) they have an engineering shop class. The kids are doing some really neat projects. Last year I believe they were working on a prosthetic leg for a staff member and were 3D printing several of the components. They're still in need of equipment for the class but I got them a laser cutter for this year- the class teacher was pretty excited about that. :)

  • I think that the educational process in most countries and especially here in the USA is degree oriented, go to school, get the paper, get out. My personal educational meandering has always (50 years post high school) been about acquiring knowledge, information, and skills. I found that despite having a college major of engineering that most of my classes were about everything else. I never did find a major in "jack of all trades" but somehow I muddled through some formal education but my real education came primarily from books, experiments, and observation. I worked with some extremely gifted scientists and engineers in my many years with IBM Research and Development, but I often found it was difficult for them to implement their ideas as their core focus did not allow them the opportunity to learn many practical subjects. There is nothing wrong with, nor any problem with having "other" skills. Following one's bliss makes, I think, for a happier life.

    • It's a shame that we've managed to get into this "death spiral" in [what is masquerading as] education in this country of "teaching to the test", and having all sorts of mandatory measurements that squander money to the point where we're taking all of the "fun" out of education. I see art, music, even P.E. being eliminated so as to save money to pay more non-classroom paper shufflers to make sure that "no child is left behind": it would better be termed "all children held back". From what I see, too much of education has become rote to pass the next test that measures the school -- the vast majority of kids find this B-O-R-I-N-G. Is it any wonder we have problems with them "tuning out" when we've eliminated the "education by fun"?

  • Wow! It makes me feel good that a company which I enjoy doing business with is doing such good things for the public good!

    FWIW, when I was in Junior High (back in about 1968), we had a class where boys and girls, took one quarter of Shop, one quarter of Science, one quarter of Home Economics, and one quarter of Art. (My only arguments were that the Science quarter was too "watered down" for my tastes [even in those days I was much more of a "techie" than my peers], and that I missed most of the Shop quarter due to health problems.) I think we boys enjoyed the Home Ec quarter more than the girls, and some of the girls enjoyed the Shop quarter more than most of the boys.

    Hmm... something just dawned on me: one thing I'm seeing missing from a lot of "Maker Spaces" is what was classically called "Home Economics" -- things like "kitchen skills", though sometimes there is some support for "textile skills". In these days where a stay-at-home parent is a rarity, kids often don't get exposed much to these skills. I was fortunate in this respect in that my mother stayed home, and I had some encouragement along these lines. (She would frequently make bread, cookies, and other baked goods, did canning in season, made jam, and when I was older, we worked out how to successfully make donuts [I'd sit beside the stove monitoring the temperature of the oil and adjusting the gas burner, while she was cutting them and cooking them -- today we'd probably just buy a deep fryer].) Mom also did a lot of sewing, though Dad, who learned to be an Aircraft Mechanic back when many airplanes were cloth covered, was actually better at hand stitching than Mom was.

    Sorry to impose the tangent down memory lane! (OK, not too sorry...) But the point is I think that "kitchen" skills (more than just popping something from the freezer into the microwave) and "textile" skills (more than just sewing on a button or repairing a tiny rip) should at least be looked at when planning a "Maker Space".

    • I totally agree, I would have loved to have taken a home economics class! My dad has always enjoyed cooking and so I've learned a lot from him, and my mom taught me to sew at an early age for a school project I wanted to go the extra mile on. Beyond that, skills like balancing a checkbook, paying bills, doing laundry (how to iron your shirt) are taught exclusively on YouTube and WikiHow these days. I realize that a lot of people pick these up from their parents, but I know a lot of people who would be better off if they'd learned it in school.

      Also lacking are substantive civics classes. Some introduction to your rights and responsibilities as a citizen, how to vote, how to run for civic office, how to write your representative, some basic knowledge of your country's laws... I don't remember ever getting that in school.

      Thanks for the memory lane tour!

    • Back in the day (mid-60's) in southern California public school, in junior high we had our choice of shop...everyone had to pick one. I tried wood and metal. In high school, I got into electronics but all they offered was electronics shop class. By high school, the only guys (and it was only guys) in the shop classes were the drop-out types where the school was just trying to find a home for them. But there were 3 of us who had some real interest so after the first year, we had the run of the place. We build radios, modified TVs, and built and ran our own amateur radio station, plus got to play with a lot of surplus electronics. After 4 years of this, I had a really solid background and experience in building and fixing electronics. And while taking physics and math at the same time, I got into college and my EE degree. This background really helped in college and there was a huge difference between what I could do and some of my classmates who had no hobbyist background. There is no substitute for hands-on work in your field of interest! Remember the 10,000 hour rule:)

  • Interesting topic, Nick!

    Back in the day (mid-70's), if you wanted to do anything "maker-like" in West Texas your choice was basically shop class. I was in wood shop middle school through high school, but metal shop was also an option. I tried about a half semester of electronics my junior year, but figured out pretty quick that I already knew more about electronics than the teacher did - so went back to wood shop.

    The guys like me with any interest in electronics could join the ham radio club (which we did), and find part time jobs at the stereo shoes after school (which we also did) - CB shops were also an option we participated in back then.

    As you mentioned, the shop teacher was always good for getting us a pass out of class to work on a project. I was one of the real oddballs, as I was taking all honors classes and high level math and science stuff - and then wood shop. I remember all the adults that I knew were always telling me that (with my interests, math, science, etc.) I needed to be an engineer. Unfortunately, nobody I knew could explain what an engineer did! Turns out they were correct, but I was well into first year electrical engineering before I started to figure out what an engineer does. I remember having a hard time not treating my core engineering classes as electives because I was having fun in them! This couldn't be the serious stuff if you were having fun!

    Even in college (early 80's), you still had to get creative to learn things we now associate with makers. I'm a big supporter of the schools having maker spaces to encourage the kids to explore where they want to go. Perhaps like you, I was able to wrangle my way into situations back in school where I could come up with ways to learn the kind of things I wanted to know. However, I remember having a lot of friends in college that were frustrated because they had never been able to figure out how to learn these things. The school sponsored maker spaces are a great way to help people learn the things they want.

    I've been happy to see the amount of effort SparkFun puts into education. Keep up the good work!

  • I just realized that there was one key word buried in there: COLLABORATE. Maker Spaces do facilitate and encourage collaboration. That's one thing that is often sorely missing from education, and indeed, even often consciously and specifically repressed.

    The really sad thing about this is that you very rarely get to work completely on your own in the real world. You almost always have to collaborate with someone, and usually with many someones, to get a job done.

    I was very fortunate in that the Engineering School I attended actively encouraged collaboration. We would often have projects that we were told to get together in teams of two or three to do it -- we'd have to inform the professor of what the teams were -- and then all members of the team would receive the same grade. It was up to us in the team to divvy up the work.

  • Let me add, finding money to create and sustain a maker space in a middle school is a significant hurdle in many California schools. The current level of funding does not allow for many luxuries were it not for the efforts of parents via the PTA/PTO organizations many California elementary, middle, and high schools would not have some of the few extras they enjoy today. I can tell you that even at the community college level (where I currently sit) finding money to buy some Aruduino/Redboard SIK and 3d Printers took years to achieve. We have a TECHSHOP locally but the price structure of their facility and classes in well out of reach for a significant portion of the student population.

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