"It's not about the tool," they say -- but sometimes it is. In our middle school makerspace, students have been using a variety of tools and technologies in a variety of projects and activities. And there are many more that we've yet to explore and experience.
While our makerspace is still in its infancy, it feels like we've had the program forever. As of this writing, a second group of students is in the midst of Design Experience One. We haven't had that much time to delve into projects in depth, but you can expect more from us later in the year.
Before I go any further, let me say that we realize just how fortunate we are. We have resources that many schools can only dream about (but with a great crowdfunding initiative, that needn't be the case). Northfield is a small town of just under 9,000 people, and a single-building K-8 district. Our per-pupil costs ($16,292 in 2014) are consistently less than New Jersey's state average ($18,891 in 2014). We have extremely supportive community organizations that fundraise tirelessly for us. We, in turn, work hard to wisely design innovative educational experiences for our kids.
The Lure of Bright, Shiny Objects
Makerspaces are too often defined by things -- hardware, software, other technologies -- which can engender a shopping-list mentality among people interested in creating such a learning environment. A true makerspace is defined not by what's in it but rather by what comes out of it: projects, experiences, artifacts, and learning. The tools are just a means to an end. With that proviso, here are the 20 most important tools being used in our space right now.
1. Writeable Desk Surfaces
2. Hot Glue Guns
Yes, that crafting essential has found its way into our space, and it's probably the second-most popular tool so far. Why? Hot glue does amazing things. It binds dissimilar materials with ease and strength, allowing students to quickly create amazingly detailed prototypes. Cleanup is a snap, and the glue is easily removed, making most parts easily recyclable for other projects. The guns are inexpensive and allow us to talk about and practice tool safety.
3. Chromebooks & Google Apps for Education
4. PCs & PC-Based Software
Sometimes, we need software that doesn't run on Chromebooks. When Mrs. Stephanie Terista, our seventh-grade ELA teacher, brought her students in to create 3D dioramas for the book Bud, Not Buddy, she had them use our Dell laptops and the free Sketchup Make program. We have 12 PC laptops for students to use and share.
5. Quadrille-Ruled Pads/Journals
6. littleBits™ Modules
7. 3D Design Tools
Before talking about our 3D printers, I want to emphasize that 3D design is the crucial part -- 3D printers don't make kids into engineers any more than laser printers makes them into writers. It’s not about the tool, it's about what you do with it. We love Tinkercad. It's free, fabulous, and easy to use. We also love the lessons in Autodesk's Project Ignite, which is based on Tinkercad and is also free.
8. 3D Printers
9. Ready, Set, Design
Ready, Set, Design is a fabulous 45-minute activity that teaches students what it's like to do authentic design via rapid prototyping. It's free, fun, and suitable for learners of all ages.
10. The Extraordinaires™ Design Studio
This imaginative, inexpensive kit is a massive collection of colorful character cards, design challenges, and other resources providing a fantastic introduction to design thinking. Kids are challenged to create solutions that solve problems for these characters using traditional crafting supplies. Their detailed prototypes are whimsical, imaginative, and just plain fun.
11. Dollar Store Items
12. Free Visual Programming Tools
We have a Parrot Rolling Spider, a Sphero, an Ollie, and two sets of Dash and Dot Wonder Robots. To be honest, we haven't done much formal learning with them because it’s still early in the school year. However, that doesn't stop kids from constantly picking them up and playing with them. Our intent is challenging the kids to program them instead of just flying or driving them. We'll be reinforcing that need for algorithmic skills and knowledge soon.
14. Raspberry Pi
As mentioned above, we're working on using Raspberry Pi to create book-based video games. Despite our best efforts, though, the Pi cannot run Scratch 2.0, so our programs need to be written in Scratch 1.4. That said, we do love this Raspberry Pi Starter Kit.
We only have two Airs (three, counting my personal iPad) but they've been invaluable for multimedia content creation with iMovie, photography, and green-screening (we prefer the Touchast app).
16. Shop Aprons & Goggles
I wanted LEGOs for my classroom but was apprehensive about making such a costly purchase. Instead, I asked for donations and scored big time. One family donated 30 pounds of LEGOs, which we use in projects and also when we have extra time for a five-minute LEGO design challenge.
18. Hand Tools
While our versatile walls aren't a tool per se, they're important to the function and style of the makerspace. Slatwall panels add much-needed storage capability and look fantastic.
20. Vinyl Lettering
So there you have it, Digital Shop's Top 20 tools and resources. There are others that we didn’t include only because we haven’t had time to use them yet. Next month, we’ll focus on a more detailed review of what’s going well in our middle school makerspace -- and what could improve -- as we head into winter recess. Thanks for reading!