The 3 Big Mistakes I Made When Trying to Design a Makerspace

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I first heard of makerspaces over a decade ago. It was around 2005, not long after Make Magazine came out and people were talking about things like fab labs and maker faires. It was a part of the do-it-yourself culture that I found intriguing, even if I was simply a social studies teacher with no real background in engineering.

I visited a few places where people were doing high-tech fabrication and I wondered if I could somehow tie that into our economics unit where students were developing products.

But I got frustrated. I didn’t have the right technology and I didn’t have a big budget to buy fancy furniture. Besides, time was limited. I was also nervous about what my principal and district office leadership might think of a class that looked so different. I was a brand new teacher. But it was more than that. I didn’t feel like a real maker because my coding was so-so and my engineering skills were lacking.

I wanted to innovate, but I wanted a guarantee ahead of time that it would succeed.

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However, two years later, I ran into Javi, who convinced me that all we had to do was start off small and build from there.

“The students will help you redesign the space anyway,” he told me.

“Let’s figure out how to hack old computers and make them work.” So we did. We learned Linux over the summer and transformed the space.

When I said, “I wish I had standing desks,” Javi responded with, “Where would you stand if the chairs were gone?” From here, I turned our heavy bookshelves into standing centers. We built box-style standing areas on some of the tables.

Javi approached things like a hacker, turning all of these limitations into opportunities to innovate.

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Over the next few years, I slowly transformed my classroom into a makerspace. It never felt like a real makerspace because we didn’t have a 3D printer or the fanciest gadgets. For years, I was reluctant to share what I had learned because I was embarrassed by how meager our set-up was. But looking back on it, I’m proud of what we created. And I wish I had shared both the celebrations of what had worked as well as the mistakes I had made.

So, with that in mind, here are some of the mistakes I made:

#1: Spending too much time thinking, reading, studying and never actually doing the work.

I read tons of books and watched videos to see the right way to create a makerspace. I made plans of plans and then plans for the plans of the plans. I brainstormed new ideas. I spent forever daydreaming about the perfect makerspace. I was spending so much time consuming information and dreaming up new ideas, that it left almost no time to create, make, and design something different.

To be honest, I also was also a little jealous of what others were doing. It didn’t help me personally, or my students, when I spent this much time consuming information rather than making things happen. I kept refining the plan and setting up spreadsheets for a budget and researching potential grants that I could apply for.

This lasted for nearly two years. But once I teamed up with Javier, things changed. I began to take action. I learned how to launch an MVP (minimal viable product) and then refine it through tons of iterations. Each year, things improved until we had something awesome. The lesson is don’t get drowned out by the massive amount of information (which is really good) and not make time for creating. Let it be the inspiration for innovative work instead.

#2: Waiting until I had the best supplies.

I had this mental picture of what a makerspace was supposed to be and so I spent forever focusing on the funding issues. I thought up ways that we could raise money with online campaigns or grants. I researched high-tech supplies and created spreadsheets. I was obsessed with the stuff that I missed a deeper reality: it’s about the maker mindset.

I eventually learned that some of the best items in a makerspace are cheap. Yes, 3D modeling is great but so is duct tape and cardboard! I could create a green screen studio and kids could use their own devices to record. Meanwhile, each year newer, less expensive options came out. Later in my career, I discovered options like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and low-cost circuitry. There are tons of maker projects that don’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

#3: Trying to do it all by myself.

Things didn’t work out for me until I began collaborating with Javier. I needed a trusted colleague who would share my vision and enthusiasm. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. What began as the two of us eventually grew into a tribe of teacher-makers who were doing things like planning STEM Camps to replace summer school or piloting new 21st Century initiatives.

I also made the mistake of assuming that I had to be an expert on everything inside of a makerspace. So, my students didn’t code at first because my coding was still fairly shaky. I didn’t know how to do circuitry, so we didn’t try that until I understood it. But eventually, I learned something valuable. I could invite my students to join me in learning how to tackle a new skill. And here’s the beauty: they got to see me face creative frustration. They saw a growth mindset in action.

The lesson is you don’t have to be an expert in everything. You just have to be an expert on learning, teaching, and, most importantly, the kids who are in your room.

Challenge: Create a Makerspace In a Week

So, here’s my challenge for you. Create a makerspace in a week. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m serious. Spend one week designing your makerspace and then turn it into a reality.

What about the money? 

It doesn’t have to be expensive. Some of the best items in a makerspace are free. Students can prototype with duct tape and cardboard. They can take apart toys and use them for their creative work. It can be awesome.

What about the curriculum map? 

Find the content-neutral standards that allow you to build and tinker and design. Then develop maker-related lessons aligned to those standards.

What about the permission? 

It’s possible that you might get an entire room where you can design a new makerspace lab. But you might just need to make the changes within your classroom. In my next blog post, I’m going to explore some innovative models that go outside of the makerspace lab concept.

What if I’m not an expert? 

You don’t have to be. Just be willing to learn and grow and seek out new information.

Looking for More Help?

If you’re not sure where to get started, check out the Makerspace Master Course. It’s a self-paced, week-long course that you can do from anywhere at any time. Remember that mistake about wasting time? Well, I’ve done the legwork of researching strategies, ideas, and methods so that you don’t have to wade through mountains of information. Plus, you’ll be a part of a community of fellow teacher-makers.

In addition, if you are curious about what kinds of items you would put in a makerspace, you might find this makerspace supply list handy. It’s broken down to several different budget levels. I’ll also be doing a makerspace webinar on how to design a makerspace in a week when you’re short on time, money, and resources. Simply sign up at the bottom of this form for more information on the webinar and for access to the supply list:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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