Makerspaces Boost Science Learning

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

Makerspaces and maker labs are popping up at schools around the country. These are often colorful, inviting rooms. But even when the decor is lacking, the contents make up for it. Whether filled with low tech fare like popsicle sticks, duct tape, and glue guns or high tech equipment like 3D printers, carving machines, and laser cutters, makerspaces invite students to create. Makerspaces don’t merely hint at hands-on invention, they require it. Students are typically expected to create an end-product or prototype.

Makerspaces provide opportunities for creative problem-solving. Schools schedule maker lab time into the academic day in different ways. In some cases, students are given problems to solve with the available tools. For example, they may be asked to develop a vehicle with at least two wheels that can travel 15 feet without using a battery for power. In other situations, students may be asked to define a problem and create their own solution.

But it’s not just about solutions and products. There’s an emphasis on process, as well. When you observe students working in a makerspace, you notice a hive of activity and interaction, more commotion than you find in a traditional classroom. You’d also see students take control of their learning, and again, learning real-world lessons in lessons in physics and math.

I talked with my friend JD Pirtle about the makerspace he runs at Chicago’s Catherine Cook School. The space opened in 2012 as part of an effort to incorporate Design Thinking into their community. JD not only launched the space, but wrote the curriculum that guides student activity within it. His school’s maker lab is not only reserved for classes. Students can use their recess time to work on personal projects, draw, sew, or play games in the space.

JD told me that when it comes to science learning, the makerspace is a boon. “Science teachers use the makerspace time for projects like using Minecraft to build the structure of the human eye. When the 4th graders study electronics, they use paper and electronics in the makerspace to reinforce those lessons," he said.

Teachers also tap into the creative supplies and wisdom found in the lab to create games that drive home lessons. “For example, a board game that simulates the behavior of cells as they encounter disease or contagions.”

JD is fortunate to have the kind of high-tech space that includes multiple 3D printers, sewing machines, a laser cutter, robots, and shop tools. But he cautions, “We never use tech for tech’s sake. Our biggest goal is finding developmentally appropriate and authentic connections to the work that teachers and students are doing in all of the disciplines being taught at Catherine Cook.”

Admittedly, that level of technology isn’t available in every school. It's okay to being modestly; you can find resources for starting your makers lab here. It’s amazing what an inspired student can accomplish with old-fashioned scissors, cardboard, and tape (plus maybe a bit a of glitter glue for flair). Indeed, many Young Scientist Finalists, started out huddled over their kitchen tables using those very supplies along with a few other household items to create their first prototypes.

Of course, with the support and resources from their 3M mentors, the young scientists are able to take their designs up a notch. Tune in live on Tuesday, October 17, 2017 from 3:00-5:00 PM Eastern to see the final models from this year’s finalists and be the first to know who is named the Top Young Scientist.