Teaching, Learning and Assessments

Should I Join the Maker Movement?

And the Learning Sciences Behind Them

What is a MakerSpace?

Makerspaces have been a hot fad in the educational world for the past couple of years. What are they all about and are they worth our time and money? What do the learning sciences tell us about makerspaces?

Jennifer Gonzalez, the author of the popular blog Cult of Pedagogy, interviewed John Spencer on his expertise in makerspaces. Spencer has co-authored two books, Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, and Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning. When asked to explain what a makerspace was Spencer (2018) said:

I see a makerspace as simply a space designed and dedicated to hands-on creativity and the key thing here is they’re actually making something. Creativity is sometimes idea generation, it’s sometimes problem-solving. But (in) a makerspace, you’re actually going to create some kind of product.

John Spencer

He goes on to explain it could be a digital product (green screen video, coding algorithm, iMovie, etc.) or a physical product which could be as broad as using cardboard and duct tape, to 3-d printing a design. Spencer also notes that makerspaces can look very different from classroom to classroom or school to school. Sometimes schools set up a defined makerspace area with the tools and materials students need. Or perhaps the school has a roving makerspace cart. Othertimes classroom teachers will set up their own “tinker” area in their classrooms. There is no one right way to do makerspaces – the emphasis should be on allowing students the opportunity to create. 

The Neuroscience Behind Makerspaces

What’s Happening In Our Brains When We Learn

Brain research has shown us that when we acquire new information there is an actual change in the makeup of our brains. We have billions of neurons that add new pathways when we learn. According to The Science of Learning Part 2: How the Brain Learns, these pathways, or dendrites, are strengthened by repeated use by developing a thick fatty coating (Envision, 2015). The thicker the dendrite, the faster it passes signals in your brain. And your existing dendrites can grow more dendrites, just like a tree sprouting twigs from an existing branch (Envision, 2015). You may have heard the phrase: “The neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more you activate and use those neurons, the stronger they will become. Just like when learning to play an instrument or riding a bike. It’s hard at first, but the more you practice the easier it gets. This scientifically proves that “practice makes perfect”! (Envision, 2015). 

Learning Through Play

The front part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for executive function. 


Like we discussed above, the neurons here are strengthened by repeated use. In an article titled The Brain Science of Making, Conn McQuinn explains that when children have unstructured playtime they can practice making decisions, testing hypotheses, evaluating results, and using other types of executive function skills (2018). McQuinn states that if we over-structure children’s lives and school experiences they lose the opportunity to learn how to self-direct (2018). This is why makerspaces are so important. They can have self-directed exploration and discovery. They can learn from their mistakes and express themselves creatively. By allowing them to tinker they can develop important executive function skills. 

Hands-On Learning is Essential

Your brain thinks your hands are the most important part of your body. When explaining the picture below, McQuinn (2018) states: 

This little critter is called the homunculus. It is a physical representation of how many motor neurons you have in your brain for different body parts. When you see how gigantic the hands are, it tells us that as far as our brain is concerned they are by far the most important part of our body.

Conn McQuinn

No wonder students love to explore, play, and create things with their hands. A makerspace is the perfect place for students to design, build, test, and modify their own creations. 

Learning Should Be Fun

The hippocampus is a special part of your brain that helps form long-term memories. It is part of the larger limbic system which controls your emotions. “This is a critical point because it underscores that learning and memory formation are emotional events” (McQuinn, 2018). The take away: learning should be fun! Neuroscience shows us that students will learn better if they are having a good time, and what better way to do that then allows our students to experiment, tinker, and play in a makerspace.

Having a Growth Mindset

“I love making mistakes!”

– said no one ever

Makerspaces are centered on learning from your mistakes. During my time teaching, I noticed that students these days don’t like to fail. In fact, they avoid failure at all costs and immediately ask for help when they reach a roadblock. I frequently complained to my colleagues that my students were SO needy! Makerspaces provide a safe environment where we can encourage our students to experiment and make mistakes. We can teach what it means to have a growth mindset and how to “fail forward” – the idea that we can learn from our failures and use that knowledge to try out another solution. Teachers can even join in the fun, get their hands dirty, create something new, and model what it looks like to make mistakes and learn from them. 

Hopefully, by now you can see how valuable a makerspace can be. “They align powerfully with what neuroscience tells us about how the brain works!” (McQuinn, 2018). If you are interested in setting up your own makerspace or levying for one at your school, check out these resources below.

How to Get Started

Check Out These Awesome Makerspaces In Action!

  • Lindsey Own (@Lindseyown) at @EvergreenBIGLab
  • Krissy Venosdate (@krissyvenosdale)
  • Project Makerspace (@ProjMakerspace) at ML Public Library Makerspace

3D Printing and Makerspaces

One tool you will want to consider having in your makerspace is a 3D printer. It is a great tool that allows students to design, problem-solve, and end up with a product to show for their hard work. 

What is a 3D Printer and How Does It Work? 

  • Here’s another video to watch with your elementary school kids if you’re wanting to teach them about 3D printing
  • 3D objects are created by a process called additive manufacturing, where the material is laid down layer by layer to create a larger design
  • In order to know what to print, you must give the 3D printer a plan or graphic model to follow. These designs can be created by using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. There are various free online CAD platforms that are easy for beginners to use, such as TinkerCAD and Sketchup (McFadden, 2019).

What Materials Would You Need to 3D Print?

  • 3D printer
  • CAD design software
  • Filament, a.ka. printing material. Two common filaments are Polylactic Acid (PLA) which is made from a variety of natural sources including sugar, corn starch, or sugar cane. It is biodegradable and safe to breathe in. Another frequently used filament for 3-d printing is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) which is oil-based. It is extremely strong and is used to make a lot of children’s toys. You can buy both of these filaments on Amazon (3D Insider, chapter 6). 

Why You Should Consider Having a 3D Printer In Your Makerspace

  • Students can go straight from concept ideas or digital models to 3D printed models
  • Students can solve real-world problems with their designs 
  • It is a great way to work through the design process with your students 
  • Helps develop creative and critical thinking skills
  • It gives your students the opportunity to be innovative  

Challenges To Consider

  • The learning curve can be steep when using CAD software or a 3D printer,  but don’t let that scare you off. It’s a great opportunity to learn alongside your students and model having a growth mindset. 
  • Do your research and buy the right printer. There are a lot out there to choose from and you want to find the right fit.
  • If possible, find someone who has experience 3D printing at your school so they can walk you through the process and give you tips and tricks. Be prepared to frequently troubleshoot problems when learning.
  • Think about sustainability. Before buying this piece of technology, think through how your school will be able to afford the upkeep and cost of supplies. 
  • Use your printer with purpose. Carefully integrate the use of the 3D printer with your current curriculum. The learning sciences show us that students learn better when there is a connection with the real world and they can demonstrate their knowledge in a practical way.


3D Insider. (n.d.). Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing. Retrieved from https://3dinsider.com/3d-printing-guide/

Gonzalez, J. (2018, May 20).What Is the Point of a Makerspace? Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/makerspace/

Graves, C. (2015, July 16). Starting a School Makerspace From Scratch. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/starting-school-makerspace-from-scratch-colleen-graves 

Lynch, M. (2019, June 27). What Teachers Must Know About the Neuroscience of Edtech Learning. Retrieved from https://www.thetechedvocate.org/what-teachers-must-know-about-the-neuroscience-of-edtech-learning/ 

Mashable. (2014, May 8). What Is 3D Printing and How Does It Work? | Mashable Explains [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx0Z6LplaMU

McFadden, C. (2019, November 23). How Exactly Does 3D Printing Work? Interesting Engineering. Retrieved from https://interestingengineering.com/how-exactly-does-3d-printing-work

McQuinn, C. (2018, September 25). The Brain Science of Making. Retrieved from https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=brain-science-of-making 

National Geographic Kids. (2018, November 5). How 3D Printers Work | How Things Work with Kamri Noel [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlvK6DLwCz4 

The Science of Learning Part 2: How the Brain Learns. (2015, September 15th). Envision. Retrieved from https://www.envisionexperience.com/blog/the-science-of-learning-how-the-brain-learns


  • Jan White

    Wow, so much great information, thank you Kaelynn. Your post really shows why maker spaces should not be considered as a ‘fun fad’. Yes, learning is fun. Hopefully aspects of making or tinkering can be integrated into all classrooms.

  • Megan

    I really appreciate you thoughts on maker spaces and why they are so valuable. We have been trying for awhile to incorporate this into our schools and so often the response is, we don’t have room or time for something like that. But after reading your post everyone has time. Especially if we think of it like Spencer described as students creating/making. It doesn’t have to be fancy but anytime we allow students to be creative and make something in response to the problem or work we are providing them a maker space. Such as well thought out post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sarah Straume

    What a fascinating post! I especially appreciated the pieces that look into the neuroscience of play and the homunculus image that you posted. I have heard of this idea before, but it seemed to really click for me with the connection of the makerspace. Thank you for sharing!

  • Doug Ferguson

    Thanks for sharing! Hands-on learning definitely makes minds-on learning more likely to happen :). I love all of the recent research that is coming out and supporting the neuroscience around making as a functional part of learning. Makerspaces are a great way to make this happen. Play is definitely “the work” of childhood and so central to developing all sorts of learning including key executive functioning skills. Good stuff!

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