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
- Starting a School Makerspace from Scratch
- What is the Point of a Makerspace?
- Makerspace Master Course by John Spencer
- Create a Makerspace in a Week
- The Kickstart Guide to Making GREAT Makerspaces
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