by Jaime Carroll and Chelsey Thangvijit (East Noble School Corporation, IN)

Wayne Center Elementary transformed its multi-purpose room into a makerspace, but soon discovered that simply having a room wasn’t enough. A room alone wasn’t going to encourage students to be creative, to collaborate, to communicate, or to think critically. Nor was it going to create the teacher buy-in necessary for this to become an integral part of teaching and curriculum at Wayne Center.

“Time to Tinker” started with a few simple questions from Principal Jaime Carroll:

How can we ensure that all students are able to explore in our makerspace and how can we provide time for all students to discover their passions? How can we encourage all teachers with varying levels of comfort to allow students the freedom to discover and learn through trial-and-error?

The answers to these questions evolved into what has become Time to Tinker: once a month every classroom has a dedicated hour to explore the makerspace to support students pursuing passion projects or discovering new passions. In our approach, the Technology Integration Specialist facilitates sessions on design challenges in building, coding, circuits, and computational thinking; over time, classroom teachers and even students would take the reins as the culture of curiosity, exploration, and making becomes more widespread throughout the school.

Two students tape together a project made of popsicle sticks and cardboard.

Once we began this program, enthusiasm among students quickly took hold. Students were sharing, discussing, and debating design ideas and asking their teachers when they were going to the makerspace again. After the first session, one teacher remarked, “When students are asking if they can give up their recess to go into the makerspace, you know you’ve introduced something that will make a difference in their learning.” More than once we heard from students, “I love Tinker Time! That was so much fun! When do we go back?” Many of our most reluctant teachers were seeing the benefits of the makerspace. One such teacher exclaimed, “This is so far outside my comfort zone… but I have to let the kids figure it out on their own.”

Time to Tinker has lit a spark at Wayne Center Elementary. We hope to let that fire burn brighter and brighter so that students may initiate their own passion projects in all parts of the school day: not only in the class, but also before school, during lunch and recess, and after school.

Step 1: Establish a dedicated facilitator

While the facilitator of Time to Tinker does not need to be an “expert” (and shouldn’t pose themselves as the one and only source of information), it is helpful for the group leader to have experience with a maker mindset and relevant tools so that they can model effective instruction and troubleshoot problems as needed. While our facilitator was the Technology Integration Specialist, it may be a librarian or instructional coach at your school.

Step 2: Set aside time

As we designed our program, building Time to Tinker into the schedule was essential for the success of the program. At the building or district administration level, if the priority and time is set aside then it will be part of the natural sequence of the day instead of having teachers feel like they have to fit in “one more thing.”

Step 3: Introduce the program to staff

Although the facilitator will be leading the Time to Tinker sessions, all of the teachers should have a least an informal introduction to the “what” and “why” of the program. A simple tour and discussion of the philosophy may be enough. After that, teacher learning and growth will happen experientially as the facilitator models what teaching looks like in the makerspace and students engage in it.

Step 4: Spark excitement

At first, the makerspace facilitator will lead the lessons. Use this time to establish the procedures of the makerspace and to provide a brief introduction to the space and tools. The facilitator can set up different stations to scaffold this introduction. This process will be directed to the students, but it is also designed to indirectly benefit the teachers who are present as well.

Step 5: Build a culture

In the successive rounds of Time to Tinker, the facilitator will provide design challenges for students to build their skills and allow them to explore all the different facets of the makerspace while developing their creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills. At the same time, the facilitator will be modeling instructional practices for the classroom teacher.

Step 6: Support and celebrate

Support teachers who are interested in incorporating maker learning  outside of Time to Tinker. Additionally, consider celebrating with a building-wide or district-wide “maker day” where all students complete an activity on the same day (or at the same time!).

Step 7: Outgrow the program

If the Time to Tinker model is successful, eventually the school will outgrow the program: teachers will need to use the makerspace more than once per month, they will bring making into their own classrooms, and they will collaborate with the makerspace facilitator outside of the Time to Tinker program. Although it’s a bit ironic, the best sign of success may be when the program just can’t keep up anymore and it needs to be reimagined as something new!

A closer look at Step 4: Spark excitement

Two students tape together styrofoam cups.

The first round of Time to Tinker is a great opportunity to spark the engagement and excitement that students will carry throughout the building. It is also a valuable first impression for teachers who may be unfamiliar with teaching and learning in a maker environment.

Inspiration

The first session of Time to Tinker is all about inspiration. The facilitator can set up stations to showcase various activities available in the makerspace (building, coding, circuits, 3D building, computational thinking, deconstruction, etc.) for students and teachers to explore. Students may not have time to go to all of the stations, and that’s okay.  The purpose is to provide an initial exposure to new possibilities and to allow teachers to start thinking about the types of activities they may want to bring back to their classrooms.

Culture

The facilitator will use this time to introduce not just the space but also the culture and the norms of the space too. This first impression is a valuable time to model the design process, the role of persistence and iteration, and the joy of creative inquiry.

Celebration

If possible, allow time at the end of the first session for students to share what they accomplished. In this way, the class can celebrate the creative process (not just the product), students can begin to build a sense of ownership over the program, and teachers can see first-hand what engaged students can do in the makerspace.

A closer look at Step 5: Build a culture

As classrooms return to Time to Tinker every month, the facilitator leads maker-centered activities on different themes. And, while students certainly learn about new tools and approaches to problem-solving, it’s important to keep an eye on the larger opportunity: to engage the whole school community in a more active approach to teaching and learning in general.

Teachers as researchers

What is effective teaching in a space that’s rich in materials and collaborative energy? And how can maker learning support the development of 21st century skills?

Since the makerspace facilitator initially leads the Time to Tinker sessions, classroom teachers are able to take on a role of “researcher” and find answers to these questions for themselves. By working with the makerspace facilitator, they are able to take a step back to see what teaching and learning looks like in the makerspace and come up with insights they can take back to their own classrooms.

For example, many teachers say that working with the facilitator gives them the courage to let the students struggle through problems. It can be hard for adults not to intervene when students need help, but as an observer, teachers can see the ingenuity and persistence of students who work through the design cycle of prototyping, testing, and iterating. In one memorable breakthrough during a session, a student exclaimed, “My prototype didn’t work, but I know what I need to do to fix it!” All makerspaces have moments like these. Not only are they powerful learning moments for students, but they can be transformational for whole classrooms when teachers watch them unfold as well.

Diverse learners finding success

After every round of Time to Tinker, we inevitably have teachers reporting that students have exceeded their expectations. During one challenge, many students were struggling with their design… except for one. As it turned out, that student was one of her lowest performing students who often struggled to stay on task. It was eye-opening for this teacher — and a wonderful boost of confidence for the student — when this first grader had one of the most successful designs among all students at the entire school, beating out many of the 6th grade prototypes.

Students as advocates

Using the same design challenge will encourage students to discuss their projects, designs, and results with each other outside of the makerspace and across different classes and grade levels. The students will soon become the best and most vocal advocates for how maker learning embraces the 4Cs (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking).

What’s next?

The excitement and engagement from the students is what ignites the passion in the teachers. When the students kept asking when was their next Time to Tinker session, it moved our teachers to find more avenues to bring Time to Tinker into their classes. We introduced STEM “early-finisher” boxes that provided a simple challenge (for example, build the tallest tower with the materials in the box) for students that required no teacher-preparation. This provided a low-entry point to bringing the makerspace out of the designated room and into the classrooms. In very little time, our STEM boxes became one of the most sought after resources in our school. Many teachers started creating their own classroom sets so they didn’t have to wait for more to be assembled and distributed.

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