Tie And Jeans

What’s “ideal” for middle school Makers

The sad fact is that I’ve given very little thought to that eminently sensible question. In my personal transition from half-baker to Maker, I’ve turned away from most of the broader questions that should probably frame a program like ours. What are the essential tools for a middle-school Maker space?  What are the critical skills, lenses, and questions that empower adolescents?

Fortunately, there’s amazing educators exploring these questions as a public part of their teaching craft. I can read Chad’s work for inspiration in my daily practice, Bud’s to confront and reframe my lazy thinking, and try to keep my rootless pontification to a bare minimum. I’ve got a lifetime to work through insights Papert published before I graduated from high school. I’ll always be a half-baker, but I’m trying to shift my balance towards projects that come out of the oven imperfect rather than teetering piles of ever-proofing dough.

It also occurs to me that I’m really hungry.

So here’s an answer to Melanie’s question, recognizing that it avoids some of the bigger questions about what counts as Maker-culture or a Maker-space.

I want a middle school space to be filled with things that intrigue and entice adolescents. Something needs to slow down traffic in the hallway and pull them through the door.  This is a huge reason why I’m so in love with our pinball machine. Every pinball machine, every arcade cabinet, was designed to *exactly that* – capture fleeting fascination of passing teenagers. 3D printers can do the same work, leaving a trail of ABS breadcrumbs throughout your school. Developing a Maker-mindset means discovering ways that you can tweak, hack or create new things that exist in and interact with the wider world.  I’d argue that the same is true for a Maker-space.  To thrive, a middle school space has to generate something that’s visible and exiting to the wider school community.

But it’s not enough to pull a few curious heads through the door.  A Maker-space needs to empower visitors and transform them into Makers, not just provide specialized tools. Students should find something to touch and produce, something that provides a sense of accomplishment and reward on their timescale. I backed the MakeyMakey last spring out of frustration with how our existing Arduinos failed this test.  The time it took students to simply replicate a project they’d found on the web, projects with the code and parts list provided, fell well outside that window. This doesn’t mean that Arduino-based projects are “too hard” for middle school students, just that they’re too complicated to serve as an initial incitement. It’s still early days for the MakeyMakey, but so far they fit far better into that space.

An “ideal” tool allows kids to make/hack/play quickly enough to close the engagement loop, but still offers enough substance that it will feel qualitatively different than the pre-fab challenge of “normal” school.

When starting a middle school space, I’d focus on simple tools that create large projects. Tim Owens’ decision to start the first class in UMW’s Think Lab with cardboard automata reflects these principles wonderfully. I’m convinced that a middle school space would get far more utility from $100 of Make-Do connectors than $100 of breadboards and wire.

I’d love to rescue the tools and materials from the middle school wood shops of my childhood. I guess that would also imply that we’d have access to a time machine. History as hackable system! Bring on my only favorite Orson Scott card book!

I’d opt for a desktop vinyl cutter rather than a laser cutter or CNC. I’m not sure there exists a more powerful messaging tool for 6th graders that custom, personalized stickers.

The space should be stocked with cards and board games. Bud is exploring this direction with Make/Hack/Play’s inagural HackJam, since games are a nothing but collections of rules waiting for modification. Middle schoolers have a far easier time hacking/coding computer games if they’ve had experience analyzing and customizing with board and card games. A kid-friendly edition of Fluxx or a new copy of Risk: Legacy would be a great starting point.

But, more than anything else, I’d walk through fire for a sink, oven and range. Food is a perfect medium for make/hack/play – it offers near infinite depth, but students can produce tangible (edible!) results in 20 minutes. Food has an incredible Whoops!** potential – there are broadly predictable behaviors that students can learn, but with interesting pockets of discontinuity (mousse, caramelization, egg whites). The materials cost is low, tools are incredibly prevalent, and every kids is already invested in some form of food culture. There are certainly pitfalls,some more surprising than others, that can emerge from making food a pillar of a maker-culture , but they’re far outweighed by the benefit.  Food is *already* affects schedule and space at your school. Bringing it into the Maker-space reveals that both food and school can be hackable systems, places where their ideas have reach and power.

Any tools, any materials, can power a maker space. The key asset is culture and visibility. The work inside the space should be exploratory and interest-driven, with adults to provide support rather than evaluation. What’s made in the space must leave, either fully successful or as a monument to Whoops!, and become a part of the larger community. The goal of a maker-space inside an academic setting is to infuse the whole community with the spirit of inquiry and empowerment. That can’t be done behind closed doors or for a private community.

** A few weeks back, Gary Stager called out the recent fetishization of failure in edu circles, something I’ve been guilty of for several years. His point was that “failure” implies judgment and evaluation. No one “fails” learning to ride a bike on their own. I’ve taken that to heart, and am now looking to provide students with Whoops! moments.  A bad soufflé is a Whoops! A burned tray of cookies is a Whoops!  No one’s stopping you from mixing up another batch and trying again.

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11 thoughts on “What’s “ideal” for middle school Makers

  1. Pingback: What’s “ideal” for middle school Makers | Makerspaces | Scoop.it

  2. This is a great list of reference materials and tools. It’s not quite in line with what I had in mind, but I like your thoughts about openness and visibility. Talk about getting my brain around a big issue in a real hurry… except there’s lots here that I’m going to have to think on.

    Although I think I’ll order some of those MakeDos right away. You hit the nail on the head — a few $100s of parts like that would be far better than a bunch of elaborate Arduino controllers.

    • tieandjeans on said:

      I hope you find the Make-Do effective. One of my regrets from the heavy electronics-focus (self-selected!) on this year’s CMK was that no one build a giant cardboard castle or Gundam suit. Big, fun, visible, cheap, ephemeral.

      Those might be good entries for a alphabet of maker adjectives.

      • I found the Makedo’s effective, but a colleague of mine was kind of put off by them, and wondered why we didn’t just use office-supply brads. I have to say, I see her point, especially after watching a group of kids first use them to assemble a model of an early 19th century canal lock, and then use scissors to clip the ends of the rivets off, making them unusable in the future.

        I’ve been thinking about MakerSpace a lot lately. My school, as you know, has had me put a lot of time into developing competitions and symposia and suchlike. But I think it’s bass-ackwards, frankly. And it seems more reversed, the more that I think about it. A lot of my students don’t yet have the skill set in robotics, in mechanics, in graphic design, in systems thinking, to do well in such competitions… what we really need is more time in the lab. I need it, they need it, my colleagues need it. Without the building time, to create models and develop a sense of how to make this crank turn that wheel, or how to present this information visually and effectively or how to build a model of a canal lock, it’s impossible to know what you can do, and what you can’t, and what you can’t do yet.

        All of which requires tools, it requires materials, it requires practice, it requires group problem-solving. And it doesn’t happen in competition space; it happens when you’re engaged in genuine problem-solving of some kind, or developing toys or games that teach the mechanics you’re trying to convey.

        And that means, well-organized maker spaces and … let’s call it something useful: workshop spaces — gasp!

      • tieandjeans on said:

        I’ve reached a similar feeling with the MakeDo materials. They trade the durability and reuse potential of something like a 3/8th bolt for “friendly” plastic. Trimming the tails, which seems like an obvious thing to do in a house or canal project, does instantly transform them into consumables.

        Going forward, I’ll look for a giant tub of the hinges, and use other materials for the anchors.

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