Makerspace Post Week: A MakerBridge Exclusive (Day 2)


This week, we continue our special week in which we take turns sharing our definition of a makerspace.

I spend much of my time during the academic year in Michigan Makers, after-school mobile makerspace projects in local K-12 schools. I often start to describe maker culture by quoting two people. First, Dale Grover of Maker Works, who says that makerspaces are "tools plus support plus community." I might also quote Thomas (2013), who uses the triad of people, process, and place. 

Definitely community. Definitely process. Definitely shared tools. Definitely space.

Yet when I step back and really think about it, what is it that makes my Spidey sense say, in the midst of a maker activity, "Ahhh, this is it!"? That takes me a bit longer to verbalize. Then I realize that it's a feeling that comes over me, some combination of seeing and hearing, that tells me we're in the zone or what Czikszentmihalyi (2004) calls "flow." 

I know our makerspace is working when I look around and realize every kid is working on something that interests him/her and, for one brief moment, they're doing it without me. (Don't get me wrong: mini-lessons and peer instruction are critical for skill development, but after 45 minutes of threading needles, a moment when everyone is in the groove is a wonderful feeling.)

Maybe one kid is showing another how to use the stop-motion animation app she likes. Another is manning the Silhouette Cameo, showing a peer how to rearrange elements and "weld" them together. Someone else is spending some solo time with LEGO; a boy is running the foot pedal on a sewing machine while a mentor guides the fabric, and a girl is churning out handmade infinity scarves for her friends. Some kids are in the hall, competing to keep their gliders in the air. In those moments, I sense what Dewey (1900) called a student's "center of gravity," when they're settled into themselves, concentrating on what they chose to work on, and intently focused. I feel the same sense when I visit Ann Arbor's Maker Works and All Hands Active: a kind of focus even within a larger social setting.

To quote a certain judge, it's something where "I know it when I see it." And when I see it, it's a pretty magical moment.

- Kristin Fontichiaro

Photo from the Michigan Makers project; copyright 2012 Regents of the University of Michigan


Makerspace Post Week: A MakerBridge Exclusive

As regular blog readers may know, occasionally MakerBridge does what we call “Fifth Monday” posts, in which the MakerBridge bloggers all write on the same topic. This week, we are trying something a little similar but a little different--we’ll be posting once a day all week, each discussing the same question: how do you define a makerspace?


Image Credit: Milwaukee Makerspace Meeting by Pete Prodoehl on Flickr


I think that makerspaces get defined in a lot of different ways, and that people often choose one thing or another to focus on in order to determine what counts as a makerspace. For example, many people strongly associate makerspaces with 3D printing, while some think of it as a workshop-like environment full of tools.


In my personal view, the most important elements of a makerspace are people and sharing. If a person works on DIY projects alone in her garage, I would consider her a maker but I wouldn’t say the garage is a makerspace. If a space has a 3D printer and a laser cutter but people use the tools independently and don’t interact much, I wouldn’t consider that space a makerspace. Tools and projects and technology matter, but for me, a makerspace means people working together, sharing ideas, and teaching each other. It means people working together as a team to create. To me, collaboration and the learning that comes with it are huge parts of the maker movement, and are also what set the movement apart from the type of DIY projects and work that people were already doing before making took off the way it has. Of course, this is not to say no one collaborated before, but I think these type of interactions and this sharing of knowledge are central to the maker movement.


Agree or disagree? What do you think a makerspace is? Keep watching the blog this week for other opinions, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments!



A Charter for Your Makerspace

Image showing the words, "Make things for other people," a quote from Mythbusters' Adam Savage


I got to talk a lot with educators and librarians this summer about makerspaces, maker-friendly culture, and even (gasp) assessment of maker work. Now I'm back in the rhythm of the school year, with a bit more desk time during which I can reflect on all I have learned and solidified in my mind since the last school year - and maker season -- came to a close. For a long time, I've been reminding folks to "know their purpose" and how important it is to have an answer for why you're adopting/hosting/creating a makerspace.

It could be to support academics, to supplement academics, to bring in new faces, to provide a safe and social space, to develop soft skills that our frenetically-paced classrooms can no longer make time for, etc. Just saying it's about STEM or "21st-century" isn't enough ... what exactly about STEM are you developing? Because let's face it ... STEM is a pretty wide set of fields, and just think of how most the projects we hear about related to STEM are really mostly about technology and engineering.

Poor M ... the poor relation of T and E.  So what part of STEM are you going for? Collaborative skills so kids can code in pairs? Animal identification to support biology class? Geometry skills to help future mosaic makers? Memorized multiplication tables so engineers can calculate more quickly in their head?

I'm being a little bit snide here,  but the point is that if you don't have a clear understanding of what you want your makerspace to accomplish, then it's harder to get buy-in, donations, attendees, volunteers, etc. And, as a result, your makerspace is more likely to be a fad that will pass in a few years instead of a vibrant space. I have used words like "purpose" or "the spine of your makerspace" to describe this to others and have suggested that they take advantage of Mark Hatch's invitation to hack the Maker Manifesto (first chapter available free here) as a launching point for conversations.

One of the smartest thinkers I ran into on my summer travels suggested the use of the word "charter" instead, meaning a working agreement, which bears great promise as being even more direct about roles, purposes, outcomes, etc., than a manifesto (and sound slightly less Marxist to conservative ears?). Another option -- either to launch a discussion or to hack (with attribution, of course) is to have your planning team examine and discuss this video of Mythbusters' Adam Savage, talking about his Ten Commandments of Making as a starting point for your makerspace's Big Ideas:

  1. Make something
  2. Make something useful
  3. Start right now
  4. Find a project
  5. Ask for help, advice, and feedback
  6. Share
  7. Recognize that discouragement and failure is part of the project
  8. Measure carefully
  9. Make things for other people
  10. Use more cooling fluid

I see most of these play out in our most successful maker pilot site (exception: cooling fluid, but hey, the kids are ten years old). Notice how nine of them are about mindset and preparation for making, not tools or skills, which reinforces what we've found all along in our Michigan Makers work: that making without maker culture is a series of activity stations. Making with a robust culture that thinks about the items that Savage discusses above? It's a makerspace. And it's feels better, too.  


Canning Your Own Food

In recent years, I've met more and more people who can and preserve their own food. When a friend gave me a jar of peach and blueberry preserves that she canned herself, I started thinking about this even more. At this time of year, I'm always buying too much at the farmers market and then scrambling to find things to do with it all. What, exactly, does it take to get into canning your own food? Is it the kind of project that could be undertaken in a library, school, or makerspace? 

I've done some preliminary investigating, and here's what I've found out. 

Basic supplies

1. A source of information about what on earth you're doing. If you can find an expert, that sounds desirable. A New York Times article also recommended the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which has the support of the USDA, the University of Georgia, and Alabama A&M (among others). The same article also recommends Pick Your Own as a site that translates the NCHFP page into plainer English. My own searching also turned up some straightforward-sounding instructions from Better Homes and Gardens.

2. Mason jars with lids (images)

3. Boiling water canner or pressure canner (definitely a pressure canner if you're canning foods that aren't very acidic)

4. A jar lifter (images)

5. A spatula

6. Lots of boiling water for sterilizing jars

7. Better Homes and Gardens also suggests a jar funnel and a magnetic lid wand (both of which sound like they would simplify the process immensely).

8. Food to can!

What to do with those supplies

Follow directions from experts! Apparently the health and safety standards for canning food have changed a lot in relatively recent years, so you probably want to do some reading before you dig out your grandma's old recipes. You can get food poisoning if you don't do things properly. That being said, here are some sets of directions I found:

1. National Center for Home Food Preservation, "Using Boiling Water Canners" and "Using Pressure Canners."

2. Better Homes and Gardens, "General Canning Steps."

3. Pick Your Own, "Directions for Home Water Bath Canning" and "Home Pressure Canning Foods."

Are libraries, museums, etc. already teaching this?

Some of them are! You'd definitely need a kitchen setup to be able to pull this off, but once you've got that, the canning equipment doesn't appear to be terribly expensive. Some libraries I turned up who are already into canning include:

1. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA: Family Cooking Class: Homemade Preserves. (I love how it sounds like they're tying this into WWI history!)

2. Historic Waco Foundation in Waco, TX: Victorian Harvest Time.

3. Campbell Library in Campbell, CA: DIY: Preserving Fruits and Vegetables


Do we have any readers who can their own food? I'd be curious to hear more in the way of dos and don'ts, and tasty recipes!


#MakeHealth Brings Together Health, Tech, and Design

Earlier this month, we took you inside the We Make Health Fest, one of the first events to bring together a maker festival with a health fair. After attending on August 16th, I’m happy to report that the Fest was a definite success. There was plenty to do, from a speaker schedule packed with fascinating talks throughout the entire day to an exhibitors area featuring a wide range of projects, products, and ideas.



Some highlights for me personally were a superhero comic book about a boy with diabetes (I am a big fan of comics), Lia Min’s presentation of her comic about autism (comics again!), a shirt that helps detect early warning signs of heart attacks called MyoAlert, and a woman who helps dementia patients with her photorealistic mosaics.


Trevor Torres and Jake Dwyer show off their comic about a boy with diabetes


One of the things I took away from the event was the amazing amount of enthusiasm and energy I saw. I spoke with one attendee who was a technologist and had come to the event with no idea what participatory healthcare or patient-centered design was. After hearing the keynote, things clicked for him and he was instantly excited about all the possibilities he saw at the intersection of the maker movement and the field of healthcare, already considering how he could apply this new knowledge to his mother’s health situation. Another woman was attending the festival with an idea in mind she had already planned out, hoping to find designers she could collaborate with to make it a reality. The organizers’ goal of bringing together healthcare workers, technologists, and designers played itself out in the best possible way, generating excitement, unique ideas, and new connections throughout the day.


e-NABLE is an organization that creates 3D printed prosthetic hands for those in need

Another really positive takeaway for me was the diversity I noticed both among the people and the projects. Initially, I was concerned; the trailer for the documentary Maker, which was being screened at the event, focuses predominantly on white men, and I knew both of the keynote speakers were men. Recognizing diversity in the maker movement is an issue we’ve spoken about previously on MakerBridge. I came away from the event feeling reassured, however. In fact, the We Make Health Fest seemed more diverse to me in terms of attendees, speakers, and exhibitors than many maker faires I’ve been to. I was also pleased to see projects all along the technological complexity spectrum. It’s important to understand that making moves beyond just circuits and 3D printing, and I felt the We Make Health Fest did a good job recognizing that idea.



Creating photo-realistic mosaics with Starry Night Mosaics


Be sure to check out our Flickr album and the Make Health Fest Flickr group for more photos of the event! Did you attend? What was your favorite part? Tweet at us or let us know in the comments!



Review: LittleBits Space Kit

What am I reviewing?

littleBits Space Kit
Price: $189

Disclosure: littleBits sent me a Space Kit for free so that I could review it.

littleBits Space Kit with pen, for scale  
(The pen is for scale)


This is an excellent choice if you want an accessible way to:

- ease kids into creating circuits without having to do any programming.
- inspire kids (or anyone else) to really dig into all the technology that goes into space exploration and using satellites to conduct experiments.

The box says ages 14+. Depending on the child, someone as young as 10 could enjoy the simpler projects. The younger the child, the more they would need assistance and scaffolding, though.

What's included in the Space Kit

Note: A "bit" is a self-contained module that connects to other littleBits modules.

littleBits Space Kit contents

- 2 power bits
- 2 nine-volt batteries with cords to connect to the power bits
- 2 connecting-wire bits
- 1 DC motor
- 1 numerical display
- 1 LED
- 1 infrared LED
- 1 speaker
- 1 aux input cable
- 1 microphone
- 1 remote-trigger
- 1 light sensor
- 2 small, plastic screwdrivers (for adjusting sensitivity on the light sensor)
- 1 booklet full of space-related project ideas, instructions, and interesting information about real-world applications

What's not included

Most projects in the booklet require some sort of craft supply or normal household object. Projects I tried out called for things like an mp3 player, a glue gun, a tv remote, a small amount of milk, disposable dishware, tin foil, craft sticks, various sizes of boxes, and lots of cardboard and tape. If you are already well-stocked in recyclables and craft supplies, you’ll probably be fine. You’ll definitely want to read through the materials requirements for each project before you begin, though!

Because I don’t usually buy disposable dishware or craft sticks, I sometimes found myself scrambling to find alternative materials. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (here’s to problem solving and creative thinking!) but you may want to factor that into any considerations of how long a project will take you and how easy/difficult it will be to complete.

What was my experience with it?

I’m entirely new to LittleBits, so the very first thing I noticed about my littleBits Space Kit was the design. The design on everything in this kit is amazing. The booklet of instructions is attractive, well-illustrated, and informative in addition to containing step-by-step instructions for each of the suggested projects. Even the box the kit comes in feels like a luxury item.

The good design is most apparent on the bits themselves, though. Each bit is labelled as to what it does: “remote trigger,” “DC motor,” etc. That’s great for when you’re following directions for a specific project.

When you’re just messing around with the bits, though, what’s even better is that 1) you don’t have to program anything, ever, and 2) the bits are color coded. Power modules are blue, input modules are pink, output modules are green, and wires are orange. You can easily swap out modules as long as they’re the same color--which means that it is incredibly easy to move from following the directions on a project to modifying the project to do anything else that suits your fancy.

When you’re putting the littleBits together, they snap very satisfyingly into place. Because of the magnets in each bit, you literally cannot put them together incorrectly. I tested the kit out with a friend who has almost no circuit-building experience (we played with Snap Circuits together one time a few years back, and that’s it), and she especially loved that feature. It kept her from worrying about shorting anything out, and let her experiment freely with the pieces. She assembled and tested out her first circuit well under two minutes, and easily kept up with me as we played with the kit, despite the fact that I’ve been playing with circuits in the form of my Arduino for more than a year now.

photo of a circuit that interacts with my tv's remote control
lighting up an LED when any button is pressed on the tv remote


We worked our way through most of the simpler projects in the booklet, doing things like lighting up an LED when we pressed a button on a tv remote, and wirelessly transmitting sound from my iPod to the speaker that came in the kit. During that process, the booklet took us from explaining, “What is energy?” up to projects with lessons like, “Learn the science behind satellites and make your own parabolic reflector.” These projects (and the information in the booklet) inspired all kinds of further questions in my friend and me. For that reason, I think that this kit would be a wonderful lead-in to an independent research project.

The wireless transmission project is an example of why there are two power bits in the Space Kit: We had one circuit to do the transmitting, and a second to do the receiving. That same project is also an example of a time when some experimentation was necessary beyond the directions in the booklet, since it turned out that this project works *much* better in a dark room--which I couldn’t find anywhere in the directions.

Eventually we worked our way up to the more involved projects at the end of the booklet. These projects require more supplies, and also take much longer to complete. The big project that we focused on was making our own Mars Rover.

Making the Mars Rover

photo of our Mars Rover
Our finished product. Click through for video of the rover in action!


What I loved about this project:

- Building the circuit was very easy.  

- As always with littleBits, there was no programming required.  

- At the end, we really did have a little rover that we controlled with a tv remote, and that displayed what it was picking up from its light sensor as it went.

- The idea that NASA needs line of sight communication with Mars in order to control their rovers was driven home by the way our rover only moved if you hit the remote sensor with the IR from the rv remote.  

Setbacks we encountered as we worked on this project:

- I had made the mistake of taking out the recycling the day before we began this project, which greatly limited our choices of supplies.

- We had trouble figuring out things like what size box to use for the rover’s body. The box we ended up with made our lives difficult by being too small to easily arrange all the necessary parts inside.

- The booklet’s directions for an axle holder for the center wheel didn’t work for us at all.  We ended up making our own system to hold that wheel in place, using another straw and a hole in the outside of the box.

- We tried using a popsicle stick instead of a craft stick to attach to the motor and power the Rover. We never did manage to keep the popsicle stick attached to the motor for more than a few seconds of driving at a time, although judicious use of masking tape improved things considerably.

- We made some miscalculations when assembling our center wheel, and as a result our Rover went in circles.

- We had to add counterweights to the back of our Rover to keep it from tipping over due to how we had to arrange the motor, the battery, and the light sensor/display part of the Rover in order to make everything fit.

photo of our rover's broken axle
the axle kept breaking


Now, these setbacks were sometimes frustrating.  I want to put that out there, because it’s worth keeping in mind, especially if you’re working with someone who is easily put off by setbacks.  That being said, we’re supposed to be makers, are we not?  And that’s all about realizing that something is a problem, and then trying out ways to fix that problem.  Thus, you can look at the limitations of the booklet as either a design flaw, or a feature. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think!  

Summing Up

The littleBits Space Kit is as foolproof an entree to circuit building as I can imagine. I can see this kit being a big hit with kids or adults who are just getting into circuit building, or who have any interest in space. (And really, who isn’t at least a little interested in space?)

The very minimum skills a child would need in order to use this kit are:

- Ability to manipulate relatively small pieces (without putting them in their mouth).
- Understanding that everything you make with the kit needs a power source.
- Understanding (or patience to learn) that any input will affect the outputs after it.

That said, I think a kid would get a lot more out of this, and need a lot less scaffolding and assistance, if they also had:

- Some very basic level of understanding of electricity.
- Basic knowledge about our solar system, that the moon orbits the earth, etc.

When I try to imagine where a kit like this would have been great in my own education, here’s what I come up with:

- I would have loved assembling some of the very simplest projects when I was 10 or so and was first introduced to electricity in science class--but I would have needed an adult or an older kid on hand to help and to explain things.

- I would have been able to assemble the circuits easily and focus my attention instead on the takeaway lessons if this had been included in, say, my 9th-grade earth science class. (The project about studying the atmosphere from a satellite springs to mind as one that would have fit into that class well.) This actually lines up well with the suggested minimum age of 14 that’s printed on the box.

- I actually had a lot of fun with it now, as an adult. It led me to asking some questions about satellites that I hadn’t thought to ask before.

- I’m excited to take this into work to use as part of the Tech Petting Zoo that our Emerging Technologies Librarian puts on; I fully expect this kit to be a big hit with the college students and occasional adult who attend those.

As long as you can keep track of the pieces and have enough craft supplies at hand, the kit should do well in a makerspace, classroom, or library. If you have books or other resources about energy, satellites, NASA, the solar system, etc., display those near this kit. I bet you’ll get a big boost to their use!


PACE-ing yourself when planning maker learning

As maker learning moves from informal settings like makerspaces and libraries and into K-12 classrooms, I've found it useful to spend some time thinking about how to effectively frame that learning in the context of school. In the Michigan Makers work that we do, our primary goal is culture over tools or completed projects. If we can get the culture right, then the rest seems to flow more effectively. 

And that means that when we approach maker learning, we are taking a participant-centered approach over a manager-centered approach. If we merely bring maker tools into the classroom, but tell students the steps and procedures required to "successfully" complete the project, then we aren't creating makers. We're creating directions-followers, folks who can paint-by-number but not grow as innovativ thinkers and creators.

Now sure, there are some mini-lessons that we might impose on students in order to give them a functional toolkit with which to openly explore later. For example, having every child practice with the same soldering 101 project gives them a chance to learn from each other and for the teacher to maxmize safety and opportunities for practice. Similarly, the inital Blinking LED Arduino exercise helps introduce students to the Arduino's physical and computing environments. But if this is where maker learning ends, we're doing our students a major disservice and betraying the makerspace heritage from which the maker movement emerged.

Too many adult-prescribed activities also means students learn that success comes from doing it the teacher's way, not from following their own thinking paths. This actually minimizes experimentation and risk-taking, two key elements necessary if we say we are committed to maker learning leading to innovation in society and the workplace, as President Obama said in his proclamation at the first White House Maker Faire:

Our Nation is home to a long line of innovators who have fueled our economy and transformed our world. Through the generations, American inventors have lit our homes, propelled humanity into the skies, and helped people across the planet connect at the click of a button. American manufacturers have never stopped chasing the next big breakthrough. As a country, we respond to challenge with discovery, determined to meet our great tests while seeking out new frontiers ...

I am committed to helping Americans of all ages bring their ideas to life ..

Today, let us continue on the path of discovery, experimentation, and innovation that has been the hallmark not only of human progress, but also of our Nation's progress.  Together, let us unleash the imagination of our people, affirm that we are a Nation of makers, and ensure that the next great technological revolution happens right here in America (emphasis added).

In other words, the pathway to future success means making room for novel ideas and iteration. So we need to have maker mindset in our schools, not merely skills and tools.

In an effort to develop a shorthand with educators (and to give my own middle-aged memory a mnemonic), I ask educators to PACE themselves when planning maker learning:

P - Prioritize process 

A - Promote student agency 

C - Provide choice

E - Value experimentation 


Process Over Product

So much of our schools' accountability movement has focused on product: what's on the walls at parent-teacher conferences? What are the students' test scores? What's their final grade? Maker learning focuses instead on process: on slowing down, looking around at what others are doing, chatting about options, and creating and later discarding prototypes. We encourage students to be productive, yes, but we recognize that productivity works at a different rate for different students. Instead of students rushing to complete something that works right away so they get that guaranteed A, we want them to try, iterate, change, update, mock up, and revise their work, with each revision adding a layer of understanding or insight. This may mean that we do not grade maker products in school. Perhaps instead we grade maker journals, Instagram reflection timelines, or artist statements. Holding students accountable for their process-driven experiences means no more, "Well, I just liked it that way." Grading products leads to less-risky products. 



Makers are active participants in makerspaces. While they may go through some training sessions to qualify to use certain tools in a makerspace or to learn basic skills, the makerspace imposes very few rules on how they employ those tools and skills. Open-endedness and feeling as if one is, to use an overworked cliche, in the driver's seat on one's journey are essential. We want to strengthen students' executive function: their ability to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-navigate. As John Dewey said in his essay "The School and Social Progress" in School and Society

I may have exaggerated somewhat in order to make plain the typical points of the old education:  its passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method.  It may be summed up by stating that the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the text-book, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself.

On that basis there is not much to be said about the life of the child.  A good deal might be said about the studying of the child, but the school is not the place where the child lives.

Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized.  

If we take an example from an ideal home, where the parent is intelligent enough to recognize what is best for the child, and is able to supply what is needed, we find the child learning  through the social converse and constitution of  the family. There are certain points of interest and value to him in the conversation carried on: statements are made, inquiries arise, topics are discussed, and the child continually learns. He states his experiences, his misconceptions are corrected ...

The ideal home would naturally have a workshop where the child could work out his constructive instincts. It would have a miniature laboratory in which his inquiries could be directed. The life of the child would extend out of doors to the garden, surrounding fields, and forests. He would have his excursions, his walks and talks, in which the larger world out of doors would open to him.

Now, if we organize and generalize all of this, we have the ideal school. There is no mystery about it, no wonderful discovery of pedagogy or educational theory. It is simply a question of doing systematically and in a large, intelligent, and competent way ... The child must be brought into contact with more grown people and with more children in order that there may be the freest and richest social life. Moreover, the occupations and relationships of the home environment are not specially selected for the growth of the child; the main object is something else, and what the child can get out of them is incidental. Hence the need of a school (1900, pp. 51-53).

Dewey's century-old visioning of the dawning of a new student-centered education may still feel like an unachieved goal, but his metaphor for the "center of gravity" couldn't be more spot-on. Dewey's "center of gravity" should be evident in our students when they are making. For some schools, this concept is so contrary to the day to day realities of school (and let's be honest: reduced funding, fewer staff members, higher expectations, more diverse students, and more students overall are very real challenges we cannot brush off or ignore) that maker learning is better suited in a standalone setting: a separate course, an enrichment activity, or a lunchtime club. In that way, it can fully flourish even if the rest of school cannot take a student-centered approach.



If agency is the sense of oneself in the world, then choice is the ability to determine projects, project partners, desired media, and more. In maker learning, we want students to feel they have options and choices, not that they must complete a project in the same media, style, or timeline that we do. This is important for all students. Students from higher socioeconomic classes often have velvet constraints -- their school trajectory often pre-plans what courses they will take in order to get into college (which is always an assumed stage, not an optional one). Many suburban, middle-class kids are, in a parent's well-intentioned desire to expose them to many activities, shuttled from activity to activity, often with little choice in how soccer practice unfolds or which piano music they will learn. Students from lower socioeconomic communities sometimes face a paucity of choices. Their schooling, in another well-meaning gesture, may be narrowly focused on intensive drill and practice on limited subjects (primarly those measured by standardized tests). Lack of funding can mean lack of exposure to options for creative expression at home, in school course catalogs, and in after-school enrichment activities. These are broad generalizations, but the bottom line is that choices -- digital or physical LEGO? Engineering a pattern for a stuffed animal or one for a wooden treasure box? Graphic design or HTML? -- are a key factor in student satisfaction and engagement. Again, the realities of the school day may or may not be conducive to choice in materials or activities, so consider out-of-school-hours options instead if necessary.



If maker learning claims to promote innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, then we need to find or save time (see earlier notes about the very real constraints of school!) for experimentation, prototyping, trial-and-error, and revision. James Dyson famously made over 5000 prototypes before mastering the world's first bag-free vacuum. Thomas Edison reportedly said, "I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work." (Imagine if we evaluted Edison solely from his dyslexia-challenged educational output.) Our educator mindsets struggle to grapple with how to teach revision in writing, yet revision is natural in making. We have a vision in our mind's eye that we want to carry out, and we're willing, much of the time anyway, to keep trying until we get closer to the outcome. Our teacher mindsets must adjust for the amount of time this takes, the amount of expertise we need in order to guide students into new paths, and the shift in mindset for our anxious, high-achieving academics in the classroom.


As I've said a few times in this post, some of what I'm discussing here seems to fly in the face of everything teachers are being asked to do each day. So if you have to make the choice between jamming some thin lessons into a classroom or building a new course, club, or lunch group that can do the deep dive, I vote for the depth. What about you?

- Kristin Fontichiaro

This entry was cross-posted to the Active Learning blog


Inside the We Make Health Fest


For this week’s post, I spoke with Joyce Lee and Patricia Anderson, two of the organizers of the We Make Health Fest coming up on August 16th. Other organizers include Matt Kenyon, Emily Hirschfeld, Nancy Benovich Gilby, Scott Olson, Emily Puckett Rodgers, and Sean Doolan. This unique event brings together the maker movement and the world of health care, exploring ideas such as participatory medicine and patient-centered design. Read on for an exclusive look inside the event and to learn more about how these two fields intersect!



How did this idea get started? What made you want to put together an event combining the maker movement and health? Where is the overlap between the two?



Barbara Stripling, the ALA President, came to Hatcher Library to talk in April, and one of the things she talked about was the White House doing their first Maker Faire. She said anyone who thinks they have information to contribute, come talk to me afterwards. I talked to her about all the exciting things going on with 3D printing and health care, and that I really wanted them to include health in the White House Maker Faire. She said, “That’s great, you have too many ideas, pick three and email me.”


I went off and brainstormed exciting maker-y types of things going on with health, and my list just kept getting longer and longer instead of shorter and shorter. I pulled in Kate Saylor, who works with health fairs, and we were talking about it, and I said, “I don’t think there’s been a health maker faire anywhere.” So Kate and I then both started looking; neither one of us could find one. We turned and looked at each other and said, “Oh, we have to make this happen.” That was two days after Barbara Stripling’s talk. Within a week after that, we had 70-90 people around campus collaborating and brainstorming.



Patricia is part of this core group of people that received a Global Challenges Grant from the Provost to think about integrating technology and health. The maker movement is such a great paradigm for thinking about participatory medicine. I just don’t think that we as a health care system, or that we as paternalistic health care providers, really provide a space or encourage this notion of patients at the core of designing anything--whether it’s how your hospital should run, how your clinic should run, how you should be designing educational materials. A lot of times we talk with the patient outside of the room, and we think we know what they need, but we don’t engage them as partners in co-design of things that promote health. So, I think this whole notion that the technology is getting easier and cheaper, people can make really simple prototypes that aren’t that hard to do, and they can be very effective--possibly more effective than what you get from some big production company that charges a lot of money.



You mentioned participatory medicine. Can you talk more about what that is and why it’s important?



(talking about the book Reverse Innovation by Vinjay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble) This is the idea of sustainable innovation coming from the “little people” in the third world countries, and being more sustainable than the same solution being addressed in first world countries--that the “have-nots” have the actual sustainable inventions. Their primo example is that Gatorade came from India as a diarrhea cure.




It’s just trying to bring up this notion of patients as partners, not as objects, not as expendable people we can leave out of the room, but as essential people we need to create health, even in hierarchical systems of care. My son and I, we did this YouTube video on food allergies. If you go to, my little boy has this whole website of videos we made together focused on teaching his caregivers how to take care of his food allergies. I just did it sort of out of desperation, and it was funny because I sent it to some friends who are interested in health or technology, and it got a lot more response than I expected. This is sort of a personal story that’s a metaphor for this much larger idea, which is--hey, anyone can and should design, how do we get people to use technology to be able to do this. In the University [of Michigan] community, it’s also that we should be thinking about this as staff, as faculty. We think we can’t create but in fact there are people on campus who can help us create, but we haven’t found those people. So, how do you create these networks, these collaborations?


I’m not saying that health care providers are like, “Oh great, you’re making your health, so I don’t have to worry about that!” That’s not the point--the point is thoughts like, “Oh, I should include you in the design for our new health system” or, “I should pay you for your time” instead of saying, “Come work for me for free.” I’m not saying the health care system should be shirking its responsibility for developing things.



So, you’re saying the health care system should be inclusionary, but not that they should be shifting responsibility.






Since Health Design By Us is a very big part of this event, can you tell me more about what that is?



We do a lot of activities focused on patient-centered design. We’ve got patient-centered workshops focused on identifying problems with communication in clinical care. We did a “Design My Diabetes” technology workshop, where we had a group of patients or caregivers as the clients and then we had a group of designers, academics, business people trying to come up with creative solutions for managing diabetes. We created a website called Health Design Cupid which was this idea of designers signing up and finding health partners to collaborate in creating.


Health Design Cupid Logo


There’s a whole bunch of stuff we’ve been working on. I would say this event is probably the biggest outreach that we’ve done so far, and I think it’s been very effective for reaching out. There are so many people we’ve met that we never would have met if we hadn’t been holding this event. One big goal of this is to get everyone together, to understand that there is a larger community, and to use this as a starting point to think about what the next steps are.



It’s about boundary-span. Get people out of their little bubbles, out of their little corners, and help them discover each other.



Maker festivals and makerspaces usually reflect the community they’re based in. What do you think makes Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan a good location for this event?



I think it’s amazing what a small town we live in, and how many people have come out of the woodwork to support this event. I think there’s just a really interesting kind of density of people in town who are creating and making, which I think is really unique given the small size of this town.



The maker passion score.



Yes! At UM, there’s a tendency to have our five glossy speakers, they’re all going to speak--they’re all dressed nicely, we choose them--and then everyone goes home, and we had a great successful event. But we think that it’s really cool that this is a participatory event. Please join us, please invite yourself to speak. I think that’s kind of a different model than I’m used to working with, where we have our preordained people that we think are important and we invite them. I just really love this notion of participatory design, and I think UM has a lot of talented, interesting people, but this bottom-up approach is a really novel approach that I think needs to be incorporated more in the organization that we work in.



For me, part of it was that we started out brainstorming this long list of technologies and innovations that seemed to be at the intersection of the maker movement and participatory health care. For each of those, I went and started looking who on campus was working in that space. Most of the time, I found people on campus, but I’m guessing most of them don’t know about each other. I also looked at the local maker sources and Josh Walker’s master list, and I thought wow, if we took this big long list of the maker/hacker/code-a-thon community in the southeast Michigan area, and this list of people at the university working in DIY, robotics, participatory healthcare, personal genomics, 3D printing, and so on--magic could happen.



What can someone expect to do and see when visiting We Make Health Fest? What are some of the highlights of the event?



There will be booths and there will be the speaker room. At the booths, we’re strongly encouraging everyone to have make and takes--to have something you can come and do interactively with them. Some of them will be doing demos, and some of them will be doing hands-on things, some of them will be giving out instructions you can go home with--things like that. Most of the people in the booths are not going to be there the entire day; who is in the booths is going to ebb and flow throughout the entire day. We have people talking about autism, we have people with booths on 3D printing, on diabetes, urban foraging, sustainable gardening, DIY this and that. As for the speaker list, every five minutes is filled the entire day, from 10:30 to 4pm. We’re showing a movie in the middle of the day; this will be the first screening in the area of Maker, the movie.




What is the number one thing you want people to know about the Make Health Fest?



I like what Andrew Maynard says in his video: hack your world, make it safer. Everybody knows somebody who has some sort of health challenge: a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, a coworker. When you get involved and take control of that and collaborate to identify your problems and find solutions, you help shape the result. For me personally, that went from being sick for 20 years, from two grocery bags of prescription meds to none and a gym membership. I don’t know that that can happen for everybody, but if nothing else, I feel more in control of what’s happening. I don’t feel like it’s being done to me; I feel like I’m part of it.


You can hack your life and make it better, and you can do it with the help of other people.


The App Factory: An Experiment in Game Creation

Today's guest post is written by Adrienne Matteson, a librarian at White River Elementary School in Indiana. Read on for her discussion of the App Factory, a experimental club she created to explore game design and creation with elementary school students using Gamestar Mechanic. 


I first encountered Gamestar Mechanic as a University of Michigan School of Information graduate student. It was woven into the “Video Games and Learning” course, taught by Barry Fishman. We were exploring the effects of teaching students how to create video games - which is exactly what Gamestar Mechanic is created to do. As described on the Gamestar Mechanic website, it is “a game and community that teaches kids how to design their own games.” Kids play through a series of quests that break down game design into various elements (such as space, rules, and goals) and challenges players to analyze how elements work together, and to fix “broken” games. After completing the first challenge, kids can then use what they’ve learned, and tools they’ve earned along the way, to create games of their own and publish them to the Gamestar Mechanic Game Alley. In our class, we were asked to play through some of the first (free) quest. I played it nonstop until I’d completed the quest - and I couldn’t wait to try it with my future students.

Image Credit: Gamestar Mechanic Learning Guide

The App Factory is Born

Fast forward three years. There are a LOT of video game aficionados in my elementary school. They pour over the Minecraft handbooks at lunch, and have their noses buried in a Nintendo DS before they even get on the bus at the end of the day. This past school year, I finally had the perfect opportunity to experiment with Gamestar Mechanic, and harness all of that video game love (which I share) by creating a before school club. The results were both predictable and amazing. We called it The App Factory. 

The main goal of The App Factory was to create an online “gallery” of games to share with the rest of the school. The plan was to use Scratch ( to dabble in the coding, and Gamestar Mechanic ( to learn about how game elements work together. I limited the club to 3rd,  4th, and 5th graders, and to the number of computers in our lab - 30. I ended up with 22 creative, boisterous, hilarious, gamers. 


Sidebar - Scratch

If you haven’t used Scratch before: Scratch is a computer programming language developed by MIT specifically to teach kids how to write computer code. It’s also an online community in which members can share their creations, get feedback, and experiment in remixing each others’ programs. 

The App Factory met twelve times - every Wednesday morning before school from mid-February to the last week of school. I quickly realized that there wasn’t enough time to learn both Scratch and Gamestar Mechanic, so we focused on Gamestar Mechanic, and let those who were drawn to Scratch do their own thing. 

Each week, we began with a group discussion. Discussion questions focused on thinking critically about games and why we like them: 

  • What makes a bad game bad? 
  • How would you fix a game you think is bad? 
  • What makes a game a game
  • What kind of games do you like, and why? 
  • What does it mean when you say a game is “fun”? 


The discussions began as a way to get everyone focused for the morning, but they ended up being a really valuable piece of the whole experience. Every week they surprised me with how insightful and articulate they could be. As a group, we came to a few key conclusions:

  • A good game has to be just hard enough - games that are too easy are just as bad as games that are too difficult. 
  • A game needs to be “winnable” - if there is no goal, there is no point. 
  • “Fun” means something a little different to everyone.
  • Sometimes, playing a game is really hard work.


Over the course of twelve weeks, everyone played through the first quest at their own speed. Some kids worked on it at home, and I would log in on a Sunday night to find a half dozen new games published. Our little club became a community. Experts emerged for both Gamestar Mechanic and Scratch.  They cheered each other on through the levels that were particularly difficult. When they realized that Gamestar Mechanic is set up for members to rate and review published games, they jumped on board, and began sharing their games asking each other for feedback. 

Image Credit: Gamer by Amanda Tipton


By the end of the school year, everyone had published at least one game, one student has over 12 published games! For me, the big win came in our final discussion. Everyone agreed that they think about games differently now when they are playing at home. And they couldn’t wait to continue playing and making games over the summer. At my last count, they’ve published a dozen more games since the summer break began! 


What I learned from the App Factory

  • I definitely plan to host this club again, it was a huge hit. But I learned a lot from this first group:
  • Gamestar Mechanic is listed for 4th grade and up - for a reason. My 3rd graders, while enthusiastic, didn’t quite have the focus to read through the important text that is a part of the Gamestar Mechanic program. And they struggled with some of the trouble-shooting and systems thinking that goes into creating a game. 
  • Video games naturally foster collaboration. It seems like games would be isolating, because the program is essentially an individual challenge. But my students were constantly moving around the room, working together, asking for help and giving it. I had a few students who worked better on their own, but most had an intrinsic need to share the experience. 
  • Creativity inspires creativity. My students used each others’ games, and those they found in Game Alley as inspiration to make their own. Many times they created games similar to one in the Gamestar Mechanic quest, with their own variations. 
  • The club gave some unexpected kids a chance to really shine. We had some surprising leaders emerge over the course of the club.
  • Finally, I learned that beating a tough game level in front of a group of students will win you a lot of brownie points. I highly recommend it! 


Links and Examples of Student Work:

White River App Factory Gallery


Scratch Projects:

Car Car Car - by smileyfacesarah

Draw Something! -- by indyballer and smileyfacesarah

My Class - by rainboluvr




Gamestar Mechanic Teachers









LEGO To Release Female Scientist Minifigs Next Month

You've read -- here and elsewhere -- about how some influential folks in maker publications have focused much of their attention on the work of males, particularly white males. And this has been a big concern for us here at MakerBridge, because we think that making is for everyone and that those of us who work with makers have both a duty and an opportunity to welcome everyone. I tend to phrase it as, "If a family comes to my makerspace, I want every member to feel like they belong."

You may have read the gone-viral letter from an elementary girl to the LEGO corporation. She told the corporation of her visit to the LEGO aisle, where all the girl-oriented toys were pink, and the ones for boys, blue. Worse, she picked up on a theme of what male and female LEGO characters did in the kits pitched at both genders, writing:

[A]ll the girls did was sit at home, got to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs, but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs.

If you look at the Toys R Us LEGO Friends page, you can see that she's pretty much correct. (Who says seven year-olds can't synthesize?) The pink and purple Friends series generally does feature domestic scenes, the beach, and shopping. (An exception is a theatre kit.) 

Thankfully, someone at LEGO was listening. Mental Floss ran a story last month that LEGO is going to be rolling out three -- (is that three, THREE!, or THREE? you decide) -- minifigs who are female scientists. LEGO girls go to work at last, as a chemist, an astronomer, and as a paleontologist (complete with really cool dino skeleton). The kits should be available in August.

LEGO To Release Female Scientist Figurines | Mental Floss via kwout


Some questions for you:

  • How real/important/relevant is this issue for you and the young girls in your community?
  • What female minifig would you like to see next?
  • What setting for a female minifig would you like to see LEGO develop?
  • Do you find it interesting that all three of these minifigs have brown hair?


- Kristin Fontichiaro

Cross-posted to the Active Learning blog