Participatory Learning in a Makerspace

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Date: 2017
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Participatory Learning in a Makerspace

Immerse your students in maker supplies. Just as surrounding kids with books motivates them to read, surrounding them with tinkering tools motivates them to create. You don’t need a special room for your makerspace. All you need are maker resources, somewhere to store items, and a beginner’s knowledge of how to use your resources.


A makerspace is not a room. It’s a concept. The library is the “maker” space because it is the “space” where “makers” create. According to the Makerspace Playbook: “Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, but they all serve as a gathering point for tools, projects, mentors and expertise. A collection of tools does not define a space; rather, we define it by what it enables: making” ( The Makerspace Team 2013 ). Makerspaces are about providing tools and materials to encourage a maker mind-set focused on creativity. There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” makerspace—it is about creating a space and environment that works best for each school. Educators can create amazing makerspaces in schools whether the budget is $10,000 or $0. Meaningful participatory learning experiences can be created for students with a stack of cardboard and tape, a bin full of LEGOs, or electronic circuit kits.

Makerspaces can be anywhere in the school, and a school can have more than one. They’re fantastic in classrooms, in open common spaces, and, of course, in libraries. We feel that the library is an ideal location in schools for Page 2  |  Top of Articlemakerspaces. One of the central tenets of school libraries is to make resources and tools accessible to all students—whether they are gifted or repeating the year and whether they are from affluent families or of a lower socioeconomic status. Makerspaces provide resources and tools that students can use for both class projects and personal exploration, and libraries are an ideal location for these resources and tools. Libraries are the great equalizer of schools and are available to the entire school population regardless of their class schedules and interests. Students don’t have to depend on a specific teacher bringing them to the makerspace to participate when it’s in the library because the space is available to all classes and students. With all of this in mind, it makes perfect sense to incorporate makerspaces into school libraries, and there are many different ways to integrate this creative programming.

In the beginning, Colleen, as a librarian at Lamar Middle School, separated her makerspace supplies from the main library and tried to create a separate room for students where they could make things. Students did not utilize the space the way she thought they would, and all of the maker programming was held in the main library space anyway. What was the purpose of storing things in another room other than to lock it up?

So she moved the makerspace materials at Lamar Middle School into an easily accessible area behind the circulation desk and instituted a project shelf. What happened? Her students started tinkering every day! The materials were accessible, but more expensive items were still safely located further behind the desk. Students could easily grab maker resources from colorful tubs and start creating. The placement of the tools doesn’t matter. What matters is having accessible tools and teaching students to tinker to learn. In “Designing for Tinkerability,” Resnick and Rosenbaum describe this method of learning and how it not only engages students but also helps them create new ideas. The approach is more important than the stuff as you can see in their description: “The tinkering approach is characterized by a playful, experimental, iterative style of engagement, in which makers are continually reassessing their goals, exploring new paths, and imagining new possibilities” ( Resnick and Rosenbaum 2013 , 164). No matter where you keep items, making and tinkering are important learning techniques in the library makerspace because this approach prepares our students for the future. According to Resnick and Rosenbaum,

We live in a world that is characterized by uncertainty and rapid change. Many of the things you learn today will soon be obsolete. Success in the future will depend not on what you know, or how much you know, but on your ability to think and act creatively—on your ability to come up with innovative solutions to unexpected situations and unanticipated problems. In such a fast-changing environment, tinkering is a particularly valuable strategy. Tinkerers understand how to improvise, adapt, and iterate, so they are never stuck on old plans as new situations arise. Tinkering prioritizes creativity and agility over efficiency and optimization, a worthwhile tradeoff for a constantly changing world. (2013, 166)

Mind-Set over Physical Space

Without a dedicated room or area in the library, it is still possible to incorporate making into a school library. The space itself isn’t important. Changing Page 3  |  Top of Articlethe school’s mind-set for learning and the school’s openness to play and tinkering are what will create an effective makerspace. Many librarians have converted old book carts into mobile makerspaces that can be stored when not in use. Others have created mini-makerspaces throughout the library like centers or stations. A makerspace does not have to start with a huge commitment. At Stewart Middle Magnet School, media specialist Diana Rendina started the initial makerspace by pushing a couple of library tables together and laying out some bins of K’nex. At Lamar, the first year featured all free or low-cost makerspace activities. The important thing is just to get started creating and building a maker culture and community in the school.

Every environment is different. What will create a sustaining makerspace is different for every space. There is a delicate balance between giving help, sharing the lessons learned and inspiring others, but still leaving room for educators to figure it out own their own and making it meaningful for you as the learner.

—Ryan Jenkins, Tinkering Studio Education Developer 1

Participatory Learning and Maker Culture

When creating a makerspace and implementing challenge-based learning, it’s important to look at the big picture. Many schools have rushed to start makerspaces without spending any time building a maker community in their school. Schools often lack significant participatory learning experiences for students, so the style of learning that is experienced in makerspaces may be a bit of a culture shock. That is why building up a maker community and culture within the school first and foremost is so critical. It is also essential to connect the school makerspace with the local maker community and global maker community. This helps students see beyond the classroom walls and learn that they are part of a greater maker movement.

In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon describes the value of participatory learning experiences and how to create them. While her book is primarily focused on museums, the concepts can be stretched to all cultural institutions, including schools and libraries. Simon describes a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content” ( Simon 2010 , ii). This concept fits in perfectly with school library makerspaces, as a school makerspace is a space where students create things, whether with cardboard, LEGOs, 3D printers, or other materials. Plus, these makerspaces provide a place where students can share handmade creations and fosters an environment where students can connect with others.

In a makerspace environment, students comfortably and instantaneously snap between the role as a student to a new to role as an expert. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Neil Gershenfeld identified his students’ passion for this role reversal:

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Once students mastered a new capability, such as waterjet cutting or microcontroller programming, they had a near-evangelical interest in showing others how to use it. As students needed new skills for their projects, they would learn them from their peers and then in turn pass them on.… This process can be thought of as a “just-in-time” educational model, teaching on demand, rather than the more traditional “just -in-case” model. (2005, 7)

Gershenfeld identified this just in time educational model when he realized that students in his experimental class, How to Make (Almost) Anything, were picking up learning as needed. Instead of following a curriculum, “the learning process was driven by the demand for, rather than the supply of knowledge” ( Gershenfeld 2005 , 7).

When creating a makerspace, it is pertinent to create spaces where students can be “cultural participants, not passive consumers” ( Simon 2010 , ii). A natural phenomena will occur when students become actively engaged in their learning. Students become empowered by gaining a new skill and then instantly turn around to teach it to someone else. One of Colleen’s Ryan High School students was talking about this phenomenon and said, “It might seem awkward at first, but then you realize you can come to the library to make stuff, mess around, and ask other students to help you make something.”


To foster actively creative students in a successful maker environment, the first step is to cultivate a maker community within the school. The community is already there, you just have to uncover it. As the space starts to grow, students will come out of the woodwork with an interest in making. Students will uncover undiscovered passions and soon identify as coders, robotics enthusiasts, budding engineers, painters, knitters, and more. Sometimes, they’ll be the quirky loners; other times, they’ll have a diverse group of friends. Connect with these students quickly and find ways to gather them all together—they will be vital in creating a maker community in your school. Starting a maker programming advisory committee is a great place to start. This will give you an idea of what maker students are already doing and interested in learning. Get as many teachers as possible on board to implement a school-wide change.

Form a Maker Steering Committee

It’s essential to allow for student voice when planning a makerspace. This space is first and foremost for students, and if it is filled with activities and materials they aren’t the least bit interested in, there will be a big problem. Gather interested students and teachers to form a Maker Steering Committee. Let the students brainstorm workshop ideas, perform storage and space planning, and teach other students about making.

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Inclusive Strategies

When forming a Maker Steering Committee, make sure to include a representative sampling of the student body. Be intentional about including female students, minorities, students with low socioeconomic status, and other groups present in the school.

Meet with the student committee and share different ideas and activities with them. Print out pictures of different spaces and activities, and let them vote on their favorites by using colored dot stickers. Buy or borrow a few potential maker materials for the space, and let the student committee be the guinea pigs. Be an anthropologist and observe how they interact with different materials and activities. Which materials seem more for fun, and which materials would have a long-term educational use? All of this will be vital in helping plan out the space.

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Forming Goals

After you’ve got your steering committee, work on goal-setting for your makerspace. Make sure your goals address these issues:

  • What do you want kids to take away from makerspace activities?
  • What do you want kids to learn?
  • What skill set do students need that they don’t get in a typical classroom?
  • How can a maker community support the classroom curriculum and school community?
  • Evaluate funding options. What can you get for free, what will you have to budget?
  • What items would be best for crowdsourced funding or writing a grant?
  • What does the school already have? Are you a 1:1 technology campus where every student is given a device, or is your technology outdated? Is there a wood shop or a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) lab already? What will your space provide that’s currently lacking in the school?
Establish a Culture of Creativity

What is at the core of your school’s culture? What about the culture of your library? Do your mission and vision statements reflect the importance of creativity in your space? Work toward creating an environment of respect and rapport that encourages students to take risks and be creative. Consider rewriting your mission and vision statements to include an emphasis on creative learning, and then post them around the library. The mission statement of the Page 6  |  Top of ArticleStewart Middle Magnet Media Center is “to discover, learn, grow, create, connect, collaborate and explore our world.” This short, succinct mission statement helps to put the importance of maker culture within the library front and center. Similarly, the vision statement for Stewart is “We grow dreamers, develop innovators, strengthen critical thinkers, build strong communicators and nourish creative souls who will go out and make the world better for all of us.” When students, parents, and community members read these mission and vision statements posted throughout the space, it becomes clear that a culture of creativity is valued.

According to the Ryan High School website, “the vision for the library is to create a safe and inviting environment for students and staff where students and teachers feel comfortable to create, innovate, and collaborate.” Colleen incorporates staff into her vision for the space as a way to welcome making and curriculum connections. Her goals for the library programming are to “develop a maker culture where students understand the design thinking process.” Her goal in instructional partnerships with teachers is to “empower students to make, create, and become the innovators of the future.”

Take some time to work on your mission and vision statements. Make sure that the importance of a culture of creativity is clear and at the forefront in both.

Develop Creativity Stations

Find ways to weave creativity throughout the library by creating mini-makerspaces in the form of creativity stations. These types of stations often focus on a small, quick activity that can get creative juices flowing and encourage a culture of discovery and wonder.

The Participatory Museum ( Simon 2010 ) discusses how to create participatory, interactive museum exhibits, and these have much in common with the type of participatory maker stations being considered here. Like museum staff members, librarians are not always able to directly attend to every student that walks through the doors. Consider ways to let students self-direct their learning in these stations. Create relatively low barriers for entry into these activities—make it possible for students to get started and try them out even if they have little to no experience with the activity. Simon (2010) recommends defining clear roles, providing flexible tools, and allowing participants to engage at their own level of commitment. Make it safe for students to observe passively as well—some students will not be ready to jump in right away, but they might be okay with hanging out and watching their friends participate. Let some students lurk while others create. In a library makerspace, some students are leaders, while others just want to be a part of the community. This is okay because in a makerspace, everyone has a part. Eventually the lurkers will move from a stance of watching to a stance of making.

Just as we incorporate constraints and guidelines into large group design challenges, think about constraints that can be set within the maker station activity. Simon advises that “Participants thrive on constraints.… Constraints help scaffold creative experiences” (2010, p 22). Too many options can sometimes be overwhelming, causing students to avoid participation at all. Consider Page 7  |  Top of Articlecreative, purposeful constraints that can help spur student creativity. For example, what if a LEGO maker station had only yellow LEGOs? Or students had to design a phone holder with K’nex using fewer than 20 pieces?

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Examples of Creativity Stations for Libraries
  • Set a giant coloring poster and some markers out at a table, and invite students to color.
  • Start a collaborative poem on a long sheet of paper, and encourage every student that comes in to add a line.
  • Incorporate a giant handmade loom where students can collaboratively make an upcycled rug out of old T-shirts.
  • Create a DIY bookmark station where students can design their own bookmark to take home.
  • Create “half-baked prototypes” (Jenkins) that invite students to tinker and play with materials. You could create your own #LEGOtinkering musical exploration centers like you would find at the Tinkering Studio in San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
  • Visit science museums to see exhibits that draw patrons in and encourage them to create and linger. Because museum educators know people are only going to be visiting for a short time, they are great at developing short, participatory projects that have an easy entry point for learners of all ages.
  • Create a marble run or movable and changeable marble wall where students can tinker with physics.
  • Start a collaborative musical Makey Makey wall, and let students experiment with what is conductive and nonconductive. (See the full plan here at .)

While these may all seem like little things, adding these interactive, participatory experiences into the library will help students see that this is a place where creativity is encouraged and valued. Soon students will come in droves to create and add to the participatory culture in your library.

In Chapter 3 , we’ll discuss a variety of interactive learning spaces that you can incorporate into your library space, such as LEGO walls, whiteboard walls, and whiteboard tables. Seek out a variety of spaces and activities that encourage your students to be creative, even if it’s just doodling for a few minutes while waiting for a friend to check out a book.

Participatory Learning as a Process

We care about our process as educators and sharers too. It’s not just about getting curriculum. Content outcomes do not drive participatory learning; instead, makers drive the learning, which makes the learning much more individualized. We don’t want to control what Page 8  |  Top of Articlepeople come away with—instead we want to design for the attitudes that they can come away with. We want to provide opportunities for learners to engage with content, gain confidence, have agency, and come away with new things to explore. We want them to leave the tinkering activity wanting to do more tinkering.

—Ryan Jenkins, Tinkering Studio Education Developer

The Tinkering Studio, a research and development lab open to the public inside of the Exploratorium, started off as a professional development studio that held workshops to help educators and developers “engage in the process of being a learner.” Over the past five to six years, the space has morphed into an open lab on the floor of the museum that invites everyday patrons to participate in the research and development of ideas.

FIGURE 1.1 LEGO tinkering table (Picture by Amos Blanton). Version 1.0 of the Art Machines activity table. Art Machines is an activity developed by the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium and the LEGO Idea Studio at the LEGO Foundation.

FIGURE 1.1 LEGO tinkering table (Picture by Amos Blanton). Version 1.0 of the Art Machines activity table. Art Machines is an activity developed by the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium and the LEGO Idea Studio at the LEGO Foundation.

Ryan Jenkins, Tinkering Studio Education Developer, explains that the studio hosts many tinkering programs (including a free massive open online course [MOOC]) that entice educators to be “involved in tinkering” and help educators Page 9  |  Top of Article“experiment with their own facilitation style.” He suggests that educators should work toward getting learners involved early in the process and that educators do not have to be 100 percent sure of the outcome:

We haven’t figured everything out before we put activities out for museumgoers. Instead, we want learners to express their own ideas, get involved in their own process, and get excited about their own thoughts and ideas. This can be easier to facilitate when we put half- baked prototypes on the Tinkering floor.

Jenkins also stresses that educators should not hide their own learning process. Instead, he reiterates that we as educators should learn alongside our students and “engage learners in research and development of ideas.” The “Tinker Educators” that facilitate these experiences at the Exploratorium try the activities themselves and reflect on what they find interesting and fascinating while exploring a new process or a new activity. Then when they engage students or museum patrons in a new activity, they share their own personal fascinations as a springboard for learning.

We are always tinkering with tinkering and process.

—Ryan Jenkins, Tinkering Studio Education Developer

Designing Half-Baked Prototypes That Entice Participation

It is important to get students involved early on in the process. When designing “half-baked prototypes” this still holds true. For the Tinkering Studio, they see the importance of students developing ideas, making mistakes, and problem-solving on their own to get beyond those mistakes. If you want to try activities out before sharing them with students, Jenkins suggests “making time to try something out as a learner, then reflect on that process. Put yourself in the learner’s shoes, build a network of learners, and talk together about the experience as you work through the activity.” When you are ready to try projects with students and crafting these types of experiences, make sure that your learners have an easy starting point and can experience success early on. If you notice that you have to spend 10 minutes explaining the project before anyone gets their hands on materials, you’ll want to change something.

For a walk-up participatory experience, The Tinkering Studio focuses on providing a low threshold with wide walls that will lead to a variety of outcomes and a high ceiling (based on the Design Principles for Tools that Support Creative Thinking report by Resnick et al. 2005 ). Jenkins says that as they continue to develop half-baked prototypes, they attempt to make a wide variety of examples and then look for how participants interact with the sample projects. When thinking of activities, they ask themselves about participants: Do they try out different things? Is there a possibility to go further? Are people done quickly? If people only participate for a short amount of time, the Tinkering Studio educators realize that they have to change something—maybe materials, the prompt, or the facilitation.

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Things to Consider When Crafting Participatory Activities—Tips from the Tinkering Studio
  • Can participants have success early on? Can they still complexify over time?
  • Can participants go deeper and learn more through continued exploration?
  • Is there an element of playfulness?
  • Is there a social element?
  • Will it be inviting to a wide variety of people?
  • Is it clear what tools, materials, and parts are being used?
  • Can everyone have a unique outcome that reflects their own thinking?
  • Is there a possibility to go deep into the learning process?
Make Time for Making

Time is a valuable asset in schools. Whether it’s curriculum, standardized tests, state mandates, or otherwise, there is always something going on that demands the time of both teachers and students. This can make it difficult to pull students into the library for makerspace projects. If getting students into the makerspace during class time proves to be difficult, there are strategies for drawing students in at other times.

Host Maker Lunches

Students often don’t get to visit the library for long enough to work on projects. One solution to this problem is to host maker lunches. This gets students into the makerspace at a time when they aren’t constrained by classwork or teacher demands, and it can be a great way to bring in students who might not otherwise get to participate.

Consider themed and focused activities to start, such as LEGO challenge lunches, sewn circuit bracelets, and so on. These can help students get a better idea of what to expect and can help to form a more cohesive group, further developing the culture of creativity within your school. They’re also excellent opportunities to build up your students’ maker skills sets by turning the lunches into focused workshops, like those discussed in Chapter 4 .

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Inclusive Strategies

By hosting making activities during lunch, you will be able to accommodate students who would not be able to attend after school clubs due to transportation issues.

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Free-Range Maker Time

While workshops and guided learning are important in an educational setting, it is still pertinent to offer free-range maker time throughout the school day. Allow students access to create in the library makerspace on their own terms. If you need to limit materials because of staffing issues, offer a badging system so that students can earn the right to access materials based on your setup. Then you can check out maker tools to students who have completed a series of tests or challenges. We go into further detail on this concept in Chapter 4 . The important thing is that you give your students access to the materials in the library all throughout the school day.

Plus, we want students to feel like THEY can be anything or make anything they put their mind to. We want all of our students to feel like they can make something (or make meaning) at any point during the school day. Creating a safe environment to be creative, to make mistakes, and to learn … has always been our school library motto.

Free-range making is also important because our students are choosing to make something at school instead of passively sitting and zoning out on social media or a video game. Many times, making is highly engaging for students after they get over the hurdle of having to do something themselves with their own hands. Our students need a lot of practice with making things, which is why a balance of free-range time and guided instruction is essential. At our own schools, teachers are impressed when they see students who are normally “disengaged” and “unmotivated” in our library makerspace tinkering and making. We think the reason disengaged students like making is because it focuses on free choice. We don’t tell them they have to build something a certain way or with certain materials during free-range making; instead, there is always student voice and choice involved.

Maker activities allow kids to not just freely create, but to pour their true heart and individual expression into something that won’t be graded, judged, or otherwise rated in a way that might cause them to shut down. Allowing them to build in a failure-safe environment opens the door for students to engage in a way that makes their faces light up and experience things they might not have done on their own. Some important fact the student learned in the classroom that they weren’t comprehending before might suddenly stick once they have the opportunity to put their understanding into something tangible and made by and with their own two hands.

—Stephen Tafoya, CHAOS Makerspace Manager at Rapid City Public Library

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FIGURE 1.2 Stewart Makerspace banner.

FIGURE 1.2 Stewart Makerspace banner.

Brand Your Space and Group

Branding sometimes gets a bad rap, but it can actually go a long way in creating a consistent vocabulary and a better understanding among students and teachers. Consider ways to brand the space to make it clear what the purpose and goals of your space are.

When Diana Rendina first started her makerspace at Stewart Middle Magnet School, her teachers and students were confused about what to call it. She got passes from teachers for students to use the “library centers,” to “play with LEGOs,” to “make stuff,” and so on. There wasn’t a general understanding as to what exactly the space was and what purpose it served. She designed and printed a large vinyl sign with the words Stewart Makerspace on it and created custom library passes that included “makerspace” as one of the options for the student purpose in visiting the media center. Now her teachers and students are much more clear on what the space is and what students do there.

Consider designing a logo or hiring a graphic designer to make one (there might be a parent volunteer who’s willing to do it for free in exchange for advertising in the school newsletter). Put that logo on all makerspace signage. Create T-shirts for student makers. Anytime you create anything related to the makerspace, use the logo and consistent wording and fonts. You will start to build a clear picture of what your makerspace is about and help your students and community feel a sense of identity in the space.

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Action Steps
  • Put together a Maker Steering Committee for your school.
  • Write a mission and vision statement for your makerspace.
  • Develop at least one creativity station in your library.
  • Schedule your first maker lunch.
  • Design a logo for your makerspace or have someone design it for you.
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Gershenfeld, Neil A. 2005. Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. New York: Basic Books.

Graves, Colleen. “Starting a School Makerspace from Scratch.” Edutopia (blog). July 16, 2015. .

Jenkins, Ryan. “Collaborative R&D with Twitter, LEGO, and Digital Tools.” Sketchpad: Tinkering Studio (blog). June 16, 2016. .

The Makerspace Team. “The Makerspace Playbook: School Edition.” MakerEd. February 2013. .

Resnick, M., and Eric Rosenbaum. 2013. “Designing for Tinkerability.” In Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators, edited by Margaret Honey and David Kanter, 163–181. New York: Routledge.

Resnick, M., B. Myers, K. Nakakoji, B. Shneiderman, R. Pausch, T. Selker, and M. Eisenberg. 2005. “Design Principles for Tools to Support Creative Thinking.” Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation workshop on Creativity Support Tools.

Simon, Nina. 2010. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0.

1. Unless otherwise cited, this and all subsequent Ryan Jenkins quotes are from a telephone interview by the author on July 22, 2016.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Graves, Colleen, et al. "Participatory Learning in a Makerspace." Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace, Libraries Unlimited, 2017, pp. 1-13. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7352000006

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