Makerspaces: Industrial Arts 2.0

In early 2014, I was invited to write an article for The Parents League of New York  annual review, a collection of articles from member schools, authors, and parenting and education experts. This  year's curriculum topic is technology. Below is my article on my experience with makerspaces.


From classroom setting to home use, technology is an integral part of how children learn, play and communicate. And as modern technology becomes more complex, the skills that they must acquire and use are quickly changing. This presents a prominent challenge in the educational landscape: How do you integrate technology into the many aspects of education while holding true to a school’s mission? Schools must embrace future trends and prepare students to be lifelong learners who are creative and innovative, responsible for their own education, confident in using new technological tools, capable of solving complex problems, and able to communicate as global citizens. 

The Maker Movement

I attended public school in upstate New York and fondly remember the days of high school wood and metal shop classes. As a freshman, I learned the principles and techniques of mechanical drafting in order to design, cut, drill and fabricate a wooden shelf using a variety of hand and power tools. Once I refined my woodworking skills, I transitioned to metal shop, where as an upperclassman I worked for one year with my classmates to build a fuel-efficient race car powered by a lawnmower engine. I spent a lot of my time before and after school tinkering in the “Shop,” as we referred to it. This interest sparked my college path and has
taken me to where I am today. 

Over the past decade, many schools have had to trim their budgets, forcing electives and extracurricular activities to be cut. Due to limited space, storage and liability concerns, most New York City independent schools never even considered implementing shop classes. Until now, that is. Today we are experiencing what I have dubbed the “Industrial Arts Version 2.0” movement.  

In 2005, Dale Dougherty, founder and Executive Chairman of Maker Media, launched MAKE magazine. In its inception, the magazine was popular with hobbyists around the world who enjoyed tinkering. The publication included step-by-step instructions on hacker projects. Because the media has associated “hacker” with people who try to gain unauthorized access to personal accounts or websites, the term has a bad reputation. Dougherty, however, has been spreading the message that—when it means taking everyday items and modifying them to serve new purposes—hacking is good. His organization has been the catalyst for the do-it-yourself maker movement that is beginning to transform schools into innovative workplaces.

Maker Ed

The Maker Education Initiative (Maker Ed) is a relatively new initiative to create more opportunities for students to make and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and learning as a whole. This endeavor takes place in a makerspace, which typically includes modern technologies such as 3D printers and a lasercutter, as well as traditional “Shop” hand and power tools. In this space, you will often see students using the design thinking process to ideate, confront a challenge or question, then prototype (build, test, revise) a solution. 

A school’s technology director faces ever-increasing demands—keeping abreast of evolving technologies, selecting and integrating them into an educational context, and ensuring that teachers are up-to-date
on their use. Adopting the Maker Ed model may add yet another challenge, but it is one that is well worth it. By giving students greater control of their education and by increasing their motivation to explore and discover, Maker Ed will play a major role in instilling a love of learning. This will help students reach
new heights of achievement, not only in school but also throughout their lives.

During my tenure at The Browning School, we developed a technology education program that begins in the Pre-Primary year of Lower School. The dedicated K-12 technology classes revolve around five key standards: Technology Concepts & Operations, Digital Literacy, Programming, Engineering Design and Innovation.
Within these standards, activities and projects have been developed in order for the students to build confidence and refine their skill sets year to year. An important addition to this program has been a makerspace, which we designed as a place for boys to explore, innovate and problem-solve—and to showcase their work. 

The Micro City Design Project

In our makerspace, the #MicroCityProject has been one of our most successful. Form II (eighth-grade) students begin by learning how to use Tinkercad, a free web-based CAD (computer-based design) application that allows them to drag and drop geometric shapes to create 3D designs. The limited learning curve makes Tinkercad well suited for the K-12 setting; students acquire real computer-aided design skills and can apply their knowledge as they move on to professional design tools. Students practice with a variety
of assignments that assess their skills on additive and subtractive modeling. 

The Micro City design is a four-week project that uses city skylines to test the skill set on perspective modeling. Students randomly select a U.S. city and begin to research landmark buildings and different skyline views to gain their personal perspective. They are given design rules and size constraints to keep the 3D models consistent in size. Because Tinkercad is web-based, a teacher can require the designing to be done as homework, and then focus limited face-to-face class time on teaching students how to operate the 3D printer and troubleshoot when needed. Over the duration of the project, students are required to check in to make sure they are keeping on task. Once they complete the project checklist, the staging process to prepare the 3D model for printing begins. The excitement and pride the students show when displaying
their 3D-printed models is contagious: with their precise details and placement of each building or object, almost all of the models mirror the cities’ skylines exactly. 

Learning to Troubleshoot

With such high societal demand, technology companies are churning out new products at an alarming rate. Faster processors, high-definition displays, and blazing internet speeds have shortened our wait-time patience and how we expect technology to work without any hiccups. Unfortunately, technology has
become a disposable commodity, and we replace rather than fix. This has led to a new digital-native generation that struggles with troubleshooting. What does one do when things go awry? You assess the problem and troubleshoot. 

In fact, the notion that it’s “OK to fail” is celebrated in the maker movement. While it’s hard to stomach at first, the design thinking model has structures in place to help the student understand that failure is normal, and is something that happens in everyday life. The end goal is to build resiliency to improve and
move forward. In addition, providing activities that promote students’ involvement in service to the schools’ communities will further encourage the development of executive functions, establish leadership opportunities for students, and allow them to apply their abilities, skills and knowledge toward efforts beyond the classroom. 

Maker Education Initiative