Re-thinking Design Tech: Making MakerSpaces

I recently had the privilege of attending and presenting at the ECIS Tech Conference at Bavarian International School in Munich Germany.

My workshop was centred around Technology in the Early Years, and highlighted key apps and devices teachers could use to support a play-based environment. One of the greatest research-based platforms I found is the TEC Center. Below is my Google Presentation which draws on some theories from Chip Donohue’s most recent book Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years:

Sonya TerBorg also created a visual notes drawing on the key take-aways from my presentation (Photo & Image used with @terSonya’s permission):


Three key presentations and workshops inspired me to explore the possibility of setting up maker spaces at our school to further promote creativity and the design process in the PYP.

3D for a Cause: Presentation by Sarah Woods

This thought-provoking workshop focused on ways to better integrate using the Design Cycle with students. Sarah focused on the International Baccalaureate (IBO) Middle Years Program (MYP) Design Cycle as an example but it could be modified for a variety of age groups and curriculum frameworks.

Sarah began by discussing how she gets her students excited about design, by presenting them with a problem first. Since I work at a PYP (Primary Years Program) school, this mirrored my philosophy of inquiry-based teaching, by beginning with the ‘why’ first. She described how she engages students by having them brainstorm 100 problems in 7 minutes. She emphasised that these could be vast or small and they need to be problems with no solutions yet. Allowing students the freedom to let their imagination run wild with the various problems they may encounter day-to-day addresses a variety of Learner Profile characteristics as well as promoting communication and group work skills. Once students have their page of problems she has them narrow down their selection to be their focus for the next project. Sarah emphasises that students should start with paper and have their idea mapped out clearly before they begin to explore the software. Nearly half of the design cycle is ‘Investigating’ and ‘Planning’ so she also explains to students that they will be making several designs, and perfection is not the goal. 1

The tools she focused on in this workshop were primarily software for 3D printing. Sarah believes these 3D printers allow students to revisit and improve their design. Some of the software she recommended for Primary and Middle Years students were 123Design and Tinkercad. Since ‘Evaluate’ is another key component in the MYP design cycle, the students spend a significant part of their project time assessing ways to improve and make

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Sarah Woods shares key software for 3D printers, which can often cause frustration and test patience, but ultimately build design and problem-solving skills.

One way Sarah has empowered students to properly assess the success of their product is through, a space to sell and share their products. This opportunity also allows students to understand basic economics as their supply and costs fluctuate depending on the need/want for their product.

Our current school has recently purchased two 3D printers. While the IB Primary Years Program does not include a design cycle yet, we are looking at ways to bring design in through the PYP Units of Inquiry. Currently, there is a large void of science and design technology in the IB PYP and often it is left up to teachers and curriculum coordinators to find where science and design ‘fit’ with the school’s curriculum and the units. There are numerous links to math through the use of such software as Tinkercad, it’s just that many teachers don’t have experience or confidence putting students on software they are unfamiliar with. One of the main take-aways from Sarah’s workshop was that it’s up to the teachers to put the problems in the students’ hands, rather than scaffolding the solution for them. She emphasised the importance of letting students teach each other, and suggested the software be a homework assignment so that valuable class time can be spent on the design process. The skills students learn by cooperating together to solve a problem (such as how does this software work) are much more transdisciplinary than a direct-teacher approach which doesn’t provide any opportunity for students to work together and learn from each other. Introducing new software and devices such as Tinkercad and 3D printers are excellent ways to naturally embed these important problem-solving skills that will promote lifelong learning in all students.

Make Space for Makerspace: Presented by Mark Shillitoe

I was deeply inspired and impressed by what’s happening at Etoy GEMS World Academy, in particular with IT and Makerspaces. Mark Shillitoe highlighted the different programs that were implemented this year, and how the physical space has been transformed into an engaging learning space for students. Mark emphasised the importance of inviting “curiosity and wonderment into your school”, as Kath Murdoch encourages us to do.

Mark expressed that this quote is what drove his vision for edTech at the GEMS Etoy campus. He focused on developing the idea of #techxture when thinking of the role of IT in schools, remembering that edTech is not just about balancing screen time. Mark described the importance of addressing the notion of screen-time with teachers and parents, and differentiating different kinds of screen-based learning.

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Sample Pop-Up Makerspace created by Mark Shillitoe for ECIS Tech Conference

From my experience, this has been the biggest struggle as an edTech coach; understanding that passive screen time and creation-based screen time have very different learning results. Mark added a new element to screen time, the physical connections we can add on to iPads, using new technology like Makey-Makeys. These new tools are simple circuits that allow any conductive object to become part of a functioning circuit.

Mark shared some of his own struggles implementing the Maker-mindset at his school, and came up with the idea of Pop-Up Makerspaces. These makerspaces didn’t infringe on busy teacher schedules, and provoked curiosity among both students and staff. He set up these spaces during break and lunch times and many of the makerspaces were self-discovery focused, meaning any student or teacher could approach and try to figure out the task. Throughout the 2-day conference Mark had set up his own version of Pop-Up Makerspaces and invited conference participants to try out new technologies such as Makey-Makey Dance Mat Pacman and Minecraft using Raspberry Pi.


Students use Makey-Makey to create a banana keyboard. Photo Credit: CTJ Online via Compfight cc

The idea of Pop-Up Makerspaces is very relevant in my present school context. Currently, we are limited for space, and while a Makerspace would be ideal, proposing the idea of a moveable or Pop-Up Makerspace seems more likely to be approved by administrators. I find a lot of new technology could in fact be taken on by student leaders, and perhaps introducing these spaces to students first, and having them feed back to their classrooms and teachers would be a more engaging and lasting way to introduce the Maker-mindset into teaching and learning. Once teachers can see the science and math links that naturally result from utilising Makerspace tools and coding software, opportunities for curriculum amendments will follow.

UNIS CoLaboratory: Workshop with Francesca Zammarano
This workshop began with a provocative and entertaining clip from the movie Apollo 13, showcasing the moment NASA needed to make a “square peg fit in a round hole” using just the materials the astronauts were presented with on board the shuttle. Francesca Zammarano used this clip as a spring board for discussing the possibilities for creative problem solving using everyday items and basic materials.

This year, UNIS has redesigned their computer lab into a functional and creative Maker Space for students, which they are calling a CoLaboratory. The philosophy behind this space is to help promote 5 key ‘maker traits’: curiosity, enthusiasm, creativity, courage and vision. According to Francesca, the space is more about development of self and less about the stripping of wires and understanding circuits. In this space, students learn what it means to fail and understand that learning comes from failure.

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Francesca took us through the the costs and process of redesigning their IT lab to be a useable space for creation. It was about a $30,000 USD investment to transform the room and add key components such as: whiteboard tables, a tool wall, storage wall, and working space. She detailed the importance of maintaining a ‘safe to fail’ attitude within the CoLaboratory, and she explained how she has students “make friends with failure’” and chant the phrase “Safe to fail!” before the begin projects.

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We were then introduced to a variety of simple, creative projects that students were encouraged to explore. Francesca would present the students with a bunch of materials and ask them to either solve a problem or create something that would accomplish a task. Some of the resulting creations from the CoLaboratory ranged from a simple ‘scribble bot’ (using a BeeBot and markers) to sewing plush animals using conductive thread to explore basic circuitry concepts.

As my current school moves more towards an embedded design and technology curriculum, I see a lot of potential in re-thinking our current spaces and implementing more open-inquiry tasks for students to learn these important skills and concepts.

The second part of this workshop included building simple circuits from scratch using button batteries, copper wire, LED lights and cardboard. We were given instructions for building a simple multiple choice answer board, which could be used to assess any curricular area.

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Materials provided for second part of the UNIS CoLaboratory workshop


One of the educators leading the workshop was the French teacher, and he initiated this idea in his classroom to engage students in learning basic grammar rules such as masculine and feminine pronouns.I can see many connections to all disciplines in the PYP, particularly for formative assessments. This simple way of embedding problem-solving and basic science skills is an excellent example of teaching science through other subject areas. Furthermore, it empowers students to be makers and creators, which further develop skills such as confidence, resilience and promotes design thinking.

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My simple circuit created from scratch using the instructions from the workshop (I just needed to add the wires).

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Sample circuit-board game created by 4th Grade UNIS student for French class

One of the greatest take aways was seeing how in just a few months her school has transformed and evolved their curriculum to include key elements of design and problem-solving skills. Francesca shared the revised the UNIS Design Tech curriculum (link) to include characteristics of ‘maker’ students as well as design-thinking skills.