on the Power of Creative Constraints #MakerspaceMasterCourse

In the Makerspace Master Course video on this topic (here’s a clip that is included), John Spencer addresses several ideas that I believe are very important and emphasize to me that sometimes we get too caught up in the labels.

For example, I call the space at my school A Tinkering Place. Not because I don’t believe it’s a true Makerspace, but rather that the marketing folk associate that word with lots of high-tech tools that we don’t have, both by choice and circumstance.  Yet I know that many associate the word tinkering with something less valuable that what how  “making” is currently defined. (It was actually a big argument; for better or worse I did not back down.)

The definitions developed in Invent to Learn(1) are ones I like. To me, they clearly show the continuum and relationship of all the nuances that are encompassed in these creative and innovative activities, but neither do I  think they include everything. As John points out, there are multiple ways we can view making. Where is the artist? the chef? It’s not just the geeky, STEM folk who are makers.

Making is about the active role construction plays in learning. The maker has a product in mind when working with tools and materials.

Tinkering is a mindset – a playful way to approach and solve problems through direct experience, experimentation, and discovery.

Engineering extracts principles from direct experience. It builds a bridge between intuition and the formal aspects of science by being able to better explain, measure, and predict the world around us.”1

It’s a  sliding scale, fuzzy, blurry mess of meanings. They overlap, they intertwine. It starts as one thing and ends up another. And that’s totally okay. Maybe I’ll redefine STEM/STEAM for myself: Someone Tinkering (and) Engineering (through) Artistic Making.

In our space, we have the Tinkering Tenets (find them here and in reference 2)  as they embrace many of our hopes of how the space is used and viewed. My favorite – and what I think is the ultimate message to those who are hoping to bring a makerspace to their school, is “Start with What You Have.” It’s a creative constraint. It makes boundaries “okay.”

Using the tenets and definitions of making, tinkering, and engineering as a sort of mantra, has guided the way I encourage others to join in makerspace culture, and even how I design lessons that aren’t headed to the makerspace for any reason! It’s part of the mindset and greater learning culture that I hope to help my students establish.

1. (Martinez, S. L.; Stager, G. Learning. In Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom; Constructing Modern Knowledge Press: Torrance, CA, 2013; pp. 31-42.)

2.. Wilkinson, K.; Petrich, M. The Art of Tinkering: Meet 150 Makers Working at the Intersection of Art, Science & Technology; Routledge: New York, NY, 2013; pp. 31-42.


Why make a makerspace? #MakerspaceMasterCourse

A question was posed in a MOOC, “What is the purpose of your makerspace?” and limit it to one sentence. I adapted my answer from the proposal I presented to our administrators a few years ago:

A Tinkering Place will provide an environment open to all members of the school community that encourages creativity and helps develop innovative and entrepreneurial mindset and skills; subversive academics.

The Backstory to our Making Space.

But I think the backstory helps elicit why I feel this is an important endeavor. I teach at a boarding school – we are always looking for activities for our students, especially on the weekends, that will sustain interest and engagement. The school has a long history of entrepreneurship education. I took an online course from the Exploratorium on Tinkering. It was awesome – I proposed this as a weekend activity. The admin agreed, and I moved forward.

The Science Department had some funds with which we bought a few Arduinos, a couple of Makey-Makeys and some simple electronics. We got a bunch of things that were recommended as good items for fast-prototyping. We already had LEGO robotics.  An alum donated some funds with which we were able to purchase a small 3D printer and a couple of 3D pens. Since this was science stuff, I made the case that we could use our physics classroom – with all the old-fashioned “traditional” lab tables and such to host this “activity.” It was a really large room, and with some diligent reorganization could serve both classes and a weekend activity.

It was popular beyond expectations. Soon we were discovering that some teachers were looking at ways to assign work that necessitated some tinkering or fast prototyping! Excellent!

The physics classroom that was our home when we opened A Tinkering Place.

As word got out, we were fortunate enough to have some donors step forward and ask “if you could have your way, how might you remodel the room?” Wow. We researched and visited a number of makerspaces (just gaining real popularity… this was about 3 years ago) and higher ed innovation spaces.

We new we (the Science Dept) would not be willing to give up our lab… we’d been poking at our curriculum and making it more project and problem based, so we needed the space – but we said we were willing to share.

Our redesigned room sports mobile lab benched, whiteboard walls, reconfigured storage, and a whiteboard partition – which allows other classes to negotiate and sign up for a time when they can use the tinkering place even if a physics class is in session; without displacing the class. (Depending on needs, the science dept is willing to switch rooms, too).

Looking in the opposite direction from the previous photo – partition is closed. You can see the mobile tables and get an idea of new storage.

btw – we call it Tinkering, because we (I) am not convinced it meets most peoples expectations of a makerspace.  But that’s another discussion.

EOY Thoughts #IMMOOC #ITA17


  • Changing culture
  • Sense of Place
  • Student Centered, Student Voice
  • Design Thinking
  • Developing Mindsets

Been out of school for just over 3 weeks, but summer hasn’t really begun. This is the year summer of “what was I thinking?” and a whole mess of conferences and workshops. (Definitely bit off more than I can chew…. but it’s so tasty!)

I am almost at the point where it’s exciting and invigorating, but I know I have to process it all and get it organized in my head. Not quite there yet – but I think there’s a story.

First order of business after school exams ended was the opportunity to take a group of kids on an experiential learning trip to Iceland. The goal was to be more than tourists and bring back to our school an action plan that would lead us to a better vision of sustainability.

We did most of the usual things and a few less so: hot springs, hikes, geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes. We helped at a Turf House project and built a wall. We lived in an eco-village. We visited a geothermal power plant. We shopped in Reykjavik. We cooked, we recycled, we composted. It was amazing.

About halfway through our time in Iceland, my colleague and I decided that when it came time to make our action plan, we would structure the workday as a design thinking exercise. We felt that we could frame our experiences as the empathy piece, and asked the kids daily to reflect on how what we’d learned helped them construct their vision of sustainability. We crafted an essential question that would sort of define the problem and guide them in the brainstorming session. Our prompt: “What steps can we take to imbue our school with a sense of place such that it embraces a vision of sustainability within a community that is both highly diverse and very fluid?” We brainstormed – no post-it notes, no whiteboard, just pieces of paper and a table. We examined our ideas, talked and took notes.

This is an unfinished story. We are working through a Google doc of plans and intend to submit them to the administration by August first. But the important point is the attitude… the tiny shift in culture, the students taking charge; at one point in our planning day my colleague and I referred to their 10 minds as the leads in this – they retorted that no, it was us too and we needed to make sure we included the whole school community. Might not sound like much, but it was one of those ground-shift moments.

Again, it’s an unfinished story, but I think it’s coming together.

timing is everything #IMMOOC #ITA17

Today a colleague and I were talking about some school and personal goals. My colleague referred to a recent Sunday night news special on technology use and the brain. I’m not sure which show it was, but there is lots of recent stuff out there if you search fro it.

The conversation evolved into how we should be teaching our students to use tech for good not evil – and give them options. (that’s another story). But it got me thinking about all the good blogs and tools and other reads that have been so good, and how to keep track of it all.

That got bound in with some feedback from my faculty (I’m the department chair) on things we (yes, we) would like to do better…. I have  great department; I love them and they way we were together… And I stumbled on this in my newsfeed: Building a Learning Network.

It discusses ways to use Flipboard to build a curated collection for a PLN.  I’ve used Flipboard for years, but never in this way. I am also a fan of Diigo – but again, I’ve not thought of that for this sort of use either. I think I might try it – I like that the content is one-less-click-away than Diigo. It doesn’t bother me in Diigo to click through,  but if I am trying to help build a more innovative teaching practice, the easier I make it for faculty jump in and to follow, I the less time-consuming it becomes – and we all know time is the nemesis of teachers – and hopefully, the more likely for them to participate.

This excites and encourages me to try. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

on becoming student-centered – for reflection #IMMOOC #ITA17

One of my professional and personal goals for the year has been to become a more reflective teacher – hoping that by improving my teaching I am creating a better learning experience for our students. I’ve been reading and writing a lot (I have not mastered consistent blogging yet… that’s a big struggle for me).

Have found some great learning communities  and blogs to follow. The nice thing about blogs is that they are usually quick reads and can provide great ideas and/or food for thought.

This one from ASCD in-service  spoke to me, as we strive be more student-centered at my school.  The author is targeting how we treat students of poverty (and having taught in that arena, I can state: “truth.”)  but I think any time you read students of poverty in this piece, you can zip it out, and zip in “the jocks”, those with learning disorders, the cliquers, the weak ones, the gifted ones, etc.

It’s a worthwhile read and reflect on in those upcoming lazy (we hope) days of summer.

“It’s not either/or; it’s all or nothing”

Twitter: @gcouros “So many blogs in my RSS reader are dormant with people not writing anymore. Curious on what others think the reason could be?”

And the title from this is a quote (hopefully correct) from “Bill Nye Saves the World” that I am binge watching. Seems timely.

It’s that time of year (in the independent school world we have just about a month left) – so much to do in so little time. Still trying to find that balance, and I guess thinking about how to best do that, is what’s been behind and possibly driving my silence. What have I been doing? Having great conversations with kids about learning. Developing a couple of projects that will take them a little out of their comfort zone while getting them excited about the learning prospects. Seems to be working.  I have been challenging my Design Fellows with some new ideas that might help. And looking at some “me” time… PD related but my own brand of refreshing re-energizing.

Behind the scenes, I am still plugging away – been reading lots of the blogs. Going to try something new; I make no promises, but I’ve loaded the calendar with reminders – and even it’s short I want to try to capture my reflections and move them to “print” (they are actually on real, old-fashioned paper already) at least once a week.

(and I’ve been marching #ScienceMarchBoston, #peoplesclimatemarch #resist so that innovation can continue)

Just this… #IMMOOC

I could tie this to the ‘what if questions’, I could tie this to our Episode 4 from last night.

Maybe it hit a chord because we come back from our spring break tomorrow (I teach in an independent school, so we have one really long bread in March rather than winter and spring breaks).

Whatever – just this:

It’s not my creation; a colleague recently posted this on her FB page.

#IMMOOC Week 3, B2 from prompt 3 (part 2) #IMMOOCB1

What would you add to the list of what ifs?

  • What if there were no bells?
  • What if schools didn’t compartmentalize learning?

I split this for a couple of reasons… partly as a personal rant since I am very frustrated trying to find the time to get all this done. (and in my head it’s tied into the ‘what if’ that I want to add!)  I know it has been said that if it’s important you find the time… and I guess I am finding it; but at what cost? I do the reading, I read other’s blogs, I watch/participate in the videos and chats but I feel like it’s just keeping up, and not doing the quality job that I want!

I am a fan of High Tech High. I love the precepts in Wagner and Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed. I’ve looked at the models implemented by other schools. How to make that work within the confines of a traditional prep school culture? There’s not going to be a sea shift change, so how to work the system in place so that we can do amazing things? It’s a process and a challenge that I’ve given myself – and while I’m not happy with only baby steps, I have to acknowledge that we are moving forward even if not at the pace I personally want to see!

Look at what Finland has proposed: no, not eliminating subjects, but blurring the lines. This is totally inline with how we ask questions – it’s why research groups in universities (and other places) have regular meetings including those who are not involved on a project; questioning with fresh eyes is soooooo important.

We often try to do this via interdisciplinary projects – important, but how much to we engender stress and frustration because of scheduling. Students are invested; willing; and engaged – but how to we better empower them, especially when it’s often so clear that they want that?

No answers; some ideas; and lots of rambling questions.


#IMMOOC Week 3, B2 from prompt 3 #IMMOOCB1

Which “what if” question challenges your thinking in the Innovator’s Mindset?

I don’t know if “challenge” my thinking is the way I look at this since I firmly believe these are how it should be; and I try to promote. But, I think the first one: What if we believed that everything that we has to make great schools was already within our organization, and we just needed to develop and share it?” is often the most difficult to promote. Because it’s about changing the fundamental culture within ourselves so that we can truly move forward with all the other what ifs.

My work with tinkering tenets (the first tenet is to start with what you have) is what pushed me over the edge with this in my own mind, and let me see that I didn’t “need” more, better, bigger;” sure, it’s be nice to have x, y, or z but we can do some pretty awesome stuff with what’s in our grasp right now.

My next challenge is helping other faculty buy into that concept – so that they can understand it’s about moving all of us learners forward via a mindset and not with physical things.


Learning a new tool – and feeling the pain! Week 2, To-do list (6) #IMMOOC

Create an image of a quote from either the book, or from a participant blog post (please use proper attribution).  If you are interested in trying this, check out canva.com.  

I have experienced canva. Felt a little frustrated because I didn’t find it completely intuitive (but didn’t we hear that it’s okay to leave ’em frustrated?) I did what I would expect my students to go: found enough of an online tutorial to get me started, even though I was dissatisfied that I could find video only and not text (which I prefer). That was the motivation to figure it out rather than listen all. the. way. through. yet. another. video to figure it out!  Most of it became clear, and I suspect I will go back and try another.