#edcampswct follow-up

During the last session of yesteday’s #Edcampswct (see edcamp.org about what an Edcamp is), I led a discussion on MakerSpaces and Maker Programs.  I want to summarize what points I made there, and provide links to deeper insights on those subjects; and make a few further points that I don’t think I made in the time allowed, but were on my mind.

Here are the key points, which are further summarized below (@MrPerraultGES took a photo of my notes):

  1. Visual Thinking
  2. 2D makes 3D
  3. Tools Make Tools Make Things
  4. What Hands Make, Mind Knows
  5. Recycle and D.I.Y.
  6. Space Requirements
    1. Tool Storage
    2. Materials Storage
    3. Project Storage
    4. Workspace
    5. Input/Receiving
    6. Archive Process
    7. How-To Library
    8. Repair (and Sharpening)
    9. First Aid
  7. Best Practice vs. Liability
  8. (And to these 7 steps  I’m adding—
    1. Games and Game Playing
    2. Past vs. Future Orientation )

Visual Thinking

At the core of any Maker program is visual thinking.  It’s said that Nicola Tesla could imagine the entire design of every machine he built before he put pen to paper. He was able to see the whole design complete in his mind, and tweaked it constantly before settling on a final design; only then did he commit it to paper.

Most of us are not that good.  Yet drawing is a third way of processing the world, alongside literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy.  It uses different parts of the brain. For too long, schools have privileged reading and writing and arithmetic over visual thinking, and yet the parts of our brains that process and understand visual information are likely millions of years older than the parts that process literacy or numeracy.

Adult engineers, tinkerers and artists regularly report that as children, middle and high school was a waste of time.  Why? They didn’t learn anything that was useful to them in their work today other than basic math.  We should change that — and improving their abilities as children to draw, sketch and think out their ideas would be a huge change.  Honor drawing, sketching, even Zentangle, as a different kind of rigorous thinking, and it will be the foundation of your students’ growth as Makers — whether or not you ever build anything in a MakerSpace.

It took a year of practice before I was ‘good enough’ to just sketch on the fly on the whiteboard with a black dry-erase marker in my classroom — but eight years later I’m REALLY good.  I use the Semigram, Dave Gray’s lesson in drawing; or Mike Rohde’s five-element drawing alphabet.  Even illustration or cartooning has things to teach both the adult teachers and the students.

In the session, I recommended three books for teachers who want to learn how to use and increase visual thinking in the classroom.

  • Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Army and Sketchnote Army Workbook
  • Sunni Brown and Dave Gray’s Gamestorming.

2D Makes 3D

img_2869-1Flat materials are everywhere — cloth, paper, fabric, yarn, string, plywood too (though lots of schools apparently can’t use tools like drills and saws that would shape wood). Lots of things come in raw formats that are flat.

Yet Makers build things in three dimensions.  There’s a vast and complicated education in mathematics, in geometry, in spatial relationships, in topology, in measurement, that lies hidden inside of the transformation process from 2D to 3D. Students — and teachers — learn a lot from the performance of these transformations.

Tools Make Tools Make Things

Very few people get this lesson intuitively until they’ve done it.  In the makerspace I ran, students did several projects where they made a tool, and then learned to use it.  My favorite and most successful version of this was to use a pencil sharpener, dowels, glue, and wooden beads to make knitting needles.

But you can also make lucets this way, or kumihimo disksBoth of these can be made from wood, or recycled plastic; a lucet can be made from a bent fork.  The first tool turned out a single-color square braid; the second produces a variety of multi-colored braids based on the input of yarn or embroidery floss.  Each can be used to teach the idea of algorithms — simple, repetitive processes that result in a defined result over time.  These are great tools for second, third, and fourth graders to learn to make and use; they teach finger nimbleness, and are both meditative work that reveals failures of concentration in the finished product.  Huh, who knew?

But there are other projects that work the same way:

What the Hands Make, the Mind Knows

This seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people.  But if drawing is a third way of processing the world then building things is a fourth way. One of my students, the first year of the program, didn’t understand what a Force Pump was until we built one.

20130119-194557.jpgIt’s surprising how many machines there are, out there, which students have no idea how they work. And yet, even as we see a rise in interest in Steampunk, it’s becoming all brass gears and brown-striped fabric and tophats and goggles that have no functionality at all.

Simply by working through 507 Mechanical Movements, and building dozens or hundreds of models of tools, your MakerSpace is giving a vast education to future technicians, engineers, modelers and tinkerers.  Likewise, the twenty-eight or so projects in Caveman Chemistry (and Scientific Soapmaking) are a powerful introduction to using Making to teach chemistry at deep levels. (though I don’t recommend mead-brewing for high schools or anyone under the age of twenty-one, it’s definitely a useful addition to a teacher’s arsenal of hands-on knowledge).

But this is broadly applicable, nonetheless:

The Human Resources director asked the company Zen master Doug to visit him, and said when the interview began, “Doug, I have a problem.  Whenever I ask a potential new hire how many years of programming experience they have, they say four years, or twelve or twenty. But whenever I ask them about their programming experience for the particular software we’re maintaining or supporting, they roll their eyes at me, and give me complex answers I don’t understand.  Why is that?”

Immediately, Zen master Doug got up, and started walking around the room silently pacing, taking careful note of his steps and where he placed his feet, muttering about toe placement and heel placement and the depth and luxuriousness of the carpet, and how much give and springiness there was. 

Impatiently, the Human Resources director said, “What are you doing? Help me solve my problem.”  

Zen master Doug replied, “I will, just as soon as I have learned how to walk on your floor.”

The Human Resources director said, “But you’ve been walking for as long as I’ve known you! I’ve never seen you have to learn how to walk all over again.”

Zen master Doug nodded. “And so it is with programming — All of the knowledge already gained is broadly applicable to all similar types of work. There may be some small handicaps along the way, but the procedures are the same.”

Immediately, the Human resources director was enlightened.

blessed are the cheesemakers…

And so it is with Making.  The skills learned from one kind of Making — be it sewing or bookbinding or model-making or origami or chemical projects — are broadly applicable to other kinds of Making.  A fondness for linear processes emerges.  A habit of mind that requires care and attention to detail arises.  A love of research for directions and templates and processes develops. A methodology for problem-solving becomes ingrained in the mind.   Questions of measurement, proportionality, beauty, color, hue, order, and pattern gradually manifest.

I never did a project making cheese with my students, for example — but learning how to make cheese in my own kitchen contributed to my overall growth as a Maker, and developed an appreciation in me for cooks as a kind of Maker.

One of the ways to think about this — are you so focused on the idea of building in hard materials like wood and plastic and metal, that you’ve forgotten the soft-skills values of cooking, leather-working, sewing, and papercraft?  You can build marble roller-coasters for not very much money, for example — which leads to architectural and engineering design, bracing against the effects of gravity, and thinking in three dimensions (see above).  And your costs are paper, and marbles, and photocopier time — cheap!

Recycle and D.I.Y

These two — recycling and Do It Yourself (DIY) genuinely go together.

I really was serious when I said that my school helped me build a MakerSpace. You can spend hundreds of dollars to buy completed workbenches that aren’t very good.  Or you can build your own to be sturdy enough Or you can build your own to be sturdy enough — and then you can replace them when they wear out after more than a decade of use. The ones you build are considerably sturdier than the ones you buy, and —What the hands make, the mind knows. 

This is the thing we tiptoe around, so it’s time to state it baldly and bluntly. If the MakerSpace teacher doesn’t know how to make things, the MakerSpace sits idle, or never lives up to its potential.  Student safety is important, of course, and treating tools carefully is important too — but the most important tools in a MakerSpace are the brain and hands of the MakerSpace teacher (or master artisan) — in the Reggio Emilia school system, they’re called Atelieristas teachers with a strong background in the arts, to help students connect to the ‘hundred languages’ of materials, tools, and the creativity of dance and music and the visual arts.

Until you, the teacher, decide to recycle some cloth or paper from one project and incorporate it into another — until you, the teacher, sort through wastebaskets looking for leftovers that might be useful in another project — until you, the teacher, find yourself looking at plastic yogurt containers with an enterprising eye… you have no idea what your MakerSpace is going to need.

When I was a young man, I urged my mother to buy a computer. She said, “Why? What on earth would I use it for?” I said, “Buy one, and learn to use it, and then see.” She wound up learning her old profession, graphic design, on the new machine — used her graphic design and writing skills to be a non-profit fundraiser for libraries, and a for-profit fund-raiser for political campaigns; and then declared herself an artist.  She recycled the old knowledge in her brain and applied it to new circumstances, and she did it herself.  Hand in hand, right?

The ultimate in recycling, of course, is to teach gardening, cooking, food preservation, and composting.  If you’re also building the garden trellises, and laying out the pipe and gravel for the drainage too, great.  Some people — Bill Mollison, primarily — might call that PERMACULTURE.  It’s a much more serious kind of MakerSpace, really, and difficult to do in New England during the school year because the school year is out of sorts with the growing season.  But it’s real, nonetheless. And if it’s real, as an acquaintance of mine says, it can take the pressure.

Space Requirements

One of the first times I was in my school’s new Design Lab, I was showing a group of students how to change the blade on a utility knife.  “Remember, kids,” I said, “the new knife blade is always much sharper, so be careful not to cut yourself… like I just did.  OK, quick first aid lesson! First apply pressure to the cut, then calmly move to the First Aid station over here…”

Andrew B. Watt

The French culinary experts call this mise en place.  You can think “Mess in place” — know where stuff goes.

This is especially true for the First Aid station in a student MakerSpace.

But there’s a methodology here:

When I look around the workshops of master artists and artisans, there’s a controlled chaos at work.  But you can identify, usually with great clarity, a few defined spaces:

  • Storage of raw materials by size, shape, materials, and type (e.g., hardwoods separate from softwoods, fabric for client projects separate from fabric for spec projects, papers sorted by size, hue, and weight)
  • Tool storage — usually arranged with clarity so that the most frequently used tools are closest to hand and most visible, all within easy reach of the workspaces.
  • Project storage — appropriate storage places for both the atelierista’s projects and for the apprentices (younger students) and journeyers (more experienced/older students), each in proportion to the amount of time each group spends in the workshop
  • Workspaces — obvious, flat, clear, open, large enough, well-lit enough (under windows preferably facing north), with suitable surfaces for clamping, weighting and shifting), not so chewed up or damaged that the work is damaged as its being made.
  • Input/Receiving — an obvious place for donations to go.  The discussion group at #edcampswct wanted a separate sorting area, but this is a luxury.  In practice, you’re going to bring in donations and new materials and store them tightly; then you’re going to unpack them onto your cleared workspaces, and then immediately store them in your Raw Materials Storage.  A separate sorting station is unlikely and unnecessary.
  • Archive Process — again, the assembled teachers wanted Display Space.  This is often a luxury for MakerSpaces, but it’s nice to have if you have it.  Mostly, you want a process for archiving projects. My rule was that everything that gets Made, includes a photograph of the Maker and the Made Thing.  Those archives were valuable, because — as I said above in Visual Thinking, the software in our heads for processing visuals is considerably older than the software for literacy.  Documenting everything in words is tough — documenting in pictures triggers memories differently.
  • How To Library — In my six years, I learned how to do a lot in a Design Lab — sewing, bookbinding, printing, block-print making, paper making, pop-up books and cards, carpentry, origami, soldering, electronics design, wiring motors, building model planes and rockets and ratchet gears.  I couldn’t have done it without a generous budget for How To Books.  Being able to pull a book out for a student, and point to a relevant page, was invaluable.
  • Sharpening and Repair — A dull tool is a dangerous tool. With the exception of the time I cut myself with a freshly-changed blade in a utility knife in front of a group of fourth graders, all of the most serious accidents I encountered in six years were the result of dull tools being forced to do the wrong work, by inexperienced hands.  You need a place to sharpen tools that can also be used for repairing tools.

    And you also need to care for the tools you have — nearly all of the best hand tools for carpentry, for example, are found at tag sales and yard and garage sales and flea markets. The metal is better, and once the rust is cleaned off they’re almost always easier to sharpen than a brand new tool from the hardware store. Used sewing machines that work, or that need some TLC, but are 15-30 years old, are almost always more reliable than modern machines that do too many things. They’re built like tanks. Read articles on how to care for the kinds of tools you have.

  • First Aid — This should be by the door, easily accessible, and easily obvious.  You should know how to use it, and you should be prepared for the four kinds of minor accidents in a MakerSpace — punctures, abrasions, lacerations, and bruises.  Invest in some topical creams for yourself, as well, for easing sore muscles — you will get sore, faster, than students with pep and vigor will.

Best Practice vs. Liability

One of the last points I had in mind for my presentation was to touch on the issues of best practice vs. liability.  In a school setting, there’s a lot of concern about liability from misuse of tools, and accidents involving students.  I know of one woman who, as a teenager in the 1960s, had her hair caught in a drill press in shop class with nearly fatal results — certainly damaging her scalp and causing changes to her hair growth for the rest of her life.  We’d like to avoid that, of course.

Are we going to be able to avoid these tragedies completely?  Probably not.

What we can do is recognize that there’s a difference between best practice and liability.  At my old school, we identified 12-15 things that counted as best practice with the tools that we had available — cutting away from yourself, wearing safety goggles, walking rather than running, and so on.  With few exceptions, all of the injuries resulted from violation of best practice.  The liability issue wasn’t solved, entirely,  I must admit — but kids caught on pretty fast that their safety as best as could be managed was closely associated with best practice.


At this point, we’re diverging from what we discussed in the session on MakerSpaces and Maker programs in schools, and delving into some additional thoughts.  A woman, whose name I think was Nicky or Nicole, brought up gameplay and game design; and the last piece of the puzzle for me as a MakerSpace instructor was the question of Past vs. Future orientation.

Games, Game Design, & Game Playing


Look closely at this chess set at left, the Gusenberg Chess set that I designed for a colleague of mine and her second grade class. It’s made of wooden parts from Woodworks Ltd. Woodcraft Parts.  I think each chess set cost about $4.50 in parts after I bought enough parts for students in second grade to make twenty-five sets including the board (a sheet of foam board from Staples colored in with Sharpie markers or paint).

The sorts of games your school plays have an influence on the kinds of strategies your students know how to adopt.  Chess is very much a game of equal forces — a king, a queen, and their chief feudal supporters and their peasant levies against another side of more or less equal strength.

But consider these workshops I ran on game design. There’s Tablut — a Viking game of unequal forces and unequal goals.  One side, with fewer pieces, only needs to escape. The larger side must prevent that escape.  Sounds like terrorism, right? Or pirate raiders?

Consider Mancala, which I did with origami boxes and Fimo clay hardened in the school oven.  In Mancala and its many variant games from all over Africa, you must give to get — the most ‘generous’ player usually winds up winning. What does that say about culture?

What about this range of medieval games? What about role-playing games played with pen and paper and dice?  Statistics and probabilities and the likelihood of one or another result — great success or terrible failure.  Drawing is thinking. So is game-playing.

But I want to contrast video-games here (which are designed for players by some far-off and often-controlling corporation for profit) with historical games with cultural antecedents, or games that students make, or that teachers make for their students (Ii ad piscinam was popular with my Latin students for a while, though it was a terrible game, I admit); or that they build and then learn to play. There’s five or six days’ worth of Maker workshops on these games — and in the process, you’re changing the culture of your school by teaching students more strategies for success.

Past vs. Future Orientation

And that brings me to my final point, one that I didn’t get to make on Saturday.

The MakerSpace teacher — the Atelierist or Atelierista — is past-oriented.  Even in a workshop dedicated to robotics or STEM/STEAM results, the teacher is concentrating on learning to make or replicate past solutions: to embed in his or her own hands and mind the technologies of the past, whether drop-spindle thread-making or bookbinding or knitting or making batteries or monopole motors.

One year, those zip-tie powered tops were all the rage.  My wooden one usually lasted twice as long in the arena that the boys in early morning before-school care built out of chairs and coats and book-bags: it was heavier, assembled from stronger materials, and had a longer string to wind it up for a faster spin at the start.  Students didn’t get to make very many of them before I left, but there were promising results from their tops.

MakerSpace programs often ask students to redesign something — redesign the school, redesign the town or the state, redesign something of national importance, or redesign the world.  THat’s wonderful — we want students to be serious problem-solvers, and there are a lot of serious problems in need of solving.  Of course, we want students to be future-oriented.

But my experience was that I had to be more and more past-oriented as a teacher. I had to know how it had already been done — how to make books, how to make paper, how to do graphic design. There’s a lot of emphasis in Maker education on how to do things, rather than about things; on the long-term results of the practice effect, if you will.

But that means that the teacher him- or her-self benefits from assembling a personal library of things they know how to do. I know how to publish books, for example, in both digital and hardback format, though my hardbacks tend to be smaller print runs.  Or I can build a sawbench or a workbench, or carve a stamp or a seal or a spoon.  Future solutions tend to be assembled out of a whole host of past solutions to other problems — thus, the more solutions the MakerSpace teacher knows from the past, the more likely the student is going to have an actual human being to ask questions of, and get some range of answers.

Accordingly, Maker education for the adult winds up looking quite different than it does for the child.  It’s all right for the adult to focus on arts and crafts projects, growing in skill and purpose and methodology — because the adult is building up a library of know how in their minds and in their hands.  And the student is learning how to think about problems by watching the adult — to assemble future solutions out of the building blocks of older technologies.

F. Buckminster Fuller was assigned the task of writing the history of America’s technological innovation to reach the Moon. It was expected to be a celebration of American technological advances, and a series of biographies of great American inventors whose engineering accomplishments resulted in humanity’s march to the stars.  Yet in the first chapter of that book, Critical Path, Fuller admits that it was less a case of American ingenuity that sent the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon’s surface, but rather the ingenuity of humanity — ceramic parts for the Saturn 5 rocket had been made that used porcelain recipes that were six thousand years old; bronze-alloy couplings that relied on four thousand year old metallurgy helped the rocket’s various stages separate from one another when the bronze melted away under intense heat.

I invite you, readers, to think of yourselves like that — that your task as MakerSpace teachers and librarians and archivists, is to be oriented on what humanity has already done, technologically, and to help students understand the old technologies so that they can borrow from them to develop new solutions to problems.

And a Shout Out…

If you or your school would like assistance in putting these principles into action in your school, please be in touch.  I am available for consulting services; or to run workshops on sewing, bookbinding, or basic carpentry for teachers and MakerSpaces; or for ongoing coaching services for new MakerSpace atelierists.


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