What I Do: Vision Statement #makered

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My friend Stephanie challenged me to write a marketing plan for my business (Watermountain Studios), in sonnets.  I don’t know that I can write a marketing plan in sonnets, but I can write two that qualify as a vision statement, I suppose.

The human hand used to shape all our needs
and make all our wants from creche to casket;
the old factory is now choked with weeds,
and we mock those who can make a basket.
Robots build cars, machines sew our raiment
and the sweat of slaves dapples our plastic toys…
our children sit idle, workshops vacant —
we test to exhaustion both girls and boys.
Yet numbers and letters can still be learned
through artisan’s arts of loom, forge, and press.
By hand and eye’s labor are truth discerned
and concrete order made from abstract mess.
Children learn best when their hands learn to make,
for artistry helps our minds to awake.

To start a MakerSpace right now is hard:
we sold off the shop tools and burned the scrap,
put abstract thought on every student’s card,
and put computers in each student’s lap.
We tested for phonics and random facts,
and jumped for joy at every new reform —
yet abstraction has been a kind of trap
to make a man who thinks instead of acts.
Ask me — I’ll guide you through these thickets,
to where your students thrive with tools in hand
making theater props, posters and tickets,
costumes, the stage — instruments for a band.
When children make, they become more adept
at fixing the world that broke while we slept.


Maker Mindset, then MakerSpaces

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Gary Stager and Will Richardson both have similar ideas about MakerSpaces. They’re worried they’ll add to inequality, and that they’ll continue to be used as hangars for equipment and technology, relegated to a few narrow functions, and ultimately not really put to use.

Gary says in one source (not quoted in Will’s article):

The greatest threat to realizing the potential of the maker movement in the schools is the coupling of the words “maker” and “space:’ It turns out that
it is comparatively easier to hang a sign on a room full of stuff than it is to change classroom practice.

The makerspace threatens to repeat the historical accident of the computer lab :The enthusiasm of an early adopter and presence of new technology created a specialized bunker that kids would
visit each fortnight for the next two generations — like a field trip to colonial Williamsburg . We need to avoid any chance that making, like computer integration , will remain a novelty and be left to a “specialist ” while other teachers remain disengaged .

Gary’s article

And then, Will says this…

Much in the way that schools have spent tons of money on iPads and Chromebooks that have changed little in terms of the culture of learning or in the agency and autonomy kids in classrooms have to learn in classrooms, the same danger exists for Makerspaces. As Gary says, making is a “stance.” It’s a way of thinking about learning and schooling, not something that suddenly happens because of new technologies.

Why it’s so difficult for schools to put vision and philosophy ahead of tools and tech escapes me.

Will Richardson’s Blog

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.09.33 PMToday I listened to a new podcast on Thursday, Meaningful Making.  It’s good.  I like it.  They had a lot of good insights, including the recognition that the Maker community tends to skew white and geeky, and that we need to do more to promote greater diversity in the Maker community — shout out here to @Mr_Hutchinson_ who does remarkable things with very little… (but boy, do these podcast guys need Toastmasters… lots of uhs, and ummms. repeated words, filler statements… I recognize that a podcast is a different format than a radio show, but if you’re going to be a professional or semi-professional speaker, you owe it to your audience not to repeat yourself too much if you expect your audience to give you an hour of their time.)

Yet something one of the participants said gave me pause.  He said that there was a regular problem on the standardized tests that involved folding a net mentally, to see if it made a shape.  Could the students fold a given 2D net of triangles and squares into a 3D shape, and would the resulting net be complete? The teacher used a 3D printer to make a number of ‘manipulables’ — an ugly, not-really-elegant word — for  students to play with in order to see whether or not the given ‘flat nets’ folded into regular shapes.

Oh… you mean….

The people at Mathisfun.com have been producing these raw nets for at least a decade. They were one of the first things I turned to in the MakerSpace at my school in 2010 — because there were few things cheaper than paper for teaching Maker skills and Maker mindset to children, and when we started we had virtually no money for tools or materials other than what I could beg, borrow, or recycle.

It’s also a ready-made computer activity: “Use graphic design to make a net — a flat design — that when cut out and folded turns into a three-dimensional shape that can be measured.” It’s then less interesting to produce flat ‘manipulables’ that don’t fold into 3D shapes — and the kids who cut out and fold the real thing will find their skill improved when it comes to imagining the folding of 2d images, because their hands will have done it already. — Principle #4, what the Hands Do, the Mind Knows.

I produced one in five minutes in a word processing application and posted it as a screenshot here, but even a rough cut-out of the weird cross do-hickey on this page will produce a 3D cube.  This cube can be assembled inside out, too, creating six surfaces for decoration, or to make dice, or to assemble into structures, or to talk about crystalline structures… After all, that’s what ancient people noticed about crystals a long time ago: that they came in distinct shapes that appeared to be related to standard geometric forms like hexagonal prisms and cubes and octahedrons.

I’ve said elsewhere that Maker teachers need to be focused on the past (Principle #10, Past vs. Future Orientation) so that the students can be future-focused. The Maker teacher thus becomes a library of solutions, if you will, and can give a student guidance about how to put materials or technologies or techniques to use.

But it’s not always helpful if we turn to the flash and the heat and whiz-bang of the 3D printer when one of the key experiences we want students to gain is the knowledge of how to turn a 2D material (like paper) into a 3D object (like a cube or an icosahedron). I recognize that a) every person has their own entry point to Making; and b) people need to learn how the tech works before they can adopt the right mindset around teaching it to others.  That’s fine.

But we should be conscious of not over-investing in the technology for technology’s sake. Paper has the advantage of being scaleable in a way that 3D printing isn’t, yet, for schools.  Paper is a wonderfully diverse material: ephemeral in a way that 3D printer plastic isn’t, mark-able in a way that plastic isn’t, recyclable in ways that 3D printer plastic isn’t, and as dependent on how we mark it, as how we choose to shape it or design it to function.  It also folds, and it can be sewn, and it can serve as template for other projects; and it can teach complex concepts in short order which can then be programmed!

I do believe that this approach takes some of the “discovery” component out of student learning. After all, you’re using an adult’s graphic design skills and an adult’s mental library of past technologies to present students with ideas.  But you’re also putting ideas in student’s minds at the same time that you’re giving them tools and materials practice.  Just in this blog post, I’ve linked to the idea of using paper to:

  • build scientific instruments
  • teach core concepts of solid geometry
  • train the mind to recognize geometric 2D nets as 3D or not-3D objects
  • building books (which a 3D printer can’t really do)
  • fold origami patterns
  • build templates for sewing projects (including clothing)
  • building and coloring planetary globes
  • building cultural objects
  • teaching algorithms for cryptography (and introducing students to the ideas of secret-keeping).

So, guys — great podcast so far, really.  But you’ve spent two weeks talking about how awesome computers and 3D printing are.  Maybe you can remind people that cardboard and paper have important roles to play, too?

Book: Your Starter Guide to MakerSpaces


This is a book review. It’s part of a new series on this blog that began last week.  I hope you find it useful.

Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces
by Nicholas Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher)
Blend, published 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0692786123 (Paperback) N.B. I read the Kindle edition.

✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✧ ✧

I’m deeply interested in MakerSpaces, of course, and I make quite a lot of things myself.  This is a fairly short book, as well, and more of a workbook than a true book.  As the author titles it, it’s a Starter Guide, not an exhaustive examination of the topic.

Yet given how many times I say, “I teach about and in makerspaces,” that the response is “What’s a MakerSpace?” both Nick and I have a good deal more work to do (fair warning, Nicolas Provenzano and I follow one another on Twitter) in bringing this idea to the masses.  It’s not part of the common lingua franca yet, and it could be and should be.  But that means that we have to do the job of educating the public, and stakeholders in schools and libraries and other institutions that could have MakerSpaces successfully.

The book contains eight short chapters:

  1. What is Making?
  2. I know what Making is; why should I care?
  3. Where does a MakerSpace go in a school?
  4. Making allies
  5. What goes in a MakerSpace?
  6. MakerSpaces and Project-Based Learning
  7. Failure and MakerSpaces
  8. Final Thoughts

He also concludes with information about his own identity as a Maker and teacher, and how to reach out to him and use his skills as a teacher-educator in your own institution. Which is awesome.

One of the things that I didn’t benefit from, that readers of the paperback edition may enjoy, is that this is a workbook.  As any good Maker will tell you, the interaction process between the thing that you make, and the audience you make it for, matters.  That’s certainly true here. Even in the Kindle edition, the illustrations and workbook pages give you the opportunity to engage with the book by writing your own (offline) lists and make your own mind-maps of the things that the book inspires in you.

The book’s primary audience is a teacher, particularly one who is already invested in the idea of project-based learning (PBL), or who has support within her institution for a change to a more hands-on program that involves building and creating within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.  I’ve argued elsewhere that it should be STEAMED (adding Arts, Entertainment, Design) but very sensible commentators have responded to that.

Provenzano admits that this is not a book for an advanced practitioner, but a starter guide.  It’s not systematic, but rather it’s a combination of encouragement, first-hand accounts from a MakerSpace-as-classroom that he himself ran, and top-level considerations of equipment, toolkit, and mental attitude that help MakerSpaces get launched and succeed.  This kind of teaching and learning is valuable and important, though I wish he’d included more discussion about budgeting and financial planning for MakerSpaces, because money (where it comes from and how to get supplies, tools and equipment with it?) and time (how does the MakerSpace avoid burning out the teacher[s] who run them?) are rarely addressed in MakerSpace books and articles to nearly the extent they need to be.

That said, Provenzano does address a number of important points, like the scale or size of a MakerSpace, what equipment and tools it needs to have, and how much access a school should/could provide to its student body to use the space.  He addresses the process of finding allies for a MakerSpace program, in the student body and administration, in the parent and alumni community,  and in the local business climate.  The book concentrates to a high degree on what is wrong with schools, and shows some cheeky rebelliousness — but this is often the only posture a would-be change agent can take in the modern American school climate: if schools weren’t doing anything wrong, there wouldn’t be a need for MakerSpaces, would there?

All the same, Provenzano’s points echo my own sense of Maker work in schools. Hands-on practice with tools, with materials, with construction and design process, all help make students and teachers into more well-rounded, more competent and capable people. They’re more skilled at solving problems outside their own usual wheelhouse,  because they’ve solved problems involving physical materials and invisible forces (like the flow of electricity through a circuit, or the arrangement of parts so a thing stands on its own).  I think this is a great book for teachers or librarians starting out, who have curiosity about how to get a program started; and I’d happily recommend Provenzano to come to your school or library to help your MakerSpace get started.

What is a MakerSpace?


I was inspired in part to write this by something that @tieandjeans (Andrew Carle) said in this blog post, and some backchannel comments to me about Maker Education.  A lot of people seem confused by the jargon of MakerSpace, and the related terms Arts and Crafts Room, Artist’s Studio, MakerLab, Design Studio, StudioSpace, ToolLibrary, DesignLabTinkerLab, TinkerSpace, and FabLab.  This post is an attempt to categorize what these things are, and rank them hierarchically.

Toward a Definition

  • A MakerSpace is a room, loft, studio, studio, chamber, barn, or hall that has open areas and dedicated workbenches which have been equipped with tools and materials so that these tools, materials, and open areas can be used to build things.

That’s an easy enough definition.  But let’s compare and contrast it with some other kinds of work spaces.  For example, most schools have an

  • Arts and Crafts Room, which is a room devoted to teaching kids about art and how to make it.  It’s often equipped with stools or benches, lots of sample art, and materials for making art, which may include colored pencils, chalk, paint, brushes, artists’ canvases, wooden models of people or dogs, racks for drying paintings, airtight buckets of clay, potter’s wheels, and so on. Arts and Crafts Rooms are usually set up so that one or more instructors can teach a larger group of students.

Most schools and libraries don’t have an

  • Artist’s Studio, which is like an Arts and Crafts room in that it has supplies for making art, but is often set up for one person to make the kind of art they like to make.  A painter’s studio has one or a few easels, but it’s not a place to teach painting; it’s a place for a dedicated amateur or a professional to make paintings.  A sculptor may need a massive amount of space for blocks of marble or giant sheets of steel, or a lot of refractory cement for casting bronze… but it’s still for a principal artist and her team, not for a teacher and students.

So we’re starting to narrow in on a definition of a MakerSpace, which is similar to an Arts and Crafts Room in that it has spaces for many people to work together; but is more general-purpose than an Arts and Crafts room.  You probably won’t be building birdhouses in an Art Room, but you could in a MakerSpace.  Let’s compare that with the

  • MakerLab, which is just like a MakerSpace, but has an experimental or educational component to it, and may be engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching specifically.  A MakerLAb is more likely to have soldering irons and electronics components in among its materials, and programmable robots are likely to be on its list of tools available for use.  A MakerLab is more likely to need a lead teacher, like an Arts and Crafts room; and less likely than a MakerSpace to have a crew of members who see themselves as equals.

Are we narrowing our definition yet? Maybe we’re being too vague, so let’s contrast this with the

  • Design Studio… where I think you’ll find a crew of dedicated amateurs or professionals whose job it is to design products and test them for a client or a customer.  Have a completely new idea about how to make a hand-held phone? Chances are that a design studio will help you figure out which plastics, what metals, what components, go into your phone.  These people probably understand human proportions really well, so they know how big the phone can be and how small and how heavy.  They also know about materials, and how factories go about building things.  There are computers, with a lot of 3D design software, to help them figure out how to go about building things, and to help them understand how parts fit together.  A Design Studio is often a name given to a group of partners, people, who work together on some dedicated subject: book design, graphic design, advertising, marketing, product design, service design. Though it’s much larger than a single design studio at this point, IDEO is probably America’s best known design firm… and they sort of began as a Design Studio.
  • But the StudioSpace might simply be an open room, with very few tools or materials available at all.  It might have a few rolling desks, and a couple of dedicated workstations, but mostly it’s a large and open and flexible area which can be turned into what it needs to be by turns — this week it’s an assembly station for a new digital pen; next week it’s an art gallery for a party; the week after that it’s an office hosting a new client.  Many Design Studios have StudioSpaces that can be reconfigured to serve many purposes, but there are also stand-alone Studio Spaces, and Design Studios that have no fixed address.

So, a DesignStudio and a StudioSpace often work in harmony with one another, though they don’t have to. Yet they’re often professionals’ work areas, and so we have to contrast that with a

  • DesignLab, which is a space you would/could find in a school.  It might be a middle school or a high school; it might be a college or a university.  It probably doesn’t belong in a kindergarten, though a really dedicated teacher might be able to make it work.  A Design Lab is a MakerSpace that’s specifically intended to teach people to make things or organize processes for the use of someone else.  A DesignLab, usually led by a competent teacher or team of teachers, teaches people about about human proportions, and color theory, and graphic design, and font use — but it also teaches people about the right height for countertops in a kitchen or in a StudioSpace.  It’s not a place to make beautiful art — that’s an artist’s studio — nor is it a place to teach people to make art — that’s an Arts and Crafts Room.  No, a Design Lab has tools like a MakerSpace, but the intended use of those tools is to help shift students from thinking about the world in abstract terms to solving concrete problems with genuine, real-world solutions.

We can downgrade from the goals of a DesignLab to two related spaces, the

  • TinkerSpace and the TinkerLab.  The TinkerSpace is equipped with light-weight tools and materials more suited for model-making and prototyping than genuine construction.  In a MakerSpace or MakerLab, you should be able to build a table or a bookcase, or to sew a prom dress.  In a TinkerSpace, you could build a model of a table or a bookcase, but you probably couldn’t build a weight-bearing one.  Your prom dress might fit a Barbie doll, but not a live human.  All of the work here is lightweight, light attention, and mostly about communicating general ideas rather than the specifics of construction and design.

We can also contrast the MakerSpace and all these related terms with the

  • Tool Library, which doesn’t have any space for anyone to work on projects; but does have tools that you can borrow to use at home and then return.

And then finally, there’s the idea that MIT is promoting, which is the FabLab.

  • FabLab, according to the MIT standards, is a very large MakerSpace, with both the tools and equipment, and the personnel and know-how, to build anything.  Need a tractor?  The people who run the FabLab can help you build it, from the engine and the spark plugs to the hydraulics.  They can help you spec out the design, rough-cut and weld the chassis, and raid parts bins to build it.  Need to sew a prom dress?  They have you covered.

Toward a Hierarchy

So, at this point we’re going to shift gears a bit.  It’s great that we have some working definitions, of course, but I want to move from a definition of a MakerSpace toward an understanding of how these spaces work together in a teaching environment.   I’m going to distinguish between Studios, Spaces, and Labs in this way — a Studio is a professional environment, a Space is a community environment (whether the community is by membership, open-to-the-public, or within a school), and a Lab is a consciously-educational environment.

Ranking from highest to lowest, we’re going to see something like this:

  1. FabSpace / FabStudio / FabLab — Whether we’re talking about community ownership, professionals, or an educational environment, this is the gold standard of operations.  A practical beginner is going to walk into a MAkerSpace, and find that they can build anything, and be educated about how to use the tools available.  However, in a Space, she’ll have to ask for help; in a Studio he’ll be expected to learn quickly and join the professional crew; and in a Lab, people will be deliberately teaching them how to use the tools every step of the way.
  2. DesignSpace/DesignStudio/DesignLab — These kinds of work areas can’t make everything. But they probably have a group of four to ten specialities that they can produce at a very high level of quality.  Whether they do metal work, graphic design, computer programming, carpentry, tailoring, or jewelry-making, people in this environment have access to a good range of tools and high-quality materials.
  3. MakerSpace/MakerStudio/MakerLab — Chances are that a MakerSpace and its related spaces is going to be a bit of a step down from the design designation. A MakerSpace is going to have one to five areas of specialization, and then have partial tool-sets and materials in other areas.  You’ll likely be expected to bring your own materials; there may be storage space in between your visits available… but maybe not.
  4. ArtistSpace/ArtistStudio/ArtistLab —  In an artistic space of any kind, you’re going to find only one or two related art-forms practiced.  You might find a paper-making studio and a printer’s studio and a bookbinder’s studio together.  You might find a pottery room with a kiln, and an instructor who also produces their own work regularly in the same space.  I want to emphasize that an ArtistLab is NOT worse than a MakerSpace… it’s just more dedicated to a specific area of study or artistry or creativity…  You might have a Printing Lab with room for twenty-five students to each work a press on their own, but you can’t build a bookshelf or a tractor there, or sew a prom dress… but you could in a SewingSpace.  Most Arts and Crafts Rooms are really ArtistLabs; and most amateur and professional artists have Artist Studios of their own, even if it’s just a spare room in the apartment.
  5. TinkerSpace/TinkerLab — This is the lowest level.  You find a lot of what I call “low-grade prototyping materials” — pipe cleaners and index cards and puff-balls and colored paper — but very few tools, and considerably less clarity about goals or design.  You don’t get precision or accuracy in a space like this; you also don’t get useable constructions or finished goods. In many ways, a TinkerSpace is really a kind of indoor playground with stuff to stick together in new ways rather than jungle gyms and see-saws.

So, that’s the way I see these things — MakerSpaces revel in the sheer joy of creativity; DesignSpaces build things with a purpose; ArtistSpaces explore creativity without necessarily giving it purpose; and TinkerSpaces are for sticking things together until you get ideas… but won’t necessarily help you build anything real.

Where does your space sit in the definitions?  Are you really operating a DesignStudio when you think you’re running a MakerSpace?  Is your school’s MakerSpace really a TinkerLab?

It’s hard to face these ideas without definitions, sometimes. Maybe we should start to define our terms.

Yarn swift

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Finding a One-Day Project

I was feeling pretty terrible about my woodworking skills. I have a bunch of projects I want to do, but I haven’t finished any of them. In many cases, I have the wood, and it’s been acclimating to my workshop for a while now. But I haven’t actually done what I set out to do.

I made a list of my projects, as a result, and identified the four or five that I could finish in a day if I put my mind to it.

One of the projects that I’d been wanting to do is build a yarn-ball winder from Clayton Boyer Designs.  As a knitter, I wanted to be able to turn my own hand-made wool into something more serious.  Once I make it, though, winding it into a ball is somewhat haphazard.  It tangles more often than I’d care to admit.

So I got out the yarn-ball winder pattern, and I choked back a tear.  No way was I going to scroll-saw that many gears in a day.  It’s a multi-day project at least. But…. the yarn swift?  That could work.

The Yarn Swift is a vertical bar mounted on feet, that supports a pinwheel-like arrangement of fixed and moveable bars.  It’s used for taking a bunch of yarn and arranging it in a skein after spinning it.  The skein can then be repackaged using the yarn-ball winder, later. In theory.

Looking over the plans for the yarn swift, I decided that this, this I could build in a day.  At some point, I’d convinced myself, I had bought the hardware I needed to build it? Isn’t it in this bag of hardware? So it is.  Let’s get started.  I cut out the paper patterns (full size!), glued them to the boards (I already had them!) and got my scroll saw and drill press working.

Pretty easy.  Labor intensive, though.  I’d say that this project took me about three hours this morning, and about four hours this afternoon. There were also two trips to the hardware store, because I had bought the metal hardware and parts that I needed for the yarn-ball winder but not, as it turned out, for the swift.  And the first time I went to the hardware store, I bought the wrong thing.  Alas.


From a skill-development point of view, this was pretty much a perfect project to follow on yesterday’s tool board project (see the tool boards in the background, already getting loaded up with tools? Go, me!) It involved a lot of use of the scroll saw; it involved drilling holes and countersinks; it involved making interior cuts within the bars of the swift’s arms, and it involved cutting dowels cleanly, so that the ends were flat.  Some hand tools were used in the process of making this yarn swift, but mostly it was power tools.  Even so, it was sweaty work — guiding the blade of a scroll saw around a curve is not always easy.  Still, I had fun.

I had hoped to get it all cleaned up — the paper patterns removed, the sanding completed, and the first coat of stain applied.  But I just didn’t get there; if I hadn’t had to go to the hardware store twice to get what I needed; and if I’d just been able to walk in and get exactly the right parts in thirty seconds, I might have gotten the patterns removed and the glue cleaned off.  But I think that trying for a coat of stain would have been impossible.  As it is, I can do that first thing in the morning, and this project will have been finished in twenty-four hours by the clock — not 24 hours of actual labor.

I also feel like I’m now ready to tackle the yarn-cake winder/yarn-ball winder, which involves quite a lot of gear-cutting and scroll-saw cutting.   This project was a nice wind-up and skill re-hash; and now I’m much clearer about reading Clayton Boyer patterns.

Reviewing the Design

Reviewing Mr. Boyer’s plans, I find that he’s done an excellent job of encoding the information about what to do and in what order to do it, on most of his parts. I rarely have to consult the directions about which step to do next.  There’s a lot of changing out of drill bits and saw blades as I go, because not everything is clear-cut to me.  But Clayton did, and does, know exactly what he’s doing.  He specifies diameter of holes to be drilled, depth of hole, size of bolt to pass through two holes into this part, and through that part, and mounted in this one.

It’s an insight into what real designers do, actually. Each part is specified — make this of 3/4″ stock.  That means, as I’ve now learned, make it of solid wood, not plywood.  The size and shape is exact — paste the parts to the wood, cut around the shape, sand down to the line.  Mr. Boyer knows that wood expands and contracts, so his plans allow for that, a little.  Even so, he knows that his mechanism may, in fact, seize up.  Also, he specified that I should use a tube of a particular diameter for the bushing of the pinwheel.  I didn’t.  I used a slightly larger tube, and split my glue-support bearing.  Oops.  Clamps and glue, fortunately, can fix a great many things.

You can see Mr. Boyer’s patterns on my cut pieces, below.  The plans are full-size, meaning that all you have to do is cut out the forms, and then paste them to your wood, and then cut and shape to those specifications.  It mostly works; the errors appear to be mine, and not his.  His forms are perfection, frankly, and I’m looking forward to building the ball-winder, and the other projects that I’ve purchased from him.

I’m looking forward to tackling a clock or one of his mechanical calendars, next.

For the MakerSpace

As always, tools make tools make things. The yarn swift, and the ball-winder that goes with it, are tools.  They are capable of supporting a knitting program in a MakerSpace, such as a Stitch and Bitch Circle, where people get together to work independently on knitting projects, and engage in various degrees of gossip community building through conversation. 

I’ve found that doweling and beads can be turned into some quite-respectable knitting needles, so the yarn-cake winder and the yarn swift and the knitting needles together all demonstrate a core competency for a MakerSpace — an awareness that carpentry projects can be used to support textile projects.  And these tools also raise awareness that textile projects are themselves a MakerSpace project of some seriousness and validity.

Design Lab: Dry Run for Wet Work

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I didn’t get any pictures (updated: got pictures of finished products), but today we rigged the Design Lab for wet work.  By which I mean, we covered the tabletops in plastic, and brought out tubs, and did some work with water.

We made paper.

UntitledIn cooperation with a parent who’s deeply interested in printing and block prints, we worked up a class for the Design Lab in the technology suite that makes books.   My definition of a technology suite is as follows:

  • a group of technologies that cluster together and support one another
  • a set of technologies or skills that feed into one another and develop together
  • a group of technologies and skills that, when clustered together, create complex results
  • a group of technologies that deliver more than the sum of their parts.

Technology suites are great things to bring to a Design Lab or a MakerSpace, because they’re a way to get a group of kids that are interested in one thing in a class, to learn about a bunch of related technologies.  I’ve developed two of these classes now, and this is the first of them.

Here’s the technology suite we’re teaching kids to use:

  • block printing
  • paper-making
  • letter-pressing & moveable type
  • book binding

In the first class, my new parental-colleague and I introduced students to the methods necessary to produce rubber stamps. They learned about carving, and reverse lettering, and creating backwards-facing images that must then be carved. They learned about negative and positive space, about raying techniques (how to align your knife-cuts), and about creating drawings which are then reversed onto the block-blank, and then carved so that they leave a positive image.

In today’s class, we taught kids to use a blender, and a set of pinking shears and similar tools, to chop up cotton rag into the necessary fineness for paper; and to add shredded paper from destroyed bills and junk mail. It was this massive flow of useless junk into the blender, that then got poured, a couple of cups of mushy liquid at a time, into a pour mould.  Then the pour-mold would be lifted out of the water, the resulting sheets of paper patted dry, and assembled into the press with some couch sheets (pronounced “Kooch sheets”) between each sheet of paper.  We produced about twelve such sheets of paper, one per child and a few extras, in an hour and a half. Maybe it was fourteen sheets of paper.  It doesn’t really matter; some of the sheets were an incredible orange color; others were blue; some were green, and some were pink with fleck of gold; and still others were white, although even these had flecks of color in them.  They were these sheets of stiff, heavy rag paper…

And these will become the end papers for our book-binding project… the project that involves taking their stamps, all their stamps, to produce several dozen sheets each for a printed book (or maybe a blank book with some textual or decorative elements, depending on the skills and interest of our students).  And then binding those printed sheets into signatures, and then assembling the signatures into books.

Think about that for a moment.

We’re going to show a bunch of first and second and third graders who’ve rarely built anything more complicated than a holiday card how to cut blocks for printing, how to make the paper to print them on, and how to assemble their sheets of paper into books.  We’ve even managed to finagle the loan of an actual printing press for a couple of weeks of the class.  Practically the only thing we’re not doing is showing them how to make the ink that they’ll be using to print their images into the paper — and frankly, we don’t have the rolling machinery to make really flat paper; it’s all going to be the slightly nubbly stuff that you find as hand-made paper in nicely-bound leather journals that are crap to write in.  So there’s that challenge ahead of us.

Even so, I’m pretty proud of the development of this class.  We’re providing kids with access to a technology suite. And the individual learning opportunities — of making stamps, of making paper, of binding books — can easily be disaggregated from this one class into sub-classes or one-off workshops for individual grades.  We’re pulling together both the technology and the infrastructure to be able to do these kinds of projects, and that’s pretty powerful in the long run.

Are we building robots and teaching kids to fuss around with electronics?  No.  But the Maker movement is more than that, isn’t it?  It’s really about teaching kids to love making things, and to learn to create beauty in the world.  One little boy, a kindergartner (think about that — a kindergartner who’s going to make a full-scale book) asked, “why are we making paper when there’s so much of it all around us?”  And a little girl, second or third grade I think, answered him: “Because it’s fun, and it means that we have paper to print our stamps on.”  It made my day.

More than that, though:  I’m pleased that we’re teaching a suite of technologies.  We’re teaching kids to use a broad round of tools in the Design Lab — and to think of water and plastic wrap as important parts of the tool kit.  We’re teaching kids that pressure and weight (on top of the finished paper) is an important part of production processes, and that drying is equally important.  We’re teaching kids that real tools are more than scissors and tape — that they’re blenders and knives and pinking shears and buckets of water and super-fine mesh screens and wooden frames and sponges and cloths to mop up water. This is a lot different than their ordinary workaday experience; and I think it’s going to give them a different kind of understanding of how the world works, in the long run, and the things that they can do to make meaning in their lives.  Ned Halliwell wrote that the seeds of adult happiness lie in the play, practice, and development of childhood happiness. I saw a lot of happy children today.  Planting some seeds.

Design Lab: New Space #makered


New Design Lab: Move-in DayWell.  As you can see by the photographs, the Design Lab has moved to its new quarters.  We’ve gone from being in an 800-square-foot space with leftover desks and tables and shelving, and more chairs than we ever knew what to do with, to a 400-square-foot room — with a workbench, worktables, proper storage for tools and materials, adequate tools and equipment, plenty of materials, and as an added bonus, a highly-invested middle school student body.

For about a half-hour today during Activity Block, the middle school moved the lab.  First, we shifted the conference room furniture out of the old conference room, and into the new conference room (which is also the old lab).  Then, they formed a fireman’s carry brigade line.  We handed things to kids on one end of the line in the old design lab, and they slid into the new Design Lab just down the hall.  Once the stuff was moved, they moved the furniture that we’ve been building for the Lab over the last few weeks: the two sawhorses, the four tables, the three sections of the work bench, and the rolling cart.

New Design Lab: Materials Wall

The Materials Wall — library at right

I then spent a couple of hours after school organizing supplies and materials into boxes and categories. We’re replacing all the haphazard bins that used to be in milk crates, with brand-new bins.  The shelves are organized with most of the materials and parts on the two lowest shelves, so even the littlest kids can get at them.  Legos and lumber will sit on the floor, which I think is probably for the best.  The middle shelf, where those empty clear boxes are, will hold storage for team and partnered projects of various sorts.  The upper middle shelf — just below the gray crates — will be for after school projects and programs, like robotics and electronics.  And then the gray crates will contain overflow materials of various sorts that there isn’t room to store on the lower shelves, or that we have so much of that it will take a while to use them.  I’ve not figured out how to store electronics parts yet — they work better in small drawers and compartments, really, than big bins.  But for the moment, this is what we have got to work with.  It’s a vast improvement over what we had.

New Design Lab: Move-In Day

Library and north workbench

Then, on the north wall, is the three-section workbench.  There’s a picture of this at right.Eventually, this will be pressed all the way to the left wall.  Then we’ll build a cart for plywood and scrap-wood that fits between the right-hand wall and the workbench. Once that’s done, it will be easier to clear out the central part of the room.

The workbench is already set up, in part, with two pegboards and a few rows of French cleats. True to my word, I put students to work designing French cleats last week.  I can’t say that any student has successfully built or designed a French cleat that I would call beautiful.  But I’ve realized that this is an ongoing project: that every so often I’m just going to hand a kid a project to redo one of them, and say, “here’s what you have to (re-)build. Do this.”

I think the big thing is that I’ve been purchasing tools for the old Design Lab, which had big space and low-quality (and low-price) materials.  And now I have a smaller space, but higher-quality (and medium-price) materials, and the tool-set is going to have to adjust in conjunction with that.  I don’t yet know what that looks like, for sure.  But I know that what I have right now is merely the beginning of the tool-set, rather than the end.

In the meantime, it’s clear that we’ve made a good start on something amazing… but at the same time it’s kind of ironic.  I’ve spent five years trying to bring design thinking program to my school, and, in an effort to bring forth ‘a new kind of program’, I’ve now successfully reinvented…

shop class.


Design thinking workshopNow, there are things I’ll miss about the Design Lab, the old space. For one, it was nice to be able to get forty adults to sit down and work on stuff in groups of five or six, and make things happen. I don’t think we’ll be able to host this workshop in this format any more; or rather, we will, but we’ll have to ‘port’ the design lab into the new conference room space by using our rolling cart more effectively; and we’ll be showing off the Design Lab as a teaching model rather than using it for the conference.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, really.  It was always necessary to clean up and put away things from the students in order to put on the conference; but the mess in the old space never really quite went away.  But the new space is designed from the beginning to be available to small groups of students rather than large groups.  It’s intended to be a workshop or a studio experience, not a huge conference.  And this means that we’re going to create a higher-quality experience for our students.

It also means that we have to provide higher-quality professional development for our teachers. Not someone else’s teachers.  And this means changing how we think about our yearly workshop, too.

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