Make Learning Happen

This is part of a series in advance of the upcoming Maker Faire in New York City on September 23rd & 24th. You can view the whole Maker Faire series or look at the related Museum-Education postScience EdTech Tools post, or Making in New York post.

Why You Should Be Making

As someone who grew up loving Popular Mechanics magazines, model building, and days when my Boy Scout meetings got particularly crafty, I have long loved creating (and taking apart) things. I built a functional paper clock when I was 11 that, though it didn’t have Quartz-like accuracy, it did keep the time well-enough for a sense of personal pride. Even now when I’m doing home improvements like designing and building a reading nook, storage shelves, or a jungle gym for my kids, I beam when my I’m posting the obligatory Facebook photo of my finished project. The sense of accomplishment in saying, “I saw a thing in my mind, and I made it.” have long made me a fan of the maker movement long before I knew that it existed or went by that name.

Whether you call it building, engineering, or project-based learning, (PBL) you will find making to be a powerful educational tool. It is one of the most impactful ways I have found to engage students in learning 21st-century skills. Students are motivated to learn and retain information more powerfully in an open PBL environment.  You can see this in action in the educational documentary Most Likely to Succeed.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful co-worker of mine who runs the District 75 Makerspace and allows me to have a hand in it. I enjoy every moment she and I get to build together with students. Every time a student creates something they are filled with a sense of accomplishment which is intrinsically motivating.

Maker Faire

The World Maker Faire in New York City will be coming up again on September 22nd & 23rd at the New York Hall of Science (NYSci), a space with wonderful year round making opportunities for students. There is also another opportunity beforehand called the Make: Education Forum which is a chance for teachers in the area to learn about resources for making in the classroom. The fun and learning exhibited at last year’s event are too wonderful to just list. For that reason here are photo highlights from my experience at MakerFaire with my two young sons.

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Making in the Classroom

As a teacher, you may think that bringing making into the classroom may seem like a major ordeal, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need expensive materials or high-tech 3D printers and software to start making. You can begin with cardboard, construction paper, milk cartons, and an idea. You may also want to begin with a field trip to learn about design thinking and iteration. The Cooper Hewitt and the New York Hall of Science offer wonderful creative design opportunities. There are also a number of other New York City spaces for both young and less-young makers to expand their learning beyond the school walls.

All that is required is an open problem that needs solving and the willingness to play and explore with your students. Maybe they can create a better pencil holder or maybe they come up with a solution to clean the Pacific Garbage Patch. You’ll only know if you delve in and give them an opportunity to discover. If you want assistance in teaching design thinking, The Extraordinaires is a great game to set students on that path.

If you plan to expand design and creation in your classroom you can find examples in New York City via the INNOVATION! School Library Makerspaces where grants are given to encourage creative design. There are many other makerspace grant opportunities as well. other funding opportunities as well. Below are some resources with a brief overview. Each likely deserves its own post, but here is a place to start.

General Building

Engineering is Elementary, a curriculum developed by the museum of science in Boston, extends elementary science through project-based learning. It comes with teacher guides, stories, worksheets, and materials for projects.

Paper/Cardboard Engineering

paper engineeringPaper engineering is one of the simplest and most cost effective ways to begin making, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be elaborate as well. It can start off with a simple idea like building index card towers to support the weight of an object or designing a boat or pulley system for island survival. You can integrate batteries, LEDs, and conductive paint to create paper circuits and illuminated cards. There is no shortage of ideas on Pinterest. Also if haven’t seen Cain’s Arcade, I recommend you do to see how powerful simple tools and creativity can impact a community.


This is the point where a lot of making enthusiasts say, “sewing and fashion are how you get girls interested in STEM projects.” That’s stupid because, 1) if Flashdance taught us anything, women can be awesome welders too, and 2) boys/men can enjoy wearable tech as much as anyone. In fact one of my favorite recent maker experiences involved me creating a sewn doll that lit up when you squeezed it. I loved it both because of its technological and visual appeal. There is a great Futurist article that imagines a world where all our outfits are smart outfits that inform us of whatever biological, medical, or recreational information we want. So grab some felt swatches and pipe cleaners and begin making using some of the wearable resources from Maker Education or Makezine.


There a number of great ways to begin teaching circuitry and electronics and many resources to do it for both basic and advanced learners. Below is an example of students at TEDxYouth creating a hacked musical space and you can access their how-to guide as well.

  • Arduino – This is the open source electronics platform where most people begin. The options available are limited only by your imagination. My only caveat would be that the learning curve is a bit high especially for my students with special needs.
  • littleBits – This company has lessons and sells a number of kits for teachers and consumers. I will definitely dedicate an entire post to them soon. They are easy-to-use color coded magnetic electronics components that can be put together to create more complex creations. The major knocks I usually hear about littleBits is that they’re too simplistic or that they’re too expensive. I am personally glad for the simplicity because it creates it a great entry point for young makers. As for cost, you can start small with a few components or you can enter one of their contests to win a huge kit like my department did.
  • SAM Labs – This resource is fairly new to me, but it’s a lot like littleBits except that each component is individually powered and doesn’t need batteries. They are also Bluetooth and don’t require that they are next to each other. In addition, they have a fun app that begins students with game-based learning to aid students in learning about the components.
  • Makey Makey – With Makey Makey you can create controllers for your computer using everyday conductive objects like tinfoil, fruit, or another person. My favorite use is to create music makers with some of the resources they are available like
  1. Patatap – This is a mixable sound visualizer.
  2. Typatone – You can turn typing into musical accompaniment.
  3. Soundplant – Use a keyboard to link to sound clips which can be found using FreeSound or WaveSource.

3D Printing

3D printed prosthetic handThis is again another area that begs for its own post. (forgive me, I’ve only been at this about a month). 3D printing is the center of many makerspaces both educational an otherwise. The opportunity to design something from your mind and easily create an exact three-dimensional physical representation of it is incredible. You can make classroom visual aids, a prototype model, or just bring art work to life. Some printer companies, like MakerBot or 3D Printing Systems, have even created an education department with related lessons and resources. Some of the most amazing examples I’ve seen are the student who printed his own braces and the printable prosthetics that I got to try last year.