STEM, Maker Spaces, and Engaged Students

By Anne Jolly


Recharge your Students

It’s February, and I’ll bet students are bouncing into your classroom and chomping at the bit to jump into their lessons and assignments.  They’re eagerly working as hard as they can. No doubt they stay on task and learn with enthusiasm and persistence.

Not exactly?

Well, you’re not alone. Curtis Chandler, 2011 Kansas Teacher of the Year, writes that despite his best efforts, his students look at learning as something they have to do rather than something they get to do.  (Note: Chandler goes on in this MiddleWeb article to list 10 questions that can act as a checklist to foster fun (enjoyment, challenge, play, exploration) in the classroom. Good stuff!)  If this Gallup poll is correct, then nearly half of your students may be disengaged during class time. For teachers who care about their kids and work to design relevant, engaging lessons, that’s disturbing news.

Now visualize a classroom space filled with all kinds of tools and materials where kids are exploring ideas together, and creating and inventing solutions for problems that interest them.  Those disengaged students just might become part of a happily engaged majority.  That’s the hope behind a new and emerging education initiative: maker spaces.

As a STEM cheerleader, I like to think of maker spaces as locations set up to fuel curiosity-driven learning and nurture students’ creativity. Just think how productive your STEM lessons would be if they were driven by student curiosity!  With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at how maker spaces and STEM might join forces in useful ways.

First, note that “making” is not intended to be a substitute for STEM projects. For example, STEM involves meaningful application of grade-level science and/or math concepts. In STEM projects, kids work in teams to find solutions for a real-world problem. Those things are not necessarily true of making activities in which kids often work individually on particular interests without the intentional application of academics.  Students may engage individually in a mix of activities (sewing, crafting, robotics, coding, ceramics, electronics, vehicles, etc.)

Maker activities and STEM lessons do overlap in useful ways. Like STEM, making involves kids in hands-on activities that support tinkering, exploring, creating, and innovation. Both use open-ended and inventive practices. The maker component can generate enthusiasm, interest, and innovative solution possibilities for an upcoming STEM challenge.


Maker Space Solution Searches

To blend maker spaces with STEM lessons, you might use some of these tips from Combine Maker Activities and STEM Lessons:

Start by guiding your students to identify a real-world question, issue, or problem they are interested in solving. Visit my STEM by Design site for ideas on problems students can address. Once the kids are armed with their STEM challenge, step back and give them the freedom to research, tinker, explore, and create multiple possible solutions.

Prepare a physical space where kids can access materials and tools for making. Think of this space as a learning lab for kids – a place where they can check out their own ideas for possible solutions for their challenge. You might use your classroom, a science lab, or the school media center. Basically, just grab the largest space available. Hopefully, tables are handy, but if not, let kids work on the floor or pull desks together.

Provide a variety of tools and materials. Be sure that some items in your maker space will work well to help students design a solution for the problem, but there’s no set list of equipment. Include types of items as well to spark ingenuity. Provide some available technologies as well (anything from science equipment to digital technology). You can locate ideas for how to set up a maker space by typing maker space into a search engine, or by searching sites such as Pinterest.

I recommend at least a whole class period for kids to tinker with tools and materials and brainstorm possible solutions. Two periods would likely provide better results. Give them space and freedom and tell them that innovative ideas are welcome. Don’t worry if the area gets messy, but do enlist students to help straighten it up and reorganize after their making session.

During the making session, act as a guide but stay out of the way. If kids seem stuck provide just enough guidance to get them over the hump. You might wonder aloud, “How could I build a (fill-in-the-blank) with some of these materials?” Rather than giving them direct suggestions, encourage them to find information themselves (online, from a friend, etc.) to come with ideas.

Encourage students to take pictures (or to make sketches) and record notes of their discoveries.  Then provide a debriefing time so that they are ready to go to the next steps in the STEM project – plan, create and test a possible solution for their STEM challenge.


Notice the Engineering Design Process diagram. STEM challenges are driven by this process (terms for the steps may differ but the process remains the same.) STEM lessons are driven by real-world engineering challenges coupled with supporting science, mathematics and technology skills. Maker spaces play an important role in the process by sparking imagination, energy, and giving students space and freedom to discover multiple possible solutions to the challenge. During the making session, students may begin planning and creating possible prototypes for use in solving their challenge. The line between making and STEM is usually blurred, and this makes for a strong partnership.



For some additional information on maker education check these out:

Engaging Students in the STEM Classroom Through “Making” – more info on combining STEM and making

Maker Resources/STEMfinity – a list of resources for making

STEM and STEAM Makerspace – planning and management of maker spaces





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