3 Reasons Why You Need to Have Tools in a Makerspace

3 Reasons Why You Need to Have Tools in a Makerspace | When I talked about how a makerspace isn't defined by the tools it does or does not have, some misinterpreted me as saying that tools were optional in makerspaces. In this post, I discuss the importance of tools and how they can create vital learning experiences for our students. But at the same time, it's less about what those tools are and more about what they can do for our students.

Reflecting on “Defining Makerspaces”

Just over a year ago, I wrote my post on Defining Makerspaces.  It was inspired after receiving a criticism about how my makerspace wasn’t a “real makerspace” because we didn’t have any power tools.  The focus on that article was how a makerspace is defined more by the learning experiences of the students and less by the specific tools that it contains.  Unfortunately, I’ve recently learned that some have misinterpreted what I wrote to mean that tools are optional and that you don’t need to have any tools at all to create a makerspace.  And this has been used as a justification to deny funding makerspaces because “all you really need are scissors, glue and paper”.  And while students can create amazing things with scissors, paper and glue, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also invest in other tools as well to provide an outlet for students to be more creative in how they express themselves in their projects.

A #makerspace is defined more by the learning experiences of the students & less by tools Click To Tweet

To be clear here, I am NOT saying that your makerspace needs to have specific tools (ie. all makerspaces must have a 3D printer/LEGOs/electronics kits/robots/power tools etc.)  Rather, your makerspace should have the tools that enable the learning experiences that you have designed for your students.  And in fact, if you read back through the various definitions I found in the Defining Makerspaces post, you’ll see that most of them mention the importance of having tools in a makerspace, with little emphasis on exactly what those tools should be.

Using K'nex to create a rubber band launcher

Using K’nex to create a rubber band launcher

Tools vs. Materials

As I was writing this post, I realized that it would also be good to clarify the difference between tools and materials, as both are vital to makerspaces.  Materials are what projects are made of.  They’re generally (but not always) consumable.  Think cardboard, paper, craft supplies, etc.  LEGOs and K’nex sorta fall into this category, though I tend to think of them more as tools.  Tools are generally what you use to manipulate materials, although some tools can stand on their own (Spheros, littleBits, LEGOs) or be used in conjunction with other tools and materials.  It’s not always a hard and fast line.

LEGO Mindstorms art bot: A student used LEGO Mindstorms and dry-erase markers to design his own art bot.

A student used LEGO Mindstorms and dry-erase markers to design his own art bot.

Tools enable learning experiences & multiple learning styles

Makerspaces are ultimately about the learning experiences of those visiting the space.  And the right tools can help to make those learning experiences possible.   Let’s say, for instance, that you want you students to learn about computer science and coding in your makerspace.  They could learn about what binary coding is by spelling their name in Perler beads.  They could code a game in Scratch and then design a controller with MaKeyMaKey.  They could use Tickle to code Sphero and Dash and Dot.  They could design their own human coding game with duct tape and paper.  Many different types of tools can provide different ways of learning about the same thing: in this case, coding.  Now, you could just learn how to code with the computers that you already have in your space.  But providing a variety of tools and experiences means that you can reach all of your students with their varied learning styles – some need to see it, some need to hear it, some need to do it.

An electric cardboard cutter makes it easier for students to work with cardboard and stay in the flow

An electric cardboard cutter makes it easier for students to work with cardboard and stay in the flow

The Right Tools can help students to stay in the “flow”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originated the term “flow” in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and it touches on something we see frequently in makerspaces.  Being so absorbed in the task or project at hand that we don’t notice anything else around us.  But you know what can stop flow in its tracks?  When the tool that you were working with fails, or frustrates you because it doesn’t do what you need it to do.    Making sure that we have the right tools for the learning experiences we desire can help our students to get in that zone and stay there for longer.

The right tools can help your students to stay in the flow in your #makerspace Click To Tweet

One of our favorite projects in our makerspace is the Cardboard Challenge (see our projects from 2015 here and 2014 here).  We have done cardboard projects with just scissors and duct tape in the past, but students were often frustrated at how difficult it was to cut the cardboard, and how duct tape wouldn’t always hold things the way they wanted.  When I invested in several SKIL power cutters and hot glue guns, the creativity of my students projects skyrocketed!  Once they were able to continue staying in the flow as they worked on their projects, the ideas in their head started coming to life.

Teachers building a phone holder out of LEGOs

Teachers building a phone holder out of LEGOs

Tool does not always mean expensive

There is a common misconception that all makerspace tools are expensive.  It’s true that some things cost more than others.  And I believe that makerspaces should be funded and supported to get the necessary tools and materials need to support their students.  But unfortunately, the reality is that we often have to fight for what little money we can get in the form of advocating for funds, crowdfunding, writing grants, etc.  But just because you don’t have $5,000 for a tricked out makerspace right now doesn’t mean that you should get started.  Write a mini-makerspace grant.  Solicit donations.  Get started wherever you’re at.  Those above you may insist that you don’t really need funds because you can create a makerspace without spending any money.  Show them what you can do with what you have, then show them where you could go if they pony up the funds.  The proof is in the pudding.  Investing in some $40 power cutters and some $15 hot glue guns did wonders for my students Cardboard challenge projects.  Again, it’s more about the experiences you want to create.

Hot glue guns make it easy for students to work with a variety of materials

Hot glue guns make it easy for students to work with a variety of materials

What tools are in your makerspace?   How do they support your students’ learning experiences?  Share in the comments 🙂

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Diana Rendina, MLIS, is the media specialist at Tampa Preparatory School, an independent 6-12 in Tampa, FL. Previously, she was the media specialist at Stewart Middle Magnet School for seven years, where she founded their library makerspace. She is the creator of the blog RenovatedLearning.com. She was a monthly contributor to AASL Knowledge Quest from 2015-2018. Diana is the winner of the 2016 ISTE Outstanding Young Educator Award, the 2015 ISTE Librarians Network Secondary Award, the 2015 AASL Frances Henne Award & the 2015 SLJ Build Something Bold Award. She is an international speaker on the Maker Movement and has presented at conferences including AASL, FETC & ISTE. Diana co-authored Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace with Colleen and Aaron Graves and is also the author Reimagining Library Spaces: Transform Your Space on Any Budget.