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Three Ways To Connect With The Making Community

March 25, 2016 / by Robbie Torney

Making in Schools

This is the fifth in a six-part series titled Making in Schools.

Starting making in your classroom can be daunting. Where do you get supplies? What does it actually look like when you give a student a hammer, a soldering kit, or a sewing machine? And what can students actually do with making tools?

Below, we outline three types of resources that will come in handy when you start making in your classroom -- and all involve connecting with the larger making community. Even though these resources come from the Bay Area, where Lighthouse Community Charter is located, similar resources exist in communities across the country. Our hope is that by sharing our approach to seeking out resources you will feel empowered to seek out similar resources -- wherever you are.

Connect with Makers

If you want to start making in school, a great resource for inspiration is other makers: people who design, create, tinker with, and hack things. Even if these makers aren’t working in schools, seeing what other people are making and thinking about can expand your sense of what’s possible and give you ideas for what you might focus on with your students.Two Lighthouse Community Charter Students at Maker Faire Two Lighthouse Community Charter students at Maker Faire

A great place to start is Maker Faire. There are two flagship faires -- one in the Bay Area and one in New York -- and hundreds of Mini Maker Faires across the world. The diversity and curiosity in the maker community is enormous. People exhibit everything from pickles to fire sculptures to electric vehicles to hand-sewn puppets, and everybody is excited to share what they do. At Lighthouse, we've made it a priority to have our students exhibit at Maker Faire every year, to give them a chance to share their work with an authentic audience and to expose them to some new ideas and passions that they haven't imagined yet.

If you want to learn specific skills or meet makers with a specific skill set, you can take a class. Some places to start looking are community organizations and community colleges. In Oakland, for instance, The Crucible offers a community built around blacksmithing, ceramics, and glassblowing for adults and children. Laney College offers a low-cost way to learn about topics ranging from plumbing to the culinary arts. It's also important to remember that you can connect with makers through online classes. Coursera, for instance, offers you the chance to learn about things like programming, composing music, and animal care.

Connect with Maker Educators

It can also be powerful to connect with people who are making in schools already. These Maker Educators think about, and have experience with, giving students the kinds of experiences that allow them to design, create, tinker with, and hack things.

One place to look is MakerEd, whose staff works entirely to empower schools and communities to make.

There are also a number of professional development opportunities that can allow you to meet and work with other maker educators. We provide regularly scheduled professional development for other schools at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab, and our friends at the Tinkering Studio do this as well.

While taking advantage of existing professional networks is nice, it's certainly not required. Some of our most lively get togethers are our Bay Area Maker Educator Meetup (MEM) and our East Bay MEM. These are Google+ communities of educators who get together in person a couple of times a month — sometimes to participate in a making activity, sometimes to learn from a particular practitioner, and sometimes to talk to get ideas in a more informal manner. They have been held at museums, schools, and even a toy factory! Although these particular groups are local to the Bay Area, get one started in your area by getting the word out, planning an activity, and ideally finding a partner who can provide food and childcare.

(Watch videos of lightbox activities at the Bay Area Maker Educator Meetup at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.)

And there are also online communities like the K-12 Fab Labs and Makerspaces -- a Google group with amazing conversations about everything from pedagogy to choosing the best vinyl cutter. They even have an ongoing list of professional development opportunities throughout the country.

Getting Resources

People who are interested in starting makerspaces often worry about the cost of materials. The good news is, that so much of what you need to start a makerspace is free -- with more expensive items, like 3D printers, coming later in your program's development.

Here are three examples of the kinds of things that we get for free:

  • Did you see the New York Times article on the amount of cardboard generated by e-commerce? There are literally mountains of cardboard up for grabs. At our school, our staff and kitchen pile cardboard boxes in a particular place, and then we grab them to restock the Creativity Lab. Cardboard is an amazingly versatile prototyping material with a low floor and an incredibly high ceiling.
  • We get scrap lumber from a local lumberyard for free. Not only are we doing them a favor by taking a waste material off their hands, but they're really excited by the idea of children learning to woodwork.
  • We get all kinds of things donated by families, including motorized toys to take apart, toilet paper rolls, water bottles, and strawberry baskets. Once people get used to the idea of bringing certain kinds of things in, it's relatively easy to set up a donation space where students and families know they can drop things off, with special requests for certain kinds of materials going out as needed. Family donations are also a great way to get families into the makerspace.

When we can't get things for free, we look to upcycling centers to get them inexpensively. There are a ton of these in the Bay Area, including the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, SCRAP, RAFT Bay Area, and Urban Ore. Check in your area to see if your community has similar kinds of upcycling centers.

Even when we do need to actually buy things (like screws, for instance), there are tremendous opportunities to build teacher agency. A number of our staff were initially unsure about going to a large home improvement store to buy materials. After a few trips with other teachers or Creativity Lab staff, however, these staff members were empowered to make runs on their own -- and were then inspired to go out to get other materials needed for student work as well.

As a final note, there are a variety of different grants that can be used to get more expensive things for your makerspaces. We’re not going to devote much more time talking about this particular way of getting materials (mostly because you don't really need a grant to get making off the ground), but if you're finding that you need something costly, you might be surprised at how easy it is to find people and foundations interested in funding your work.

Get Started Now!

If you live in the Bay Area, we've just provided you with a list of resources.

If you don't live in the Bay Area, though, we hope that you can see how you might get connected with the Making Community by asking yourself:

  • Where are there makers in my community, and how can I connect with them?
  • Where are there maker educators in my community, and how can I connect with them?
  • How can I source materials for making for free?

At its heart, making is about empowering people to understand how systems are made and how you can interact with them. Connecting with the Making Community is no different, and doing this with your local ecosystems can build partnerships and provide support for making in your school.

Topics: Professional Learning, STEAM, Resources

Robbie Torney

Written by Robbie Torney

Robbie Torney has been a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California, since 2011. This year, he is part of a team working to open Lodestar, a sibling school to Lighthouse, with an exciting new model designed around making and agency. Robbie is an Oakland resident, a Stanford fanatic, and supporter of students, teachers, and higher standards. Connect with him on Twitter: @rtorney.

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