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4 maker activities to keep students tinkering

By Nicole Krueger
April 10, 2019
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Kids are natural makers, right? Give them a few tools, and their imaginations will do the rest. Before you know it, your makerspace will be humming with industriousness and creative energy. Right?

It could happen. Or, just as likely, students will become bored, start squabbling and end up playing games on their smartphones.

Starting an after-school maker club can help draw kids into your makerspace and get them engaged in tinkering, especially in schools that aren’t quite ready to integrate making into their curriculum. 

Outside the time constraints of the normal school day, students are able to dive deeper into their projects. But that means you have more time to fill — and what you do with it can make or break your club’s success.

One of the first lessons librarian Diana Rendina learned after launching a makers club at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa is that students don’t always know what to do with maker tools like Snap Circuits or Makey Makey. Sometimes they get overwhelmed with too many choices and aren’t sure what to work on. Many need help unlocking their creativity, at least at first.

“I love free, open exploration, and I think it plays a huge role in allowing students to explore new ideas and pursue their interests in makerspaces,” Rendina says. “But for clubs, I find that students really benefit from being given guidelines and then making something within those guidelines.”

To nurture a vibrant, creative atmosphere, you’ll need to find the right balance of structured activities and open exploration. The Makerspace Playbook outlines two basic types of maker projects: exploratory workshops where students learn basic engineering and building skills through a sampling of brief activities, and applied projects that involve multiple disciplines and drive students to extend their basic skills. Within those two categories, there are plenty of different ways to structure your tinkering time.

ISTE Creative Constructor Lab - PD for Educators

For starters, here are four types of activities you can use to spice up your makers club and keep students absorbed.

1. Design challenges

Design challenges are the bread and butter of any makers club. A design challenge gives students a prompt that places constraints around the ideation process while remaining open-ended enough to “allow students the flexibility needed to make the project their own idea and to reflect their own interests,” says Jaymes Dec, a technology teacher at Marymount School in Manhattan.

And design projects are a great way for students to address the Innovate Designer standard, which is one component of the ISTE Standards for Students. Innovative designers “use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.”

One of the most popular design challenges is the Global Cardboard Challenge, inspired by a 9-year-old boy who built a cardboard arcade. It’s perfect for the beginning of the year, Rendina says; you can focus it on a theme or make it a free-for-all. Other design challenges include making catapults or designing devices for shooting rubber bands. You can even let students devise their own challenges, like the one a student in Rendina’s club came up with: Build some sort of creature that does something.

“One of our groups is building a Chinese dragon parade costume,” she says. “It’s really neat all the ideas they come up with. A lot of times their coolest projects come out of the design challenges.”

2. Make-and-takes

Students love making projects they get to take home with them. But many maker projects involve reusable, non-consumable materials like K’nex or littleBits. Since most makerspaces don’t have the budget to continually replace their supplies, it helps to mix in some make-and-take workshops where students get to keep their finished projects.

To help get girls excited about STEM, for example, Rendina led a make-and-take activity in which students made circuit bracelets out of felt, conductor thread, batteries and LED lights. Find projects that revolve around affordable consumables you can let students take home — like cardboard, Perler beads, loom weaving, button makers, origami or paper circuits.

3. Portfolio projects

One of the things students enjoy most about making is getting to share their work. Many makers clubs end up hosting their own Maker Faire or entering their projects in other showcase events.

Incorporate some time throughout the year for students to work on long-term portfolio projects. These are ambitious projects the students design themselves for exhibition at a Maker Faire or other big event. Whether created individually or as teams, these projects often represent the culmination of what they’ve learned in makers club.

4. Free-form making

Too much open-ended making might prove distracting, but too many structured activities can stifle creativity. Sprinkling the occasional free day into the mix allows students to work on projects that arise from their own passions. 

“Free days are fun in moderation, as they allow students to try out things that they are interested in and explore new tools,” Rendina says. “If you want your students to get creative, you need to find a way to balance design challenges with free days.”

By incorporating a variety of different types of activities into your after-school club, you can keep students engaged in tinkering while helping them unleash their creativity.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

This is an updated version of a post that originally publish on August 1, 2017.