Using a Makerspace Effectively

Many schools are installing makerspaces as part of the trend to include engineering design in the curriculum. The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering has a makerspace, and it an integrated part of the instruction. What is a makerspace? Here is one definition:

“Makerspaces provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they deeply engage in science, engineering and tinkering.” Jennifer Cooper, Designing a School Makerspace (Edutopia)

A makerspace is not the old wood shop or other traditional shop class. I love wood shops, so this is not to disparage them. However, the traditional shop classes were about learning skills with tools, usually with little creativity allowed. The student learned to use each tool safely and proficiently, then made some sort of project dictated by the teacher. The original purpose of shop classes was to prepare students for entry level manufacturing jobs that generally required rudimentary skills. As low skills jobs have disappeared, replaced by a much smaller number of precision manufacturing jobs requiring a much higher level of skills, the traditional shop classes have become somewhat irrelevant. In Connecticut, for example, there are many aerospace manufacturers, but even the entry level jobs require students proficient in basic math and problem solving skills. The majority of jobs require some training on computer numerical control (CNC) machines, and most companies prefer workers who can program and customize these machines, not just operate them. Therefore, a better way for schools to provide students with relevant learning experiences that could lead to employment is to promote engineering design that includes some hands on experience with tools and materials–that’s where a makerspace comes in.

So we have a makerspace and use it every week–but what do the students do in it, and how will it help them later in life? Fundamentally, we use the makerspace as an engineering laboratory–we have taught the students an engineering design process provided by NASA, then we give the students a problem which they must solve using this process. The process includes designing a solution, building a prototype, and testing and refining the prototype–the students need a place with tools and materials to do these steps of the process, so that is where they need the makerspace. We have the appropriate tools and materials to build the various aerospace-related projects that fit in our curriculum. That is a key point–the makerspace should be tailored to what the students need to expand their learning in the planned curriculum. Because Connecticut is forecasting a huge shortage of engineers, especially in the aerospace sector, Newington Public Schools built our academy. To promote an understanding of aerospace and engineering, we tailored the makerspace for aerospace engineering projects. Other schools would have different requirements for a makerspace and should tailor theirs accordingly. The bottom line is to customize the makerspace to your students’ needs and your curriculum.

Here is a photo of our Aerospace Lab area with the makerspace on the right and a collaboration area and flight simulator training area on the left, and our “runway” down the middle:

Aerospace Lab – Academy of Aerospace and Engineering (photo by Eric Cohen)

Currently in the makerspace, the eighth graders are working on a project to design, build, and fly an electrically powered model aircraft that can lift the most weight. The main constraint is that the aircraft cannot exceed a 3-foot wingspan or nose-tail length. The students reviewed aerodynamics and used our wind tunnel to test various airfoils they built. Using this knowledge and other research, they brainstormed designs. They are now building their prototypes in the makerspace and plan to start flight testing next week using a tethered flight system. Stay tuned for photos.

The seventh graders did their first major engineering design project with Ms. Garavel last week and the week before as they designed, built, and tested Rube Goldberg machines to demonstrate their knowledge of simple machines. We do this project first, instead of an aerospace project, because it can easily be done with junk materials. In this way, as the students learn to use the tools and materials for the first time, mistakes and wastage don’t matter too much since they are not using the more expensive materials needed to make aircraft or rockets–plus it’s a fun project linked to the simple machines curriculum. Here are photos of the tests:


This week, the seventh graders did a project to design, build, and test a model glider that would glide the farthest, demonstrating knowledge of basic aerodynamics. Here are photos of each student crew with their glider–note the variety of designs, including a reverse delta wing and a biplane. Crew 3’s glider (third photo) went the farthest in the final test:


Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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