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I recently visited Bangkok, Thailand for an educators conference and spent some time visiting school makerspaces and learning labs, of which now I have visited dozens around the world and have helped schools, museums and libraries design their own spaces. I have seen everything from spaces that have fifty 3D printers and a Goliath share of tools to spaces tucked in the back room of a recreational center with a hot-glue gun and bin of scraps. What I have learned is that the tools, equipment and walls do not make the space, it is the people who direct the space and even more than that are the values that drive the space. What I have found in most cases is that the smaller, less funded spaces seem to be more value driven, purposeful and goal oriented, while many of the larger, well funded spaces seem to just be a showroom floor of the best technologies and equipment. This is not always the case, so let’s take a look at some examples.
While visiting ISB in Bangkok I noticed that they had a well equipped space with a plethora of tools and technologies with a well educated and passionate staff. There were amazing examples of student work and there was plenty of evidence that meaningful learning was taking place in the space and that students were learning to use equipment in creative ways. I have to admit that I was even a bit jealous of their space and could easily see myself spending hours there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this space, the staff or the tools and usage of the space, it was actually highly impressive. However, in my next example, from a school not far away in Bangkok, things looked a little different.
From the photo above you can notice that the tools and materials at the DSIL School seem to be on the scrappy end of the spectrum and many of the materials are cheap, have been re-purposed or picked from a bin. At first glance, you might assume that this is nothing more than what you might find in grandpa’s garage or basement. What I found is that the students were producing some of the most amazing projects that I have ever seen in all of the makerspaces that I have visited around the world. I met a grade 4 student who had designed and built a custom holographic projector to show the planets of the solar system that had included an embedded Arduino controller and an aplication that controls the user interface. I met other students working on projects like studying auditory hallucinations with sound sensors on a Raspberry Pi, robotic arms being used to help people make breakfast, camera sensors on canes to help the blind and other inspiring work. The more that I talked to students, the more I learned that they were all deeply engaged in long-term projects that tied to multiple areas of study and were articulate about their accomplishments.
So, what makes the difference between these two spaces? They both have access to 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools and are both staffed by highly trained teachers and professionals? The image above might point to the major difference between the two spaces that I have described. The DSIL FabLab starts with a vision, a set of values and a pedagogy that directs all of the activities in the space.
“The Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning is one of the most innovative constructivist schools in the world. This new kind of fabrication lab is especially designed for schools and children to investigate, explore, and express science and mathematics from making things following the students’ interest. The innovative learning space is designed to be equipped with cutting edge making technology… at the same time provide material flexibility, low cost implementation and low cost of materials”. - from the DSIL website.
The simple act of having a set of values, goals, mission and pedagogy to guide your space can be completely transformative and provide a greater purpose and clarity for your school’s makerspace or tech lab. Like the DSIL FabLab that is focused on Constructivist, student-centered, Project Based Learning which points the way for all activities and operations in their space. So, what are your values, mission, vision or guide to your space? While at the EARCOS conference in Bangkok, I gave a presentation that focused on defining a vision and set of values for your space.
In the above image, you can see the many values that drive the makerspace that I teach in at The Harbour School in Hong Kong called The Foundry. I even have some of these values outlined on the door to my space. With these values in mind, everything that we do or design in the space reflects these values and we practice living up to these values by sharing them with students and involving them in our understanding of how to make value-driven decisions.
My suggestion is to brainstorm with your team about what is important to you, what do you want your students to learn and how will you present your values? Make a simple list like the one shown above and use it as a guide when you design lessons and meet with staff and visitors. I also want to share some other examples of organizations and groups that have a clearly defined set of values that might be of inspiration to help you think about how you can form a set of values for your space or lab.
I want to give a special thanks to Nalin Tutiyaphuengprasert for allowing me to visit the DSIL FabLab School in Bangkok, a truly inspiring place! More educators from around the world should see your space and meet your amazing students.