Thursday, June 24, 2021

maker space and middle school curriculum reform


Personal Fabrication is on the cusp of exponential growth (the 3rd digital revolution). Due to plummeting costs of the technologies, the opportunity now exists for citizens and schools to do what big corporations previously did. The potential to make more things has expanded dramatically and will continue to do so. We are moving towards a situation where people will be able to design and make almost anything.

From a school / student point of view, this can mean more choice: a negotiated curriculum and more project based learning where students make smart machines, digital wearables or Internet of Things apps. Most students become more engaged when making things. The success of the “hands on” approach is confirmed by experience.

This also gels with a sustainability / recycling theme where “junk”, previously thrown out, becomes the building blocks for new products. Some cities, eg. Barcelona, now pursue this as a major goal.

This is part of the meaning of 21st education as is being developed by the Future Schools Alliance


The 3 game changers are coding, physical computing and the fab lab or maker space. I’ll classify some possible curriculum offerings, which are innovative, under the sub headings of Coding only and Making plus Coding. These could be standalone subjects or become part of a curriculum integration endeavour.

Scratch Coding
Turtle Art
CSDT (Culturally Situated Design Tools)
Computer Game Making

Digital wearables
Unruly Splats
Personal Fabrication
Toy making
Android phone App Development
Electronic Design (Students will learn how to make new electronics and smart devices from scratch and can hack and improve existing things)
Solar car
Smart Machines
Visual Communication and Design
IOT (Internet of Things)

Experience so far reveals these possible outcomes and this list could be further refined as we learn more:
  • Plan and design a project (the 3*I’s: imitate, iterate, innovate)
  • Finding and using online resources (designs, tutorials etc.)
  • Selecting the right tools, using them efficiently and responsibly
  • Learning new skills, often “hands on”: eg. soldering, sewing with metal thread, hot glue gun
  • Being a good team member, pulling your weight and dividing up the work efficiently
  • Initiative: Getting on with the task without being asked
  • Attempting to solve problems when they arise (independent learning)
  • Resilience: Persevering when things get tough
  • Helping others when they need it
  • Coding (MakeCode, JavaScript, Circuit Python)
  • Knowledge of the new generation of microcontrollers (Micro:bit, Circuit Playground Express)


The new microcontrollers (micro:bit and Circuit Playground Express) are both more versatile and easier than Arduino. They open up physical computing to nearly all students

The machines, which are now within the price range of Schools, mean that we can work more accurately and flexibly with a wide range of making materials (wood, plastic, metal etc). The machines make the physical process of making easier but there is a requirement to develop new software design skills.

  • 3D Printing
  • Laser Cutting
  • CNC Milling
  • Vinyl Cutter
  • Digital Embroidery

I have now read a fair bit about what these machines can do and their strong and weak points (eg. the weak point of the 3D printer is that it is slow). However, I have zero practical experience in using them. What is required here is:

  • a series of conversations with experts who have used these machines in a school setting.
  • consideration of what courses we want to run (refer to the list above) and how these machines will enhance that
  • what new software skills will need to be developed

There is other essential equipment required for a maker space.


A Maker Space intuitively seems like a “good idea”, the very notion is appealing. Nevertheless, in the process of developing a maker space there is a dialectic between the new technologies and the curriculum reform process. This has always been true. The computer, a machine, brought in new ways of doing and thinking about things. So did previous inventions such as the wheel or the printing press.

The new technologies do demand curriculum reform. However, the curriculum reform should be driven by a broader vision than technocratic skill building. That broader vision, I would argue, is that we are moving to a society where personal design and fabrication is coming within the reach of all.

SELECTED REFERENCES (there are many more):
Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution (2017) by the Gershenfelds, Neil, Alan and Joel-Cutcher

The Art of Digital Fabrication: STEAM Projects for the Makerspace and Art Studio (2019) by Erin Riley

Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (2019) by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager

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