Making STEM-Centered Makerspaces Work

Authors: Patrick Waters, M.Ed., Professional Educator, Mentor for The Monarch School, Texas

Grant Kessler, Ph.D., Education Specialist: STEM, Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

For much of our country’s history, innovation has driven our economic prosperity. Innovations in science and technology, such as the mastery of flight, the refinement of the assembly line, the disruptive forces of computers and software platforms, have been an economic growth engine. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has been the fuel that drives this engine and will continue to drive our nation forward. Recently, the Texas Legislature has passed House Bill 5 (HB 5), which revamped graduation requirements and brought a greater focus and opportunity for students to engage with STEM education; HB 5 established a credit-based graduation plan which allows students to earn endorsements in STEM, Business and Industry, Public Service, Arts and Humanities, or Multidisciplinary studies. Local school districts have flexibility to provide students with innovative academic electives that are aligned with each endorsement area.


These changes pave the way for greater student access and exposure to STEM topics. The potential of STEM education cannot be overstated, as its impact on students extends from developing collaboration skills, promoting analytical and critical thinking, and fostering creativity to providing pathways to economic prosperity. STEM education can benefit all students, of all learning abilities, at all levels, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, in a substantial way. Our students need access and exposure to STEM curricula and topics in order to reap those benefits.


A number of models for STEM education exist today, from stand-alone courses (e.g., Biology and Algebra) to more integrated approaches such as applied engineering in high school. A new perspective has emerged in the last few years aimed at expanded access to meaningful STEM curriculum to include all grade levels and student readiness groups.


Maker Education is an education approach that positions the student as an innovator with the responsibility to find solutions to relevant problems. The approach integrates the breadth of STEM fields and emphasizes student agency through exploration, communication and collaboration. The Maker student learns content within an authentic context that requires communication, collaboration, research, design, modeling, tinkering, and prototyping. The Maker teacher designs the learning context and facilitates the process so that students acquire specific content-area skills throughout the learning experience. For example, a student might learn geometric angles through building craft objects from wood. Maker Education combines elements of Problem Based Learning (PBL) and STEM education with an emphasis on the creative elements inherent in science, mathematics and engineering.


Maker Education places a premium on the balance between exploration and execution. Small projects lend themselves to indefinite tinkering and fiddling, while larger projects need complex, coordinated planning. Often, small projects can organically grow into larger and larger projects. This deliberate process strengthens and enriches a learner’s executive functioning skills. Additionally, communication and collaboration are two of Maker Ed’s fundamental values, enabled through Makerspaces.


Makerspaces allow learners to practice their social communication skills in a variety of groupings, whether affinity-based or role-specified and teacher-assigned. Lastly, Makerspaces present unique opportunities to generate flow learning and allow the teacher to leverage high-interest projects and activities into learning objectives. Makerspaces allow an educator to differentiate based on affinity, ability, and process because of the flexibility of the model.


There are currently three main models of Makerspaces (and Maker Education) in the educational sphere. Classroom-integrated models are small spaces inside a typical school classroom dedicated to making, much like a block-center in a kindergarten classroom. This type of Makerspace models making as an integrated part of life and allows the classroom teacher to deliberately choose the materials, projects, and time commitment which work best for his or her room. The Resource model works in much the opposite way. The Makerspace is housed in a central location, often a library but sometimes its own room, and the classroom teacher can use it as an educational resource for collaboration, curriculum enrichment and high-interest activities. Alternatively, some schools create Makerspaces with specifically designed Maker Education courses. This approach can offer the benefits of the previous models as well as deliver a Maker-centered, STEM-focused curriculum.


In all cases, Makerspaces are site-specific, deliberately designed, flexible environments for student Makers to practice their skills. For younger students, one might take the form of an activity center with interesting materials and a selection of safe tools. For older students, a school might invest in an entire classroom setting. Teachers can use Maker projects to incorporate certain TEKS standards or individualize Making for a student to achieve the student’s personal education goals. Makerspaces can be oriented towards:

  • Design: CAD (computer-aided design) and the graphic arts
  • Rapid Prototyping: CNC (computer numerical control) machines, 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, Vinyl Cutting
  • Testing: Motion Capture, Video, Measurement, Mathematical Modeling
  • Communication: Blogging, Assistive Technology, Video Editing, Photography/Video
  • Computer Programming
  • Physical Computing: Robotics , Microcontrollers, Electronics
  • Craft: Woodworking, Cardboard, Textiles, Metalworking, Leather craft, Jewelry


A Makerspace can focus on certain aspects of making – for example, rapid prototyping – and then can look into a range of tool options. In rapid prototyping, a 3D printer might be an appropriate measure for older elementary and middle school students, whereas a CNC router would be appropriate for older students. Laser cutters and vinyl cutters operate in a 2D world, whereas a 3D printer creates objects in three dimensions. Educators can scale their tools to fit the needs and educational journeys of their learners.


An educator must always be aware of safety considerations when working with tools and materials. While Makerspaces allow for great opportunities, they also present safety challenges. Students should be “checked out” on individual tools, from basic devices like glue guns to the potentially hazardous like powered saws.


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In the STEAMworks, a Houston, Texas Makerspace designed for students with neurological differences, tool use builds on itself, and a student can’t move up the ladder to more powerful tools until he or she masters the simpler tools. Having multiple tools allows for multiple avenues of success, all based on a student’s developmental readiness. For example, a hand-held coping saw, a powered scroll saw, and a laser cutter can all cut designs into thin plywood. Using a coping saw might be appropriate for a younger student, while an older student may use the scroll saw or a student with physical challenges might use the laser cutter.


Hands-on tools, such as the coping saw, are the best for students thinking in concrete terms, while technology-driven tools, such as laser cutters or 3D printers, promote abstract thinking. Choose your Makerspace’s tools and capabilities to promote appropriate learning objectives. A Makerspace provides a wide continuum of capabilities and projects to engage the variety of students it serves.


Engineering your room design to take into account all students can be the difference between a welcoming class space and a scary class space. For example, students with neurological differences prefer limited visual distractions. Busy visuals and bulletin boards distract and confuse: stick to safety posters with both text and visuals. Visual cues — such as labels for classroom supplies, stuff storage, etc. — will help to ground students. Break zones — quiet, comfortable spaces — give students a place to calm and center themselves until they’re ready to re-enter the busy academic world. Noise and odor pollution can quickly turn a vibrant workshop into an uncomfortable space. Hearing protection must be offered, and fumes from paints, solvents, and plastics should be minimized.


While the term Maker Education might be new, Making has a long pedagogical history. Educators like John Dewey and Maria Montessori recognized the importance of student choice; interesting, concrete materials; and engaging projects. In modern terms, constructivism and project-based learning provide evidence-based research that Maker Education makes a positive impact on our learners.


Maker Education is positioned to drive student learning, ownership and engagement through the integration of new technological innovations and intentional development of 21st century skills. Not only does Maker Education artfully support essential learning objectives, it also aligns student experiences with the community’s economic interests in preparing them for technology oriented employment, further education, and workplace innovation.


If you wish to learn more about Maker Education in action, Patrick Waters can be found Making online at and @woodshopcowboy on Twitter.

For resources, strategic planning and implementation support, contact Grant Kessler ( at Region 13 Transformation Central Texas STEM Center.


Resources:, The Makerspace Playbook, High School Makerspace Tools & Materials

NYSCI, A Blueprint: Maker Programs for Youth

ALA, Making in the Library Toolkit, Maker Club Playbook

JISC, Designing spaces for effective learning

Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager

The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson & Mike Petrich

Tinkering by Curt Gabrielson

The Makerspace Workbench by Adam Kemp &

#makered & #STEM on Twitter

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