Pop Up Projects: Bite-Sized Maker Experiences
One of the difficulties of translating the school makerspace experience for people who are not currently engaged in maker projects with us, is that most of the work we do with students in the makerspace takes place over many days, weeks, or months. However, as is often the case when you are working in an area that generates great interest, it is necessary to find a way to boil down the experience to fit into a more limited timeframe. When my colleagues and I were asked to create a STEAM/maker experience that can be completed in two hours we were skeptical that we could design an experience that honored our principles of creating Agency, Audience, and Authenticity, while fitting within the time constraint. Ultimately we focused on crafting an experience that encouraged significant participant agency, constrained audience to the fellow participants, and hoped that this would be enough to create an experience that felt authentic.
Pop Up Projects were born out of the following ideals:
- Projects should be collaborative, to be completed in teams.
- Projects should be open ended to allow maximum creative and interpretive freedom.
- Projects should force you to think about the process of creation.
- Projects should push you to work outside your comfort zone and try new things.
- Projects should be a heck of a lot of fun.
- Projects must be accessible to participants from age 12 to adults, with only minimal modifications.
- Projects must be accessible to people with no background in computer programming, robotics, mechanical engineering, etc.
- Projects must be able to be completed in under 2 hours.
- Project supplies must be affordable, transportable, and mostly reusable.
The project prompts were primarily born from fairly common science project tropes. However, by stripping much of the specificity from existing projects of this type we allow a wide range of interpretive agency for the groups to not only design their product but to define the goals of the project itself. To aid groups who may not have the experience or resources to set all the parameters themselves we added optional challenges with additional specificity to each project.
The Materials and Set Up
Creating the materials set for this projects was as challenging, if not more challenging than creating the project prompts themselves. Our primary construction materials are cardboard and hot glue as the barrier to entry in using these materials is low and all sorts of structures can be quickly fabricated with them. We attempted to include the most generic and accessible of materials - cardboard, string, tape, balloons, washers, dowels; and a few more “sciencey” items that could be used as designed or re-appropriated - springs, wire, funnels.
We wanted to give students the option of incorporating electronics into their projects. We discovered LittleBits, but there are other products that are designed for similar work. Electronics could be left out entirely as the core mission of each prompt is designed to be completed using only analog supplies (while some optional challenges may require electronic components).
We try to lay out the projects so that participants are surrounded by their materials and supplies. Work tables in the middle of the room, with tables around the edges with all of the available supplies as well as a station for cutting cardboard (the primary building material we use) and for hot glueing. We set the level of supervision for these “hot” and “sharp” areas based on the ages of the students participating in the projects. We do not make the electronic components available, or even visible, during the introduction of the project as it is too easy for students fixate on these components at the expense of the other materials. We make the LittleBits available after the students have already begun to design using only analog materials. Every work station should have a small whiteboard or scratch paper for sketching out ideas.
Guiding the Process
More important than the setup of the physical space, however, is helping the students frame a process for thinking and designing in this context. The process we present to them is an iterative cycle of conceiving, discussing and planning, and then building. While students will spend the most time working in the building stage, we encourage them to conscientiously cycle back through the other modes of thinking when they get stuck. To start, after the students have selected their projects, we navigate them through this process for the first time.
For the first two or three minutes we invite the students to “Think with your eyes,” and silently walk the space, look at materials, study their project prompts, and begin to formulate their own ideas about how to tackle the project.
After that they were asked to “Think with your group,” for another five minutes or so. As the members of the group shared and debated their ideas, the whiteboards quickly became filled with drawings and plans for how each group would proceed.
After this brief, but deliberate, planning period, the groups were ready to “Think with their hands.” They are now free to collect materials and begin to build their creations.
After another ten minutes or so, we will stop the groups and invite them to cycle through the modes of thinking again, identifying and trying to solve problems they are already seeing, or adding new ideas to their design. In this cycle of “Think with your eyes,” we typically lay out and explain how to use the LittleBits, so that the students may begin to incorporate these elements into their projects. After this controlled cycle, we invite students to stop at any time and revisit any of the thinking stages when they stuck.
The next hour or two is spent supervising, troubleshooting, making suggestions, and reminding students that they are creating an idea, not a ready for market product. Help the students keep an eye on the remaining time so they can rethink and modify their goals as necessary. Make sure to leave some time at the end for the students to show off their work for the other groups.
Close with a few questions for them to consider:
- “What was the most difficult part of this project and why?”
- “If you were to make a version two, what would you change?”
- “What skills or knowledge would have helped you better achieve your design? How might you go about acquiring those skills in the future?”
Rinse and Repeat
We have learned something every time we have run these projects. Each time we introduce it a little bit better, or tweak one of the prompts, or add a material we discovered we needed. But it is also important to remember that every group and every individual who participates in this is different and the elements that work great or seem to fall flat one time, could appear to be just the opposite the next time. Designing a maker project is no different that completing one: Think with your eyes. Think with your group. Think with your hands.