One of the challenges I faced this year in the Makerspace was that our classroom got double-booked for the second nine weeks during 7th period. This meant my Principles of Applied Engineering Class met in a Spanish classroom – and the students who were eager to use large tools like the saws were disappointed at the temporary change in venue. (We ended up doing a 3D Design project that nine weeks.) I knew when we returned to the Makerspace at the beginning of January that the students would not want to be put off any longer, and racked my brains the entire Winter Break for a project with a purpose that would finally allow them to explore the tools.
Our Makerspace is relatively new, set up in the school’s old Cosmetology classrooms, and it’s definitely a work in progress. With upcoming renovations we will be getting another space, but we’ve been trying to make this one functional and inspirational in the meantime. Other than tool storage, our walls are somewhat blank. With that in mind, and everyone’s New Year’s Resolution tweets about their “One Word” for their year flooding my Twitter feed, the idea came to me that the students could practice using most of our tools while creating signs to hang up on the walls.
The students brainstormed words that they felt represented the Makerspace, and each group of 2-3 students chose a word. They made construction paper prototypes of their signs, planning out the measurements of the letters and the plaques. In the meantime, they did some flipped learning with online videos and safety tests for each of the tools they would be using.
All of the students used the table saw and miter saw to make their plaques. I have to say that this is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job. Like me, many of these students are fearful before they use these powerful tools. After watching a few people do it without chopping off any fingers, they hesitantly try. Their smiles afterward remind me of my daughter’s reaction the first time I convinced her to ride roller coaster. “Let’s do it again!” The female students, especially, seem the most empowered after they finish. There is a noticeable difference in their self-confidence as they continue with their projects – some of them asking to cut other people’s projects so they can repeat their experience.
Once the plaques were made, the students were required to learn how to use at least 3 out of 4 other tools for the more precise designs of their letters. Each tool requires different software for design, so that was a bit challenging. The students could use: 3d printer, laser cutter, Silhouette cutter, or CNC mill. I encouraged them to use different fonts and types of “stock” for each letter. They could use acrylic, plywood, vinyl, cardstock, copper, aluminum, and filament. (Students could “earn” access to more expensive materials by meeting certain benchmarks on time.)
One of the cons of this project was that many students needed my help or supervision for different things at the same time. If I do the project again, I will plan more “mini workshops” about the software and schedule times to use certain tools. Another con was that our brand new CNC mill has a huge learning curve, and we lost a lot of time and material to mistakes. I think I’m finally learning its idiosyncrasies, so that shouldn’t be a huge problem in future projects.
Despite those issues, I felt really good about this project when we finished. I decided not to assess the actual signs, or to give any kind of team grade. Instead, students were assessed individually on their safety tests and on their final reflections of the design process. These reflections, which required pictures of different stages of the project, will be included in the online portfolios our school is required, and were very informative about how much the students understood about problem-solving and learning from mistakes during a project.
Here is what one student wrote, after describing some of the challenges encountered during the project, “That was all fine because that is how life is. You never truly know what is going to happen next and it allowed me to think on my feet a little better and reevaluate my plans; it was a reality check between what was possible and what I could accomplish if absolutely nothing went wrong, which isn’t life. Life is messy and that is beautiful.”