Makerspace on a Shoestring

By: Sylvia Martinez

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. - Thomas Edison

Makerspaces are a recent trend to create hands-on, innovative learning spaces in school. These spaces are inspired by the maker movement, a global revolution combining futuristic technology like 3D printers with the resourcefulness of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) community. Building and engineering combine to give students creative opportunities as they explore important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts. In schools, makerspaces are both labs and studios, where high tech meets creativity and 21st century learning.

Makerspaces can be filled with expensive, high tech equipment, but it's not necessary to spend a lot of money to provide students with a space that encourages them to create, tinker, and play as they learn. The most important part of the makerspace is the attitude that students have good ideas, and, with the right support, can turn those ideas into interesting projects that support their learning in any subject. A makerspace can be in a classroom, library, or computer lab - building on the creative, student-centered elements that already exist in the space.

When money is tight, it is essential to wisely spend it on things that provide the most value. While these decisions will be different for every community, there are important elements to consider when designing and building a makerspace.

  • At every grade level, look for tools that have a low floor and high ceiling meaning things that are understandable and immediately useful, but have long-term value.
  • Look for extendable usability, so as students continue their use they gain fluency, and in an escalating cycle, make increasingly complex things. Avoid items that are simply toys, giving students a one-time fun experience but don't provide lasting value.
  • Focus on tools and technology that offer students agency - not just choice, but control over the process and the outcomes.
  • Anything you purchase should be elemental - meaning, it can return to its original state, and flexible - it should work in many different kinds of projects.

Look for a combination of craft materials and technology, plus tools that are age appropriate. Real tools allow students to measure and construct real things, and adding computers and high-tech tools increases the learning potential. Even if you are unsure about how to use technology, learn alongside your students. Modeling an attitude of "if we don't know we will figure it out together" is Step One to joining the maker movement.

What should I buy?

Let's say you receive $500 from the PTA. Where should you start with that amount? First, you want to take stock of what you already have. Raid your closets and storerooms for underutilized equipment, science kits, or technology. Next, see what you can get from parents and the community. You may be well on your way in no time with storage, craft and building supplies, tools, and a supply of old toys and electronics to take apart. Supplement that with a few well-chosen maker essentials based on the age of your students. Leave some money in reserve for when you see what works and what consumables need to be replenished.

K-4th grade

The most important elements for a makerspace for your youngest students are creativity, safety, and long-term value. Think of your maker budget as a way to add to what you already have, not to start from scratch. You are simply adding interactivity to your existing creative projects.

Low cost (and free) options for K-4:

  • Electronics - Toy motors, buzzers, and LEDs are three elements to have on hand. Don't forget batteries! Buy in bulk and save.
  • Connect your electronics - There are several ways to connect electronic components at this age. Use sticky copper tape or aluminum foil to make connections between batteries and electronic components. Students can also use metallic office and craft supplies like paper clips, brads, and pipe cleaners to connect batteries to LEDs and motors.
  • Squishy circuit dough is homemade dough that comes in two recipes, insulating and conductive. Combined with batteries, lights, wires, and small toy motors, students can mess around with concepts of circuits and electronics in a fun and safe way.
  • Coding - Scratch and Turtle Art are free programing tools used by millions of students worldwide. Move blocks onto the screen to easily create stories, games, and art. Based on developmental research about how children learn, these programming languages are especially good for younger children.
  • 3D Design software - Young students like to build with LEGO on and off the computer.
  • Books - Have books on hand for class read-alouds or just browsing. Veteran maker teacher Alice Baggett shares her favorite classroom books in her book, The Invent to Learn Guide to K-3 Making: How, Why, and Wow!

More expensive but worth it:

  • Bee bots - Fun little programmable robots that look like bees. Teach them to run a maze!
  • LEGO WeDo - Pair your existing LEGO building blocks with this programmable set of sensors and motors.
  • Makey Makey - This is an invention kit that turns any conductive element in the real world into a computer controller. Write your own programs and invent your own game controllers with anything from pencil marks to bananas.

Great projects for elementary students:

  • Build Rube Goldberg (chain reaction) machines with electronic components.
  • Add electronic elements to dioramas, cardboard constructions, fabric or paper creations.
  • Teach a computer to write your name using Scratch or Turtle Art.
  • Make a marble run or maze
  • Build a jitter-bot - use recycled materials to make a robot, add an off-center motor and your robot will dance and move. Use pens for legs and you have a scribbling, jittering robot.

Middle School

Students in middle school are makers to the core - this is an inventive, curious age where logical thinking and planning skills start to take shape. Middle school makerspaces can introduce tools that have a bit more risk, with the reward being greater precision and the capability to make real things. Students may fall deeply in love with specific tools and technology - and there is nothing wrong with that. Give students opportunities to try new things but also time to return to favorites. This encourages fluency and new ideas.

Building a makerspace in a middle school is similar to building one for younger students. Start with what you have, ask for donations, and see where the holes are. At this age, sewing machines, soldering irons, power tools, and more complex electronics can be added to the list from elementary school. Students should have access to real tools within the bounds of safety. Ask students what they are interested in and follow their leads.

Some inexpensive (and free) options for middle school:

  • Software - Students can continue to use Scratch (free). Even if you don't have enough funds for a 3D printer, students enjoy creating 3D graphics. Tinkercad is a free and easy to use option. SketchUp is also a free 3D design tool, but a little more complex to learn.
  • Expand your electronics - Add stepper motors and sensors to your electronics supply. Buy in bulk and save.

Worth spending money on

  • Makey Makey - This is a staple of any makerspace. Middle school students can build more complex physical inventions to control the digital world.
  • Hummingbird Robotics Kits support building and programming robots using upcycled materials. The secret of the Hummingbird is that it is very easy to use even without understanding electronics, so students can graduate to more advanced programming modes in time.
  • Vinyl cutter or sewing machine - With this budget in mind, you may not be able to afford both of these, but if you are in the market, be sure to purchase one that is sturdy enough for classroom use. Unreliable bargains are no bargain!
  • Soldering irons - For more durable inventions, invest in some good quality soldering irons.

Great projects for middle school:

  • Stop motion animation - there are several apps for tablet and PCs that are easy to use to make short movies. Use your maker materials to create the sets and the actors!
  • Build robots that include elements of bio-mimicry such as flowers that follow light, or robot animals that react to sound and motion.
  • Build simple machines or historical inventions
  • Invent a new interactive toy or game and pitch it to your classmates.

High School

In high school, despite a new focus on STEAM, subjects are often taught separately, diminishing the time for students to experience science and math as integrated areas. Making is a way of doing this - plus, it brings authentic design thinking and engineering to learners. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding abstract science and math concepts.

Many of the elementary and middle school recommendations for makerspaces are still valid - older students need inspiration and playful materials just as much as young students. Creating opportunities for making with imaginative new materials and technology makes learning come alive and cements understandings that are difficult when only studied in the abstract.

Worth spending money on:

  • Arduino - This is an open source microcontroller that can be used to add smarts to anything from robots to wearable technology. There are many types of Arduinos to choose from, and many add-ons (called shields) for specialized projects. Arduinos can range from $8 - $25 each, but you will also need electronics to connect to the controllers.
  • Sensors and output devices - Once you have decided which type of Arduino to purchase, pair sensors and other connecting parts to make a classroom set of components that work together.

Great projects for high school:

  • Build a device that solves an everyday problem. Document your invention online so others can learn from your efforts.
  • Make interactive props and scenery for a theatrical production or video.
  • Program a game showing your knowledge of a mathematical topic.
  • Low cost, wearable, washable computers, such as versions of Arduino called Lilypad and Flora can make computers mobile and take clothing into the 21st century. Explore ideas in books like Arduino Wearables, by Tony Olsson.

The best part of joining the maker movement is a return to the importance of fun in education. Fun and play are important factors in learning, and figuring out inventive ways to do more with less is part of the fun. The interesting tools of the maker movement combine well with lessons in STEM and other subjects, giving students the ability to create and shine no matter the budget!



Sylvia Martinez is a maker, mom, engineer, and the co-author of the book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called "the bible of the classroom maker movement." Sylvia speaks to and works with schools around the world evangelizing authentic, inclusive use of technology across the curriculum. She is president of Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, creating books and professional development advocating using modern technology for learning. Sylvia is also the principal advisor to the NSF-funded FabLearn Fellows program at Stanford University. Prior to that, Sylvia ran the educational non-profit Generation YES, designed and programmed educational software and video games, and was an aerospace engineer specializing in GPS navigation and high frequency receiver systems.


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