Tips for Choosing Makerspace Tools + 10 Favorites

Searching for and finding the right makerspace tools for your space can cause some anxiety. There are so many options out there, and so many different brands within those options, that knowing where to start isn’t easy. Budgets are limited and the idea that you might be purchasing supplies or tools that could go unused can be discouraging. But there are some guidelines you can follow to help you make decisions. Based on my experience creating multiple school makerspaces, I’ve compiled five tips to help ensure you have the right tools for your space.

Talk to Students

Students exploring circuitry with littleBits.
Students exploring circuitry with littleBits™.

The worst approach to building a makerspace is buying a bunch of things and sticking them in a your space without ever talking to anyone. Start by having conversations with students so you get an idea of how the space is going to be utilized long-term. This will also help you figure out what size space you will need and what your storage needs will be, as both those details will depend on what types of projects will happen in the space.

Your conversations with your students will help you gain an understanding about what they are interested in making in a makerspace. It’s okay to suggest different tools that could be available to students, but it’s also important to get a feel for what students want to make in their new space. You might be surprised to find that you have a group of students who love to knit and another group that spends lots of time using Minecraft. There may be other students who love to build and have always wanted to use littleBits™ to explore circuits and gadget building. Other students might just need a space to sit and sketch things from their imagination. Whatever their interests might be, it’s important to take note and try to fill the space with items that meet students’ needs and interests. If you don’t, you could have a very dusty and underutilized makerspace on your hands.

Talk to Staff

The other group of stakeholders you will want to talk to are the teachers. This will help you figure out if your space should be in a public area for them to use with their students or if you will want to make your makerspace mobile — or possibly both. You may find that some maker activities will start (or continue) in the classroom with the help of a well-stocked mobile cart.

Start by discussing the types of projects that teachers would be interested in exploring with their students and gain an understanding of how invested in project-based learning they are. This will help you understand how teachers will want their students to interact with the makerspace.

Students discovering the best way to build a fort with cardboard.

Sometimes teachers (like all of us) might be hesitant to try new things, so it’s helpful to give guidance on the different tools that could be available to them in a makerspace. Showing teachers how access to these tools could positively impact their lessons is a great way to get feedback from them, as the discussion can generate even more ideas.

If possible, try to visit an already established school or public makerspace as a group to allow some hands-on exploration of some of the tools and technology you are considering for your space. Youth Services Librarian Holly Storck-Post talks about the value of this type of professional development in her post 4 Benefits of Holding a Maker Program for Library Staff.  Providing staff with this information is key to helping build a space that teachers and students will want to interact with. The more students and teachers you have using your makerspace, the more feedback you’ll get on what tools they wish they had for projects.

By talking to the stakeholders and implementing their ideas, students and staff will have a sense of ownership over the space that will lead to increased usage once the space is up and running. A makerspace should be a hub of learning and creativity, and it is crucial that all students and staff feel like they have a part in its creation. Just talking and listening can go a long way in creating the best possible makerspace for your learning environment.

Prioritize Purchases

After talking with the stakeholders for your space, it is important to prioritize your purchases based on the feedback you received and the budget you have available. This is where different learning communities start to diverge, and that is a good thing. You can personalize your makerspace based on the feedback you heard and get the most out of your budget.

A Dremel 3D Printer in action.

For example, many people will tell you that a 3-D printer is a must for your space. I have a couple of Dremel 3D Printers and I love them. I have them because I have many students from grades 6 through 12 that want to design and print. I also have teachers that are using project-based learning, which encourages students to explore different ways to demonstrate understanding. One of those ways has been 3-D printing. However, if you talk to your students and teachers and nobody expresses an interest in 3-D design, why spend money on a tool that does not seem to interest them? If your students and teachers are obsessed with stop-motion animation instead, invest in modeling clay and LEGOs. Prioritizing the interests of students and staff will allow you to get the most out of your budget.

By starting with tools students and staff are excited about and that you feel you can easily implement, you’ll set yourself up for success. Once your space is established, you can revisit additional tools and brainstorm with teachers on how these tools can help support their lessons.

Do Research

Your research skills will serve you well as you gather the information you need about different tools to make informed decisions. Luckily, many educators have recorded their journeys and compiled great resources that will provide insight on making and makerspaces. Here are just a few:

  • I’m a huge fan of Colleen Graves. I’m often inspired by her work and try to incorporate her ideas into our space whenever possible. Her website is filled with amazing examples of making in her library makerspace, and her Big Book of Makerspace Projects is a must for any makerspace, new or old. It is filled with wonderful resources sure to spark student creativity.
  • Invent to Learn is a remarkable book on the maker movement that was written by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager. Even if you are not interested in makerspaces, but you want to explore teaching and learning in a different fashion, this is an excellent book to read. It contains wonderful ideas and tremendous research.
  • My book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces, is a more laid back, pop-culture filled, nerdy book on how to get started with your makerspace. My mother thinks it’s a great book.
  • Besides the books above, there are tons of great resources available on the Demco book page that are worth exploring if you want to read up on makerspaces.
  • There are also many educators and librarians sharing their experiences right here on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration site. You can read about why they started their makerspaces, how they started them and what tools they love, as well as find some great projects to replicate in your own space.

Get Ready to Start Making!

Explore project supplies and maker tools that will inspire creativity and activate learning.

Ask Questions

Once you’ve talked to stakeholders and prioritized your list, you need to consider exactly which tools to purchase. For example, are there reasons you should purchase a Dremel 3D Printer over another brand? Which coding tool can be used across multiple grade levels? Will you get more professional support from one company over another? Is there a place where you can buy different maker supplies in bulk?

These questions and many more can really sap your energy if you don’t know where to turn or are afraid to ask. Asking questions is one of the most fundamental aspects of a makerspace. If you are not willing to ask questions to help create the best space possible for your school, how can you expect your students and staff to do the same thing?

As educators, we are very lucky to have access to resources all around us to help answer our questions. Educational Twitter chats and educators on Twitter are a great resource for those looking for answers. You can search the #DemcoMakerChat tag on Twitter and you’ll find tons of great educators from all over the country sharing their thoughts on various maker topics once a month. You can then reach out to those educators, based on what they tweeted, and see if they can help you with your question. Another great tag to check out is #MakerEd. This tag is used by educators for a variety of reasons and you’ll find lots of great information.

Getting started in putting together a makerspace can be a daunting task if you treat it like a sprint instead of a marathon. Slow and steady will win this race if you take the time to discuss what your stakeholders want in a makerspace, you prioritize your purchases based on their feedback, you do some research by reading some great books or blog posts and you make sure to ask people who are experienced in the field for advice and help answering your questions. By doing all of those things, you will be able to create a personalized makerspace experience for your students and staff.

To get you started, here are 10 of my favorite tools for any makerspace:

1. Dremel 3D Printer: 3-D printing is a great way to bring another aspect of design to your classroom. Students can design and print projects to show to the class. Or they could design items for a school auction to help raise funds for your makerspace. Design software, like Tinkercad, is perfect for all ages looking to explore 3-D design. I have never had a problem with the Dremel 3D Printer in over a year and love everything about it. It’s easy to use and perfect for a classroom and makerspace from elementary on up.

Dremel 3D Printer
Dremel 3D Printer

2. Cardboard: Save your boxes and get ready to replenish them because kids love to make with cardboard. And you’ll find lots of great uses for it, such as creating projects that tie into reading or research projects. You can also use it to develop design-thinking skills, as it’s an economical way to build iterative prototypes. You can amplify cardboard projects with Makedo™ Toolkits, which are a simple but brilliant tool that allows kids to make really detailed creations with cardboard.

You can get some more great ideas for cardboard projects from Diana Rendina’s guest posts on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog:

Makedo™ Tool Set
Makedo™ Tool Set

3. littleBits™ Code Kit: littleBits are magnetic pieces that you can connect to form circuits that do different things. Different Bits have sensors, lights, motors, buzzers and more. By assembling the Bits in fun and creative ways, students can invent amazing things. These are perfect for K–8 students, who love to build with the Bits and then code them to do whatever they want.

Along with all the resources littleBits provides on their own site, you can also learn from other educators and librarians about how they are using them in their spaces:

littleBits™ Code Kit
littleBits™ Code Kit

4. LEGO® Bricks: Like cardboard, LEGO bricks are always in high demand in a makerspace. Kids will sit and create with LEGOs all the time. Because most kids are already familiar with them, they are an easy tool to combine with others to elevate learning. For example, you can combine them with meeperBOTs to teach coding skills. meeperBOTS consist of a building block chassis that can be controlled by using block coding in the meeperBot app.

meeperBOTs

5. Green Screen Kit: Green screens allow you to take photographs or video of people or objects and use editing software to superimpose the person or object on a background image. For instance, you can make someone look like they’re standing in New York City when you actually just filmed them standing in front of a green screen. Having a green screen kit in your makerspace opens students and teachers to so many projects. Green screens are easy to set up, and there are many free apps that make this a must-have for any makerspace.

HamiltonBuhl® Green Screen™ Production Kit
HamiltonBuhl® Green Screen™ Production Kit

6. String/Yarn: You would be surprised at how many students love to use yarn and string for projects. I have a hard time keeping enough of it in stock. This is the perfect type of supply for which to ask your school community for donations. Many people have knitting or crocheting projects they started and never finished and would be happy to donate the excess yarn to your makerspace. You can also tap into some of those community experts to hold knitting or crocheting workshops for your students.

You can get creative with how you use yarn as well. Check out this post from Gina Seymour to see how her students create “plarn” by upcycling plastic bags to use for their compassionate making projects: How to Inspire Students to Become Compassionate Makers.

7. Dash and Dot: These robots are a huge hit in elementary school, especially during Hour of Code. Students learn to code and program these robots to accomplish various tasks, and the free coding apps they work with come with built-in challenge tutorials. Their “older brother,” Cue, teaches both Block and JavaScript coding through educational challenges.

Dash and Dot
Dash and Dot

8. Duct Tape: Get lots of it in many different colors. Students will use duct tape to make anything and everything. They might make a wallet, use it for a cardboard fort, or possibly make a dress out of it — anything is possible! As Heather Lister says, “Duct tape is to makerspace as water is to life.” You can find more ideas for these types of supplies in her post that covers low-tech ideas for your makerspace.

Scotch® Colorful Patterned Duct Tape
Scotch® Colorful Patterned Duct Tape

9. Cubelets: Kids as young as four can learn how to build robots with these little guys, as they snap together using magnets and there’s no wrong way to put them together. Every new combination is a new robot with different behaviors. Add a Bluetooth® Cubelet to enable students to use Blockly to learn to code and reprogram their robots. Cubelets are perfect for K–6 students, and possibly even older students looking to get started with coding for the first time, as they offer hours of play-and-learn time.

Cubelets
Cubelets

10. Scrap Paper: Collect all of the scrap paper you can for your space because students will need paper to jot ideas on or map out their designs. Collect scrap paper from the library or the piles of leftover copies from the copy room. Local businesses are also great sources of scrap paper — just reach out and ask!

If you have any questions or would like to share more tips on starting a makerspace, do not hesitate to reach out on Twitter at @TheNerdyTeacher and @demco. And make sure to join us for the #DemcoMakerChat on Twitter on Thursday, May 17, at 8 CT/9 ET to discuss how to engage students and staff and get them excited about using your space.

Author

Nicholas Provenzano

Nicholas Provenzano

Technology Coordinator and Makerspace Director at University Liggett School in Michigan
Known as The Nerdy Teacher, Nicholas is the Technology Coordinator and Makerspace Director at University Liggett School in Michigan, and is also a prolific author, speaker and consultant. He writes on his website, TheNerdyTeacher.com, Edutopia.org, and many other prominent educational websites. Nicholas has been featured on CNN.com, Education Week, The New York Times, and other media outlets and is the author of the best-selling book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces. In 2013, he was awarded the Technology Teacher of the Year by MACUL and ISTE. He is also a Google Certified Innovator, Raspberry Pi Certified Educator and a TEDEd Innovative Educator. Nicholas is sharing plenty of nerdy things on the Ideas and Inspiration site, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @thenerdyteacher.