CSTA Classroom Science

Beyond Makerspaces

By Jenny Chien

Schools are evolving and the demand for education is in how we meet the unique learners of the 21st century. Researchers and innovative educators are shifting schools from the antiquated ”learn and regurgitate” to the ”research and development” model where the emphasis is placed on the process instead of just the product. The maker culture has been adopted by many schools as a contemporary approach to meeting the needs of our students from being just consumers to become ‘learn by doing’ producers. Not only has the Maker Movement modernized education in many ways, it also lends itself to supporting students authentically solving problems and explaining phenomena in relation to other areas of study, especially with NGSS. Makery and NGSS have parallel visions.

The Maker Movement has been around for centuries dating back to the beginning of humankind when the latter was trying to invent and build tools to survive. Maker Education was first coined by Dale Dougherty in 2013, who is the founder of MAKE Magazine, creator of Maker Faire, and also the CEO of Maker Media. The Maker Education movement is considered an innovative way to engage students in a hands-on, social, and problem-solving approach to learning.

I was at the end of my seventh year of teaching 5th-grade when I was approached with the idea of creating a makerspace, an unconventional space for students to be makers and to learn by doing. I had a blank slate going into the following year, knowing two details: I would have time with Kindergarten through 5th-grade students (588 to be exact) and I would have a physical space. With the support of my administrator, I embarked on the journey of creating our first elementary makerspace in Vista Unified School District.

This was the same time that I began my four-year CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative journey with the K-12 Alliance @WestEd as a Core Leadership Teacher Leader. Little did I know that this experience was not only going to be life-changing for me as an educator but transformative in how the makerspace will be shaped.

My first year of teaching in the DREAMS Lab (Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math and Science Lab, a makerspace meets STEM with a focus on science and engineering), I used LEGOs in all grade levels with the emphasis on the design cycle. I also used recyclable materials such as toilet paper rolls and cardboard for students to create prototypes to meet the design challenges that were presented.

Upon reflection in my first year in the makerspace, I wanted to go beyond just makerspaces. I wanted the focus of the making to be on AUTHENTIC INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT for all students.

Four years later, with a plethora of NGSS training, the lab has become an NGSS-based makerspace. The biggest shift of my lab is the focus on the Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs). Through the lens of these concepts, students are able to apply their perspectives of the CCCs to a variety of design challenges that are vertically aligned to help create pathways for students to explore their interests and passions in science and engineering.

In a recent 5th-grade design challenge, students used the CCC lens of Structure and Function to create robotic designs specifically to aid in natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. Discussions about the robots were centered around what each component of the robot would do and how it would be made. Through an inquiry-based discussion, students quickly realized they needed the value of both the structure and function.

In addition to the CCCs, the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) were also critical in providing access to the design challenge. This would be considered what makers call the ‘learn by doing’ element of the learning process. In the same design challenge, we focused on the Asking Questions and Defining Problems SEP. In order for students to develop an authentic connection to the design challenge, the young stewards had to establish what they already know about the four spheres of the Earth systems. This was the formative assessment in gaining the knowledge of the Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI), in this case, was what causes earthquakes and volcanoes. In an inquiry-based approach, students had to practice using the same SEP of asking questions by identifying what is still unknown about how the four spheres interacted with one another. These questions were further studied as lines of inquiry with their unit of study in the homeroom classrooms.

Back in the makerspace, our focus was on potential outcomes of disasters that would occur after the earth systems interact using the CCC of Structure and Function. As an educator, I selected a phenomenon of a recent earthquake. I teach in North County San Diego and at the time, there was a disastrous earthquake in Mexico. I searched the web for video footage. I found one of someone videotaping the earthquake while it was happening and another the aftermath. I have always found that using a relevant phenomenon that students can connect to is indispensable. This lays a strong foundation for the purpose of the design challenges to come, a problem students will eventually solve.


Utilizing the phenomenon, we tapped into the engineering standards of NGSS by designing a robot that would aid organizations or individuals during or after a natural disaster. Each design team had a different focus based on their inquiries. When students develop their own purpose of why they are designing their potential bots, it provides them with opportunities to naturally ask questions (another SEP) and be the driver of their learning, which fosters student agency. Some of the designs that my students focused on were search and rescue, removing debris, or capturing aerial views of the disaster for damage assessments. Thoughts and designs were all being documented in their science journals, just like scientists and engineers.


The next step the students took was to shift from two-dimensional designs to developing 3-D models (another SEP). As students began building their prototypes, they naturally fell into the design cycle. NGSS has a great example of a design cycle that was included in Appendix I. I redesigned the design cycle to include the NGSS design cycle and Stanford Design School’s design thinking process. I also needed to redesign it in order to fit the needs of my K-5 school population. The image provides a comparative look at the parallels of the cycles.

Using my re-modified design cycle, my 5th graders started with having empathy and framing their focus, then shifted to ideating possibilities before designing and building. Design teams also shared their prototypes with others to collect feedback to improve their models. The students quickly learned that engineers are never finished because there are always ways to improve their prototypes as our world and their skills and understanding, evolve. This helps students understand the nature of science, specifically that scientific knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence (NGSS: Appendix H).

One aspect I learned about creating an NGSS-based makerspace is the grit that students develop when making. Some students who may have struggled in a typical classroom may thrive in these unconventional settings. Conversely, students who may have quickly succeeded in a traditional classroom struggled in these settings. Either way, these young scientists, and engineers gain confidence through the process of making. Students had to develop grit through their collaboration with teammates and commitment to ideas. As educators, our role is to guide these students to overcome the challenges by giving them the environment to engage in respectful discourse and methods to collaborate.

5th-grade engineers showcase their bots that were designed and built to aid in the aftermath of a natural disaster to 1st-graders at the Robotics Petting Zoo.[/caption] 

Authenticity is often exhibited in the audience. Three weeks later, students had to showcase their natural disaster robots to 1st-graders at the Robotics Petting Zoo. In a small group setting, students had to explain their process of making their robots, the purpose, and the structure of function of the bots while allowing the 1st-graders to try them out. Opportunities to showcase their models provided students an opportunity to make an impact on their school, locally, and global community. Whether it is in a school setting, at a Maker Faire or to a team of scientists or engineers, having an authentic audience is invaluable. When we tap into what is meaningful for students, engagement in science naturally increases. “A rich science education has the potential to capture students’ sense of wonder about the world and to spark their desire to continue learning about science throughout their lives. Research suggests that personal interest, experience, and enthusiasm—critical to children’s learning of science at school or in other settings—may also be linked to later educational and career choices” (NRC, 2012, pg 28)

As an educator, I could have taken a robotics kit and have the kids follow the curriculum step-by-step with little to no NGSS alignment and would have probably engaged the students. But my goal was to create an authentic, intellectual engagement opportunity. I could only do this by using NGSS as the core of the making process.

My role as an educator was not to stand up at the front of the makerspace and give direct instruction on how to make something. Instead, through a constructivist approach, my role has shifted to guiding and facilitating. When students begin by engaging with a phenomenon by discovering and wondering, great ideas will quickly surface and it’s important that we validate these ideas and run with them. It creates an authentic, intellectual, engaging environment.

National Research Council (NRC) (2012), A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Retrieved April 23, 2018, from http://nap.edu/13165

Achieve, Next Generation Science Standards and Appendices, http://nextgenscience.org/.

Jenny Chien is a K-5 STEM Specialist at Casita Center for Technology, Science, and Math in Vista Unified School District; a 2017 California Teacher of the Year, a Core Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and CSTA’s Primary Director.



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