Makerspace Dreams

Ten years ago every library and school leader who was looking ahead was convinced that makerspaces were the next Big Thing.  “We want to create safe, creative, innovation-centered learning spaces!” they’d share.  “We’ve got some funding to buy some 3-D printers, some laptops and maybe a circuit-based invention toy!”. Intentions set, spirits revved up, resources acquired - boom! - you’ve got a makerspace.  

And what happened?  

Questions.  Lots and lots of excellent, insightful, essential questions.  

“Where do we start?”

“Is there a curriculum or program plan we can follow?”

“What brands should we buy?”

“Who is going to manage these things?  What are people going to make?  How do we train our staff?”

“What about little kids? What’s the prerequisite for using these things?”

“Who pays for it?  Is it free?  What happens if things break?”

“Wait - there’s more to makerspaces than making little plastic doodads…right?”

From the start, we learned that pioneering leaders and program managers were all about innovation access, but needed to deploy lower stakes, stickier, measurable ways to engage many learners in spaces with devices that made one thing at a time.  More importantly, they were looking to build staff familiarity and confidence with  new materials, creative technologies and the habits of mind maker education required.  In order to create confident, excited learners, they needed help identifying projects that those learners could create - and keep. 

FutureMakers early purpose (2011- 2018) was to serve organizations pursuing accessible, measurable, scalable innovative hands-on learning - like schools, libraries and community spaces. We provided embedded professional learning opportunities, matching our visiting coaches with programs, classrooms and educators who wanted to explore hands-on learning, but needed strategies to confidently and equitably manage materials, projects, and strategies integral to coaching through design challenges.   Our years being guides at the sides of educators showed us that learners are most successful when educators have confidence in their skills with physical materials, strategies for supporting hands-on exploration, and have exposure to approaches to introducing design challenges. This was a real struggle for many teachers, librarians and youth developers. They just needed an entry point so their learners could engage, explore, express and feel confident with this new approach to hands-on learning. 

Enter the drawbot

Sometimes known as a drawbot, doodlebot, vibrobot,spinbot or bristlebot - just add a vibrating motor to an everyday object and it was now a “bot”.  It was a quick and easy way to integrate craft supplies or household materials and “technology” (read: hobby motors) that was much more affordable and definitely more engaging than watching a 3D printer slowly extrude plastic.   Over the years we coached hundreds of educators and  tens of thousands of learners to ask, imagine, plan and improve their designs in service to STEM confidence. If you’d like, here’s our original classroom drawbot design challenge slide deck that’s been used in hundreds of classrooms, libraries and youth centers.  

Make It Wiggle

The first step in any invention that moves using mechanical vibration is creating a source of that wiggle.  A recipe that has worked for us for years requires four ingredients: 

  • 1.5v (AA or AAA) battery
  • 1.5v - 5v hobby motor with wired leads*
  • small piece of hot glue stick
  • ½’ wide slice of (used) bicycle innertube or wide rubber band

* you’ll need to attach wire if your motors do not have wired leads.  Depending on the size and experience level of your classrooms this might be a tough step to ask small hands to tackle. 

In order to create a motor that vibrates attach an imbalanced weight to the end of the motor shaft.  When it spins, the rotating weight’s mass moves from side to side, up and down, causing the whole thing to shake and shudder.  You’ll see the same thing if you’ve ever used a top-loading washing machine - if the load of wet clothes isn’t balanced inside the machine just right, it shimmies (until it shuts off!).

You’ll need to power the motor with a 1.5v (AAA or AA are perfect) battery. We’ve found that an elastic band that wraps around the battery from end to end is the perfect thing to hold wires in place, but allow you to remove and reattach them as needed.  Connect the wire, the motor spins!  Disconnect the wire…you get the picture.   Used bicycle innertubes are available for free from any bike repair shop.  Use the mountain bike sized tubes - small, skinny tubes aren’t what you’re looking for.  Cut the tube to make a hose, and slice pieces off the end of the hose with scissors or utility shears.

Pro tips:

  • Learners are most confident when they are listening to and learning from each other.  You don’t have time to troubleshoot twenty motors.  Turn to your team, and coach them to ask each other for support and troubleshooting suggestions before turning to you.  This works!
  • You should explore what motors can and cannot do before turning your learners loose with these materials.  Know that they are great for making things spin, but not great at moving big, heavy things. 

Take a look at this example we created for making wiggling hobby motors:

Make it Move (or Draw!)

If you want to make a wigglebot, we recommend starting with materials that are easy to obtain in bulk - disposable cups and craft sticks - or markers if you’d like it to be a drawing machine!  Masking tape is good, but adhesive craft foam is even better.  You can take your wiggling hobby motor and - if your taped connections are strong - make the whole thing vibrate and move!    

Pro tips: 

  • Make space on the floor, and give students legal or ledger sized paper to let their ‘bots draw.  They can overlap their pieces and create a large “dance floor”, and be able to keep the drawings that their (and others’) make. 
  • The time it takes to make a drawbot is just the start - learners will want to improve their designs so they move “just right”.  What variables are there that they can change?  The position of the motor, the battery, or the placement of the glue stick weight are just the start. 
  • Provide extra adhesive.  There’s never enough tape. 
  • Be certain to communicate to your learners that the hobby motors have FRAGILE solder points - where the wire meet the motor.  If this breaks, well, they’re out of luck.  Or you’ll have to provide another motor. 
  • If it won’t go - inspect it!  Is the glue stick stuck on something?  Are the wires contacting the metal ends of the battery? 
  • If wires pop out of the rubberband, don’t tape them in place.  You’ll have to turn it off eventually.  If the learner just holds the spinning weight still, the electrons will create heat, not motion.  Batteries will all eventually run out of juice.

    Take a look at this step-by-step guide to create our original version of a drawbot. 
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Share your expertise, get $100 off Sparks

If you’re an educator who’s witnessed the power of take-home project-based learning, we’d like to learn from you! Schedule a 30-minute conversation with us, and we’ll give you $100 towards the purchase of Sparks for your learners.

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Improve It!

Over the years we were disappointed by the “I’m done” nature of a cup, tape, markers and a motor.  Not enough choices.  You can improve it in some ways - but others make it really unique.  Learners who have choices and know that their project is going home to keep are more likely to take big creative and technical risks - and demonstrate their true potential as creative problem solvers.   Their social and emotional needs will be met as they’re learning first hand how a circuit works, or how mechanical vibrations can make things move.

Add the following to your “materials store” and learners can customize their creation to create a “mini me” version of their inner playful engineer.

  • Chenille stems
  • Construction paper
  • Mylar 
  • Googly eyes
  • Cup lids - you can place materials INSIDE the cup to make sound!
  • Bendy straws
  • Pool noodle slices
  • Any other art or craft materials that allow learners to transform their creations into something truly spectacular. 

Over the years, FutureMakers has listened to educators and learners and heard one thing: These all look like cups with legs.  What if we could make something totally original - and be able to rebuild it over and over again, however we’d like?    We took that feedback, and after a year of testing, we created something that is a completely new approach to drawbots.  By combining lightweight materials designed to be modular, open-ended and durable, and visually striking with the same battery, motor and markers, we’ve created a drawbot that answered those questions.  If you’re looking for a drawbot project that checks the SEL as well as STEM and makerspace boxes on your list, take a look at our Drawbots Spark - and bring hours of hands-on playful engineering to your learners. 

Written by
Matt Barinholtz
Matt Barinholtz is dedicated to transforming educational experiences through playful hands-on learning.