New Ideas for Better STEAM Programs

Two experts in the maker movement, Allison Vannatta and Nick Taylor, shared hard-won secrets during SLJ’s online Maker Workshop.
EH_151019_LB_secrets2It was full STEAM ahead during the third week of SLJ’s online Maker Workshop. The lively group of public and school librarians (and Twitter followers using the #LTCmaker hashtag) heard from two leaders in the initiative to add art to STEM-based maker spaces, aka STEAM. Allison Vannatta of littleBits’ global education team shared news of their innovative electronic module kits. She was followed by Arapahoe (CO) Library District Supervisor of tech experience and digital services Nick Taylor revealing the latest development in his maker space realm.

Open hardware ingenuity draws younger kids

Back in 2011, MIT Media Lab alum Ayah Bdeir had an idea. She wanted to make it easier and, in effect, more fun, for kids to experiment with art and technology.  With simplified circuitry, she reasoned, young makers could snap together modules in open-ended ways. The result was littleBits, a line of DIY electronics lessons that encourage young tinkerers design and prototype an amazing range of inventions. With no soldering or coding needed, littleBits allows quick and easy experimentation while reinforcing basic electronics concepts. While the target user is age eight and older, many younger kids love to create with them, too. There is a huge and growing network of littleBits devotees, sharing ideas and lessons on the Community page of, as well as on YouTube. The small color-coded modules are logically arranged. Blue modules connect to batteries or USB power sources; wires, extenders and controller add more options, with outputs ranging from servo-controlled fans to lights and buzzers. As part of the open hardware movement, littleBits not only paves the way for creative new gadgets, but extends the possibilities via add-on modules to connect to WiFi, add solar power, and more.  Even more exciting, advanced components continue to be added, allowing for programming and “Internet of Things” options (letting gadgets communicate with other gadgets). These are true gateway devices, and can have a useful role in sparking interest in invention. Vannatta and participants shared fascinating projects. A few of the most impressive included a science challenge for upper elementary or middle school students, which focused on designing a bioluminescent animal.. In the social studies realm, one project offered students the chance to prototype a device that would be helpful for people with a disability. Even libraries with small budgets can generate a lot of interest with the basic kits, which allow for plenty of simple design opportunities. The chat contingent scrolled away, sharing links and ideas. Participants were enthusiastic about the potential to merge learning and fun, and were impressed by the company’s support and approachability.

Build it—and show it off—and they will come.

The second speaker also told of how a new idea led to success. As a facilitator in last spring’s online Maker Workshop course, Nick Taylor, who is also a tech specialist at the Arapahoe (CO) Library District, couldn’t help but wonder: what do attendees and users actually wind up making after maker spaces are launched? He investigated—and quickly saw a new way to draw more participants to his maker space. He spoke to the group wearing a colorful infinity scarf made with one of his library’s sewing machines. The accessory drove home his point: emphasizing the cool end results of projects is a really effective tactic for creating interest. His library’s maker space is open four hours a day. All materials are free. Users have even made wedding invitations, laser cutting them out of thin wood. Taylor showed off easy, fun projects. Two popular options are Minecraft art, made by pasting cubes to make designs in free Tinkercad software, and e-Textile projects (making lights flash on bracelets or wearables) using washable Lilypad arduinos, including the Lilypad tiny. But the runaway favorite is picture frames laser cut from discarded books. picture frames

Laser-cut picture frame craft image courtesy of Nick Taylor, ALD

Taylor noted key steps in leveraging finished products into new participants: Ask for participants’ stories; take photos of the end results; take videos of the process. Be sure to get photo releases from anyone pictured, especially from parents for minors, before using visual materials to promote your program. Having maker examples on display and in posters, both in and outside the library, gives potential makers visual ideas to help explain new terminology. Taylor shared several of his go-to resources, including, (downloadable files for 3-D printers and laser cutters), Make magazine, and the “Best of” display at Barnes and Noble’s mini MakerFaire. Another tip: check out local events. They’re a great way to connect with your community as well as suss out volunteers. His final piece of advice was to use jargon-free language as much as possible to “ensure a higher level of comfort for users.” Above all, keep the process casual, and focus on those end results! Chat participants enthusiastically expressed their approval.

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