Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Maker Clubs - Yes You CAN! Yes, YOU! I Am Talking About YOU!!!

That's a pretty crazy looking tank.
Yeah... that's all I got
I have never taken a course in physics or engineering.  They weren't required in high school or college, I hated math and they both seemed awfully "math-y," so I never actively sought them out. An Art History/ Archaeology major, I got away with taking Dino Bio and Evolutionary Biology to meet my science requirements.  My only experiences with physics or engineering were from a historical standpoint.  I studied a lot about identifying Roman architecture and how it changed over time, but not really a lot about how or why structures are built the way they are or what physical properties were involved.  I learned about da Vinci's beautiful studies of the natural world and incredible designs for inventions, but never really understood how they would work.

By Junior year of college, I decided I wanted to be a children's librarian.  I realized that providing access to and sharing the knowledge of the world, helping people in a tangible way, particularly children, could be an important and valuable service.  Let other people make the discoveries, I reasoned, I will make sure that people know about them.  What I really loved to do was read/ inspire new readers and sing and perform (I was in choir and theater productions throughout high school) and help people.  When somebody told me I could get paid to read children's books and sing "Wheels on the Bus" to groups of adoring 5 year olds and do arts and crafts projects but didn't have to grade papers or give out tests, I thought that sounded like my kind of work.  Of course back then, more than 10 long years ago, I had a naive attitude about what librarians actually did, but I still do love the singing and the arts and crafts and the reading stories in silly voices the most of all the many things I do as a children's librarian.

That's the extent of my knowledge
Why do I bring all this up?  The latest trend in library programming is the Maker Space.  Librarians throughout the country are forming clubs to encourage scientific inquiry, engineering, technology.  I think it is a fantastic new development in library services, particularly because STEM fields are so highly sought after.  Robots are cool!  3-D printers are cool!  I also have absolutely no idea how they work.  Librarians are teaching kids how to code!  Neat, I thought.  I didn't have the slightest idea how to code.  I had tried a few times to learn HTML with little to no success.  That logic-y, math-y part of my brain had grown even more atrophied for years for lack of use and I found myself realizing that the kind of programming that I thought was "cool" were things that I had absolutely no knowledge in or experience doing.  A lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy, I realized that I was afraid of science.  I was afraid because I just didn't have the educational background to give me competency.  In my role as librarian, I had been content to be a facilitator rather than an educator or expert.  Ask me where to find information on complicated topics I know nothing about?  I can find that for you.  Ask me off the top of my head to tell you how a television works?  Um... can I look online?  When I decided a few months ago to start a Maker Club for kids at my library, I was at a loss at what to do.  We have a very limited budget, and besides, how would I get started when I don't have the slightest idea what I was doing?

I decided to try my hand at computer programming again, and developed a working knowledge in Scratch.  I found that the simple layout of the the program with everything written out in little snips of code you can move from place to place, was far easier than trying to memorize the lines of code (which is what I had been trying to do in HTML).  I could do this, I thought!  I started small, moving a character across the screen and then making it do something like spin in a circle.   I gradually improved my skills and even created a little game I thought would be a fun way to show kids what programming can do.  I was all set to teach a Scratch programming class when I discovered that the public computers in our lab would not load the site correctly.  Whether it was the version of Internet Explorer that was running on them, or some kind of network settings, I wasn't sure of.  Our IT department was facing all kinds of problems with our new computers, putting out constant fires just to allow people basic access to things like email and my little programming club was not a priority.

If you feel like playing around a silly little thing I made, here ya go.  Press the flag to begin and use your arrows to go back and forth.  I'm pretty obsessed with BB8:

I decided to take a step back and think about my strengths rather than my weaknesses.   I like arts and crafts even though I don't consider myself particularly "crafty."  I like the act of creation.  I like making and exploring even if I don't necessarily always understand the hard science behind it.  Can't I have a club, a Maker club, where the focus is on the MAKING and not necessarily on expensive technology?  I don't need to be an elementary school science teacher.  I can do simple lessons covering the very very basics and then make our programs be more about having fun and exploring without limits. I also realized that this was an opportunity to teach/ introduce kids to things that I DID know about.

My first Maker Mania club meeting had about 16 participants aged 8-11, which was the perfect size for the room.  I introduced the group to the concept of pixels.  I talked about how pixels were small dots of color that can be used together to make up an image, and how the number of dots per inch or dpi, can affect the resolution of an image.  Then I talked about what ancient Roman mosaics, the works of Georges Seurat, and Minecraft all have in common.  Dots of color, whether they are digital dots, drops of paint, or glass tiles, can be used to together to create images.  Some people even prefer a more pixelated look to smooth rendering as a stylistic choice.  Then I gave the kids an opportunity to use graph paper or go online for ideas to create their own pixel image, which we created using Perler beads.  If you aren't familiar with them, Perler beads are small plastic beads that can be fused together with an iron.  You can use them to create all kinds of fun and creative shapes.  Since each bead is its own pixel of color, I thought this was an ideal activity to teach about this concept.  Finding the beads was rather easy at a local craft store.  I even bought an iron to use for fusing (I didn't have my own at home) and managed to spend under $50 on the entire thing, and we can do it at least 3 more times before I will have to buy more beads.  The kids had a blast. I was actually pretty shocked how much the kids liked this activity, especially the boys.  I was worried when I first announced the group that I would get mostly girls (beads just sounds "girly" to me) so I made sure to create a selection of images: a Minecraft creeper for example, that would appeal to a wide range.  Using Minecraft as an example really worked!  I had several kids at the end of the very successful meeting tell me that they wanted their parents to get them Perler beads for Christmas.  BOYS!  I should point out that I have never actually played Minecraft, but I am a smart enough marketer to realize what will appeal to my demographic. For another event we used LEDs and batteries to turn our perler bead creations into light up ornaments!  Fun way to tie both ideas together.

The next Maker Mania group met two weeks later.  I talked about the basic properties of motion and
then we made rubber band shooters and catapults.  Once again, kids really loved experimenting with the materials and trying to best their friends.  We had a few that got pretty competitive trying to shoot pom poms across the room with a cardboard tube.  It was fantastic.  It was fun, it was engaging, it was STEAM.  And it wasn't scary. The next time we met we did edible engineering with candy, marshmallows, toothpicks, and licorice.  I gave the kids the goal of trying to see how many books they could stack on top of their creations and one held over 10 books!  Amazing! We had a drop in program where we made a domino run and a marble run with Keva blocks.  That was a lot of fun and allowed for some collaboration between kids.  The YA librarian at my branch has collaborated with other area libraries to apply for a grant to get actual Maker boxes delivered each month.  In the future I will actually get to have brushbots and 3-D printers to try and figure out and play around with.  Instead of being anxious about that, I am now excited.

There is a competitiveness that can happen between colleagues, between libraries, between parents.  It is the same kind of stress that can come from reading blogs online.  Am I doing enough?  Look at what "everyone" else is doing!  How can they be so creative?  How can they be so much more knowledgeable than me?  I have a personality that is prone to anxiety.  I am always worried that what I am doing isn't enough.  It is a worry that began in my school years ("wow, look at how many extracurriculars everybody is doing!  I don't play sports!  How can I get into college if I don't play sports?!  How can I get into college if I don't work in a soup kitchen or organize a fun run for cancer research?!), continued to my college years ("I am not doing any internships! Do I need to do internships?), through to my professional career ("I am not doing enough STEM programming!  I need to do more programming!  I am not networking enough!  How can people do so much?!).  What I have come to realize is that trying to compete with other people is pointless.  My library will probably never be as high tech as some, my programming might never be as cutting edge, I might never make waves or be a "mover and shaker," but I can take small steps to make my programming better, I can take more chances even if they don't succeed 100%.  When I say that anybody can start a Maker Club I mean it.  I could, and I'm like the definition of "anybody."  All it takes is an idea, and the will to carry it out.  I can do it, and so can you.


  1. Thanks for posting this! I would like to do something similar at my library, but I'm very uncertain where to start. Thanks for the inspiration! -- Lauren

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