Lightbox Link
Building Blocks of Science | 3DSmithsonian Programs

Tinkering in Makerspaces:

Developing Skills for a Changing Technological Future
If one thing is certain about the job needs of the future workforce, it is that they are uncertain. Technology has been a source of global upheaval, requiring today’s students to be diversely skilled, adaptable, technologically savvy, and computational thinkers (ISTE, 2016). To prepare students for work and life in an ever-evolving future, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)—an organization that serves educators interested in using technology in the classroom—updated its Standards for Students in 2016 to “emphasize ways that technology can be used to transform learning and teaching.” Additionally, the US Department of Education’s National EducationTechnology Plan recognizes technology as a powerful tool through which educators can reimagine learning, expanding growth possibilities and learning equity for students (US Department of Education, 2017).
Makerspaces—the collaborative, hands-on work spaces where students can create, tinker, problem-solve, and explore to understand a phenomenon—are ideally suited to blend technology, science, and engineering design to help students develop the skills they need to adapt to a future of discovery. Their learner-driven approach supports ISTE’s emphasis on student empowerment and on providing a framework to progress as students build mental and emotional “muscle” as well as the science and engineering practices of the Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS). While students work to design solutions, fail or succeed, redesign, and test, they also develop skills considered necessary for success: communication, creativity, and collaboration.
The STEM Alliance
In teaching and learning in the classroom, how do ISTE initiatives mesh with the NGSS and other similar standards based on three-dimensional learning? The ISTE clearly states that its standards are not meant to supersede other educational initiatives but “rather work alongside them, amplifying and transforming learning through technology” (ISTE, 2016). And in developing the framework that is the basis of the NGSS, the National Research Council (NRC) acknowledged the importance of engineering and technology as a context for testing and developing scientific knowledge, ultimately enhancing students’ understanding and interest in science (NRC, 2012). Through makerspaces, students have an opportunity to apply science and engineering practices as technology and science learning goals converge in key learning domains.
Both ISTE standards and NGSS seek to improve a learner’s ability to have experience in solving realworld problems through the engineering design process. For ISTE initiatives, design-related challenges include a hands-on approach to problem-solving, where students refine prototypes to generate a solution to a problem. Similarly, the NGSS science and engineering practices have students develop and compare possible solutions to address real-world problems.
Both ISTE and NGSS feature computational thinking as a means to confront real-world problems. Considered the highest order of problem-solving, computational thinking (CT) emulates the process computers use to address problems and sort through pertinent information, guiding students to apply scientific and engineering design principles as they reinterpret complex phenomena into smaller algorithmic steps.
Although students can use digital tools to, for example, assist data analysis and develop abstract models, CT exercises don’t always require high levels of technology and can be used in low-resource, or “unplugged,” environments while still addressing technological learning through human-made processes. This promotes equitable access of this problem-solving skill to all students regardless of the level of resources available.
Making the Most of Makerspaces
Activities at makerspaces are closely tied to the engineering design process—a process that encourages students “to develop 21st century cognitive competencies, engage in authentic engineering practices, and integrate science and math concepts” (Grubbs, 2015) as they support student-driven, hands-on learning. In makerspaces, students have the freedom to make and learn from mistakes as they figure out solutions through designing prototypes.
Research shows that “As STEM learning allows for a cross-curricular training in unique skillsets, so too does the marrying of STEM and makerspaces for learning those skills” (Daughrity et al, 2019). Additionally, makerspaces have been recognized as a means to improve collaboration and diversity in STEM and are often seen as a positive environment to teach STEM-related concepts to groups that have been marginalized in more traditional science learning experiences (Sheffield, 2017).
To enhance students’ STEM learning opportunities, the classroom makerspace can serve as a bridge that extends formal science education through weekly or monthly engineering design challenges that investigate phenomena. These engineering design challenges can:
  • Support educators as an activity that elaborates on a lesson of an established NGSS-aligned curriculum
  • Be used as a stand-alone experience that engages students but is not necessarily tied to an overarching curriculum goal
Teachers’ responsibilities include providing supplies and mentoring students in makerspace initiatives, but they also can maximize student learning by providing challenges that advance curriculum objectives (Duhaney, 2019). In these hands-on, creative environments, educators are empowered to adapt their strategies as they improve their own self-efficacy in challenges that integrate technology. To support teachers in planning and implementing makerspace activities, free resources that boost the science curriculum, such as the Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces challenges that are inspired by the Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum for grades 1–5, are valuable teaching and learning tools.
Through makerspace challenges, teachers can engage students with emerging technologies that make real-world connections, nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop confidence to adapt and achieve in a STEM-driven world.
Daughrity, L., M. Chanshan, and F. D. Mahaffey. 2019. Inspired to Make. Association for Educational Communications & Technology. Accessed February 2020:
Duhaney, K. 2019. “The Roles and Responsibilities of Makerspace Educators.” Digital Commons@ACU, Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 156. Accessed February 2020:
Grubbs, M., and G. Strimel. 2015. “Engineering Design: The Great Integrator.” Journal of STEM Teacher Education, Vol. 50: Iss. 1, Article 8. DOI: 10.30707/JSTE50.1Grubbs.
International Society for Technology in Education. 2016. Redefining learning in a technology-driven world: A report to support adoption of the ISTE Standards for Students. Accessed February 2020:
National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 11, 12. DOI: 10.17226/13165.
Office of Education Technology. US Department of Education. 2017. Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education: 2017 National Education Technology Plan Update. Accessed February 2020:
Sheffield, R., R. Koul, S. Blackley, and N. Maynard. 2017. “Makerspace in STEM for girls: A physical space to develop twentyfirst-century skills.” Educational Media International, 54:2, 148–164. DOI: 10.1080/09523987.2017.1362812.
The Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces Approach
Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces resources were developed by the Smithsonian Science Education Center with support from Johnson & Johnson to create an educational environment that embraces technology and computational thinking to assist the learning process. Inspired by the Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum, these resources help learners solve realworld problems through a hands-on approach, using skills and concepts supported by technology, as they observe, make, design, and test solutions to a problem. The free Makerspaces activities are applicable in both low-resource and high-resource schools and informal learning environments and encourage a diverse student population to engage in STEAM learning.
Get the resources at
Carolina Biological Supply Company.
Call: 800.334.5551
©Smithsonian Science Education Center.
The Smithsonian Science Education Center is transforming K–12 Education through Science™ in collaboration with communities across the globe.
*Next Generation Science Standards is a registered trademark of Achieve/WestEd. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of, and do not endorse, these products.