Design Challenge Task Cards and Facilitating Purposeful Design Experiences

Within open-structured makerspaces, kids have free range to use materials in any way they desire. This can be creatively inspiring for some and overwhelming for others who are not sure how to engage in purposeful design. While open-structured makerspaces can instill creative experimentation, it is only effective if students are prompted to reflect on their experience and further examine their design process and/or content learning (see our suggested assessment strategies listed in “Tips for Facilitating Maker Activities”).

Unfortunately, one of the many laments people have about open-ended makerspaces is that it looks like creative chaos and unrecognizeable “junk”. Though it may sound hurtful at first, it is worth pointing out that with strategic scaffolding we can simultaneously nurture creative exploration while also supporting thoughtful and purposeful design considerations that can help students create more effective designs. As Krueger points out in 4 Maker Activities To Keep Students Tinkering we can provide the freedom of choices while also providing structure to support student learning in our makerspaces. Taking a page from design education and engineering, we can provide “constraints that enable” our students to create designs that are even more personally meaningful and have potential to directly address problems and

Design Challenge Task Cards are meant to be short inspirations to spark student creativity and inventive problem-solving. They can be A) individual cards that fit on an index card or digital equivalent of ¼ or ⅙ of an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper or B) an assortment of tasks formatted as a bingo-style choice mat or quest map on an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper.


Design challenge task cards can be used at choice-based stations for students to select during free time, formal instruction to facilitate problem-/project-/design-based learning, or sent home for enrichment. Design challenge task cards can be formatted to target a variety of outcome types, including:

Encourage constant reflection using exit tickets or ask students to create reflective maker reports to communicate their design process and final artifact with peers.

At The MAKE Lab, we are working to create even more design challenge task cards (like our Content Specific example set above) and we look forward to sharing them with you soon.

Tips for Facilitating Maker Activities

As every educator knows, the success of an activity often relies upon the success of the facilitation. Whether in a formal or informal learning, the facilitator must be thoughtful about nurturing maker mindsets and strategies for supporting our learners during difficult experiences with failure and problems that arise throughout the creative design process.

We love using certain picture books to set the stage for makers of all ages, including some of these titles below. These books can help to break the ice by acknowledging that we support a collaborative, failure positive environment where we want everyone to have fun while they are learning and making.

More formally, we turn to Exploratorium Tinkering Studio’s research on best practices for facilitation in maker environments. Their Learning Dimensions Framework highlights ways the facilitator can observe indicators for engagement, initiative and intentionality, social scaffolding, and development of understanding. This really helps novice and expert facilitators maintain awareness of verbal and non-verbal forms of learning during hands-on experiences. Additionally, their Facilitation Field Guide is a great tool for strategies to spark, sustain, and deepen learning throughout the sometimes chaotic and messy making process.

Encourage Constant Reflection

In addition to the above mentioned strategies, we like to leverage formative assessments as much as we possibly can. Reflective prompts are very useful for recurring experiences, including Dr. Smith’s research on student-created reflective video as a means of exploring process and product. For briefer experiences we like to use reflective exit tickets based on K-W-L strategies. Our 3-2-1 exit ticket is helpful for identifying what the learners understood from the experience, what they are curious about, and what they want to learn more about. These help us with our own reflective practice changes to our workshop programs as well as give us a starting point to follow up with participants interests. Our typical 3-2-1 exit ticket is as follows:


Encourage Sharing & Communication With Others Upon Completion

Design is iterative, which requires time to reflect and revise as well as time to discuss these reflections and revisions with others. Ultimately, we want our learners to be able to  communicate their design process and project/artifact to others. Discussion is great, but learning can be enhanced if we ask students to complete a reflective report for each design project/artifact in order to formally share their learning. Reflective reports can also benefit as artist statements for display in library or school event/class. Here is an example of a reflective maker report that we use as a culminating activity with our makers.

NOTE: There are also many facilitation strategies and resources available on the Maker Ed website.

Tips for Designing Maker Activities

When designing effective maker activities, you have to consider the best pedagogy and creative instructional strategy for the task. Making and makerspaces are inherently rooted in Constructionism, which is a learning theory that promotes the idea that learners can construct knowledge when they actively participate in the making and public sharing of a physical object (Papert & Harel, 1991). These types of activities lend themselves to Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Design-Based Learning (DBL). There are so many amazing resources you can explore to learn more about this and more to support your quest to design the best maker activities for your learners. Some of our favorite research-supported maker education resources include: Agency by Design and the Tinkering Studio.

Maker Ed: Grown out of Make Magazine and the influx of educational makerspaces, Maker Ed is a national non-profit organization that provides educators and institutions with the training, resources, and community of support they need to create engaging, inclusive, and motivating learning experiences through maker education. They have links to great resources and provide an excellent starting point for educators who are just beginning their maker journey. We appreciate their dedicated look at the state-of-the-art of makerspaces in education and use them as a resource to examine trends and current initiatives.

Agency by Design: Harvard Project Zero’s maker-focused research project that is investigating the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning. Visit their website to check out their educator resources and brand new book, Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds. Because The MAKE Lab has an arts focus, we really like how AbD focuses on student agency and community building. We especially like to use their Thinking Routine activities to encourage open-mindedness and creative thinking mindsets prior to beginning making projects.

Tinkering Studio: Exploratorium’s studio workshop for playful invention, investigation, and collaboration. Visit their website to explore awesome projects that you can use with your learners and learn about unique tinkerers who are blurring the lines between art and STEM. Also check out their awesome book, The Art of Tinkering, which is both a beautiful collection of artistic tinkering and a guide for exploratory making activities with common materials. Because The MAKE Lab enjoys taking a multidisciplinary approach, we really like how the Tinkering Studio blurs the lines between art and STEM. We love gaining inspiration from their open-ended activities and multidisciplinary artist spotlights. Their research also inspires some of our facilitation strategies (see more in our next post, “Tips for Facilitating Maker Activities”).

In addition to the above mentioned resources, here are some of our favorite resources for designing our maker activities.

Books About the Research Behind the Learning in the Making:

Books About Maker Activities:

Great Websites to Find Awesome Maker Activities & Inspiration:

  • PBS Design Squad: Great website with activity resources, videos about the engineering design process, contests, and ways to share artifacts via safe social media.
  • Tinker Crate: Their primary function is to sell curated boxes of monthly hands-on experiments and making projects. However, they also host an amazing variety of activity ideas for all skills and abilities that you can easily do with common materials.
  • Adafruit: This is an online store for electronics components and they have the most fun educational videos (Circuit Playground, Collin’s Lab, etc.) that teach both concepts and how-tos. They have great activity ideas with step-by-step instructions that include lists of materials that you can buy directly on their site. Everything has an artsy and eclectic flair, making this a very inspiring website for makers. They offer educator discounts and price cuts for buying in bulk.
  • Makezine: Home of Make Magazine, this site has articles, project instructions, and reviews of the latest maker technologies and tools. They also promote Maker Faires and the diverse forms of making ranging from woodworking to DIY drones.
  • Sparkfun: This is an online store for electronics, similar to Adafruit. They specialize in microcontrollers and have great educational guides to support novice and experts in taking their electronics making to the next level. They offer educator discounts and price cuts for buying in bulk.

Some of Our Favorite Activities:


Papert, S., & Harel, I., (1991). Constructionism. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing. URL

Tips for Organizing Your Makerspace

We get a lot of questions about how we organize and set up our space.Truthfully, everyone will have different needs that inform how they set up and organize their makerspace. Before you jump into purchasing the latest and greatest tools, consider these 8 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Makerspace by Fingal (2018).

Guided by a need to inspire teachers with practical options, our space is set up with affordable and low-cost equipment and materials. We are fortunate to have a dedicated classroom/lab space in the College of Education, where we have work tables in the center of the room (5 tables with 4 chairs each), thematic exploration areas set up around the perimeter, and sufficient cabinet space to store additional equipment and materials. All of our equipment is small and portable, making it easily capable of being stored or placed in a collapsible rolling cart for transport to other sites. Learn more about our classroom makerspace setup below.

2D Explorations Area
This area includes tools that work with 2D materials, including paper and textiles. Additional equipment is stored in a nearby cabinet and is available for use on work tables in the center of the room. Resource books are arranged on a nearby shelf to help promote self-help (see our list here). Here is a look at the 2D explorations area:
2D-explorations-areaSewing machine, Silhouette Cameo machine, and additional equipment

3D Explorations Area
Set up in a similar manner to our 2D area, this area focuses on tools that work with 3D materials, including modeling clay, blocks, and 3D printing. Users use the work tables in the center of the room to create their 3D models using free CAD software (e.g., Tinkercad, Makerbot Print Shop). When they are ready to 3D print, they load their .STL file onto one of the designated laptops that operate the 3D printers (via USB drive or through transferring from cloud-based storage) and print directly to the 3D printer. A nearby cabinet contains additional modeling tools and additional 3D printer filament options (always stored in plastic storage bags to limit warping damage to the filament).  A nearby shelf contains student-created examples and resource books to help promote self-help (see our list here). Here is a look at the 3D explorations area:
Makerbot Replicator Mini 3D Printers

3D printed examples

Electronics Explorations & Computer Programming Area
This area includes a variety of equipment and resources focused on simple electronics and computer programming that are easy to access for beginners. Through our grant funding, we are fortunate to have class sets of electronics kits that allow us to scaffold beginner activities, including LittleBits, SnapCircuits, Makey Makeys, and Picoboards. A nearby cabinet contains additional electrical components organized in plastic boxes, including batteries (AA, AAA, CR2032), conductive materials (steel thread, copper tape, aluminum tape, paper clips, alligator clips), LED lights (diodes with resistor legs), motors (DC motors, pager motors), and additional craft materials. Student-created examples are on display around the area to help inspire new projects. Resource books are arranged on a nearby shelf to help promote self-help (see our list here). Here is a look at the electronics and computer programming explorations area:
Electronics and Computer Programming equipment

Mobile Makerspace Carts
The mobile rolling carts are critical to The MAKE Lab as they enable us to bring our equipment to locations throughout the community and they also enable teachers to borrow equipment for use in their own classrooms. Here is one example of a 2D Digital Fabrication cart that holds a Silhouette Cameo machine, assorted cardstock, fabric, and vinyl:
Mobile makerspace cart for 2D explorations

To learn more about specific details and logistics regarding how we configure our mobile makerspace carts, please view Dr. Smith’s book chapter, “Mobile makerspace carts: a practical model to transcend access and space” located in Mills & Wake’s (2017) Empowering learners with mobile open-access learning initiatives (preview Google Book here).