March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Apps & More for Makerspaces | Mix It Up

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Whether your library or school has a dedicated makerspace, you are experimenting with maker and STEM programming, or looking for inspiration to get started, this inaugural installment of “Mix It Up” offers a broad selection of free or low-cost apps, websites, and tools for engaging kids and teens in creative maker projects. Our field-tested recommendations are grouped into three main sections: Coding, Filmmaking, Tinkering, and 3D Printing. Making is all about trial and error; don’t be afraid to experiment with these tools and encourage playful exploration by your patrons or students. As makers like to say, “If at first you succeed…you’re probably doing it wrong.”

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_SBheader-3Tinkercad Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | Gr 5 Up
A computer-aided model (CAD) software program that allows users to design items for 3-D printing or lasercutting. Cookiecaster

Cookie Caster Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | Gr 3 Up
Make cookies and the cookie cutters! Kids draw freehand using straight vector lines and add curves or stretch the lines to make a desirable shape. Cookiecaster then exports the design into a printable .STL file and adds a cookie-cutter lip and edge. Yields delicious results.

Thingiverse Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | Gr 5 Up
Owned by MakerBot Industries, the Thingiverse website is a forum for users to explore 3-D printed objects designed by experts and amateurs alike. This is a powerful resource for anyone interested in learning more about what 3-D printers are able to accomplish. It’s a place to make, share, and discover 3-D projects.


SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_KodableKodable (app; iOS) Group Project, Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | option for further levels | Gr K–2
A guided puzzle that teaches the basic tenet of coding: logic. Users drag and drop to help an endearing fuzz ball navigate through a gridlike path. For a small fee, users can access more advanced levels. A solid entry into coding.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_My-Robot-FriendMy Robot Friend (app; iOS) Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
$3.99 | Gr 2 Up
Kids control Robot Alpha-1 and code him through mazelike structures toward a treasure chest using drag-and-drop direction cards. Basic commands allow users to advance through progressively complicated environments. Users are rewarded for successes and are able to personalize their robot, and partake in short breaks—like dance parties.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_HopscotchAppHopscotch (app; iOS) Group Project, Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | Gr 4 Up
Children use preprogrammed choices to create and adjust short animations, while learning to build a narrative and troubleshoot to achieve desired results. Highly customizable, students can visualize how text code translates into results. For further reading on Hopscotch and other coding app options, check out

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_CodeAcademyCodeacademy (app; iOS)  Rainy Day, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Free | Gr 5 Up
This program makes good use of time and imparts a wealth of knowledge, though not necessarily for beginners. Users should have a basic understanding of what coding is and what it looks like. The app has great potential as a learning tool to help students further understand how code translates into action. For further information about Codeacademy, visit

Scratch Instructor Resource
Free | Gr 2 Up
A project of the MIT Media Lab, Scratch allows kids to program their own interactive stories, animations, and games. Scratch lesson plans abound online, but one that has proven effective and fun to use in a classroom setting is by the Irish Software Engineering Research Team: Each lesson builds on skills until children are able to manipulate and design a fully functional game.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_TynkerTynker Rainy Day, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Price varies | Gr 4–8
Self-guided lessons, puzzles, and quizzes teach basic programming using colorful blocks to help users code the commands necessary to create a project. The elimination of syntax takes away the fear factor that many new coders face. Fun and appealing, the app allows users to progress at their own pace. Educational pricing is available for schools and libraries.

Light-Bot (app; iOS) Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Similar to My Robot Friend but without the storyline and fancy graphics, this coding game allows users ages 8 and up to program a robot through a series of squares to light up boxes. As the user progresses, routes grow in difficulty and introduce the ideas of procedures and loops. The directions are basic in nature, and if your programming is incorrect the level remains incomplete, highlighting the error until users succeed. Users may take as many turns as needed to complete a level. Available in hour-of-code, lite, and programming versions.

Mozilla Thimble Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Mozilla Thimble is a simple HTML editor which shows the end product and coding side-by-side in real time while users create a web page. Though it does not actually teach HTML or code writing, Mozilla Thimble can be used in tandem with a tool like Codeacademy to help middle and high schoolers to create webpages and projects with relative ease. Thimble provides the option of starting new projects as well as remixes. An email address is necessary to create the persona page needed to get started.



Animation Studio: Stop Motion Animation Kit Group Project, Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
$19.99 | Gr 3 Up
Offers all of the pieces needed to design a moderately complex short film. Users will need to have their own camera—a phone or tablet with a camera app works well. Options include backgrounds and pop-up characters. Could be a great tool for a filmmaking class or club.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_SockPuppetsSock Puppets (app; iOS)  Group Project
Free | Gr 1–4
Users pick two puppet characters and a background/landscape, add props, and record their voices for up to 30 seconds. The app automatically “scrubs” the recorded voices—and any other sounds that have been picked up by the mic, accidentally or otherwise—and plays them back with silly sound effects. A great way to explain the fundamentals of scripting and “turn taking,” especially for educators who will explore other music creation or filming tools.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_ToontasticToontastic (app; iOS) Group Project, Rainy Day, Solo Exploration
Free | $19.99 for advanced version | Gr 2 Up
Create animated cartoon stories with stock characters and scenes, or create your own animations from scratch. The guiding principles of storytelling shape this app; users complete sections for each toon, including setup, conflict, challenge, climax, and resolution, guided by voice commands throughout. Each scene is shot unto itself, and recording voiceovers can be done in small time frames. End products can be shared on Toontube with parental permission. A quiet space is needed for recording, as the mic will record all sounds—intentional or not.

Videolicious (app; iOS)  Group Project, Rainy Day, Science Fair, Solo Exploration ,
Instructor Resource
This intuitive video app for children ages 8 and up allows users to select photos from their camera roll or record original video to be used in a short video clip. Using still images will create a slideshow over which users can record audio. Free music choices are available for a background soundtrack which is volume adjustable, and attractive filter choices also lend atmosphere to the finished product. The voice over is a single take recording, and we recommend working from a script to minimize errors. Possible uses include project output, instructional video, web show production, or library promotions.


SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_Make-ProjectsMake: Projects Group Project, Science Fair, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Free | Gr 4 Up
Offers a ton of STEM and crafty project and programming ideas. Many of the projects require access to equipment like 3-D printers, soldering tools, and electronics. The difficulty level of each project is noted, so users will know exactly what they are embarking on.


Exploratorium: After School Activities Instructor Resource
An educator’s dream, this website contains a wealth of projects to make, and each activity is clearly laid out with step-by-step reproducible PDF instructions, a concept map exploring needed materials, cultural connections, concepts/phenomenons, big ideals, and real-life examples. Also includes variations on the activity, and science websites complete with age recommendations.

Sylvia Show  Rainy Day, Science Fair, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Free | Gr 4 Up
Sylvia, a creative 12-year-old, hosts a Web show that takes viewers through science projects quickly yet thoroughly. Each show runs about seven minutes, gives directions for the project, and explains the science behind it. Sylvia’s sense of humor and understanding of the maker philosophy (that failure is inevitable on the way to success) will help bolster the confidence of unsure creators. Includes a blog, printables, and a shop.

SLJ1408w_FT_MIXUP_LibraryMakersLibrary Makers Rainy Day, Science Fair, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Free | All ages
The City of Madison (WI) Public Library maker page features projects under four headings: CraftLab (crafts for teens), NeedleReads (sewing for teens and adults), Toddler Art Class, and WonderWorks (STEM for toddlers). Each program project is shared with a list of materials, directions, and insights. Wonderful inspiration for library programs.

The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich (Weldon Owen, 2014)  Group Projects, Instructor Resource
Beautiful enough for any coffee table, this collection of information, art, and projects is a tool for tinkering itself, with unique conductive ink on the cover. The book features several artists and their work, highlights some of their major projects, and then outlines a project that the layperson can manage. This is best suited for older youth and adults who are interested in the intersections of art, making, and tinkering in a broader sense. The text places the maker movement firmly in history, and may help those who need justification in creating a maker space in their schools and libraries.

Maker Camp Group Project, Rainy Day, Science Fair, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Another offshoot from the Make franchise, Maker Camp is a unique online summer “camp” that offers projects for Makers of all ages to complete over an eight-week period of time. Makers are encouraged to share their work and interact with other “campers,” which includes people from all across the globe. Much like Instructables, the Make Project website, and the Exploratorium, Maker Camp offers practical ideas for STEM and Makerspace type programming.

Instructables Group Project, Science Fair, Solo Exploration, Instructor ResourceA browsable wealth of project ideas that could easily be adapted for use in a maker or science space. Categories include Play, Food, Workshop, Living, Outside, Technology, and Everything. Ideas range from ambitious endeavors that include woodworking and electronics, to simple projects like manipulating paperclips into jewelry. Users post their own projects with instructions, and some can be lacking in details and accompanying images. Regardless, this is a great place to explore, document, and share creations.

Howtoons  Rainy Day, Solo Exploration, Instructor Resource
Free | Gr 3 Up
Branding itself The World’s Greatest DIY Comic Website, this combo of inventor, comic book artist, and toy designer use the paneled format to combine storytelling with instructions for comics creation. Each comic is downloadable in PDF format, and lends itself to the mission of having kids ages eight to fifteen “cook, construct, get active, use tools, compute, rock, climb trees, and relax.” Everyday household items are the ingredients, and each activity falls loosely under one of 19 categories ranging from art to holidays to robotics. The site also includes an online store selling books, kits, t-shirts, and posters. The site includes a glossary defining scientific terms, measurement, and slang found in the Howtoons content.

Dillion-Stacy_Contrib_WebLaughlin-Amy_Contrib_WebStacy Dillon (l.) is the lower school librarian at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan; Amy Laughlin (r.) is a children’s librarian at Darien Library, CT.

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. It’s a cool app. This inaugural installment of Mix It Up really offers a broad selection of free or low-cost apps for engaging kids and teens in creative maker projects. This gives an imaginative way of thinking especially kids nowadays.