Design Thinking Maximizes Maker Spaces

Marnie Webb's keynote to SLJ’s Maker Workshop, a four-week online course, introduced an often-overlooked approach to launching and improving maker spaces.
Marnie Webb speaking at the SLJ Leadership Summit in Seattle. Photo © Karen Ducey Photography

Marnie Webb speaking at the SLJ Leadership Summit in Seattle. Photo by Karen Ducey Photography

The maker space movement is transforming public and school libraries into places where students and patrons not only find resources and information but also experiment with their own creations. Librarians, however, might want to follow the principles of design thinking before they invest money in buying a lot of materials and equipment.

Make a model

Creating a model of what a maker space might offer and who it will serve is a critical step in determining whether a concept will work and whether potential users will respond positively, suggests Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios, a nonprofit organization that makes apps to address social problems within communities. “Prototypes are the best way to test an idea,” she said last week during the keynote to School Library Journal’s Maker Workshop, a four-week Lead the Change online course. Prototypes force people to make choices and decide what’s important. A library, for example, might only have a limited amount of space, so choices will have to be made about what materials and equipment are most likely to be used and fit the needs of the students. Asking potential users for feedback on the prototype also gets them involved and builds early advocates for the project. Prototypes let designers—in this case librarians and educators—test their ideas “quickly and cheaply,” an aspect that might especially resonate with principals or others in charge of budget decisions, Webb says.

Expect the unexpected

Webb presented several key steps to follow in designing a prototype. The first is identifying the users. In a school, they might be students, but they could also be teachers who would implement maker space ideas in their classrooms. Librarians should also “feel solid” about an idea before they create the prototype. “The prototype helps them see that you care,” she says. It’s important, she adds, to know exactly which questions the prototype is intended to answer and then be willing to implement the model and wait for the results. It’s likely that there will be results that are taking place “around the edges of the experiment,” Webb notes, so it’s important to be curious about the outcomes. For example, Caravan was testing its app, Range, which directs students to locations in their community where they can get a free meal when schools are closed over the summer. The designers noticed that those who worked for a street outreach program in Chicago were using the app, even though they thought those were the exact people who wouldn’t need such a resource. “You have to be prepared to learn something totally unexpected,” Webb says.

Tinkering with reading and writing

Finally, Webb recommends recording feedback from users through videos and pictures so it can be easier to find the evidence to support the idea when the time comes to decide whether or how to move forward. Laura Fleming, the library media specialist at New Milford (CT) High School, also joined the kickoff session of the course to talk about how creating a maker space impacted her library, a place that her principal once described as a “barren wasteland.” Talking Transmedia with Laura Fleming

Laura Fleming

While many maker spaces have been focused around building STEM skills, Fleming says her “entry point” for students has been literacy, and Webb noted that integrating books into maker space activities can build support for maker spaces among educators and administrators who might not initially see any connection to reading. Now, Fleming says, students come in during their lunch break and at other times during the day to “tinker with reading and writing” using a variety of tools and digital programs to create interactive stories and experiment with multiple platforms. “They are creators of content, but also of things,” Fleming says. “We know kids learn by exploring and playing.” Fleming says maker spaces should “reflect the needs, wants, and interests of your school community,” so investing in a maker space kit might not be the best route. She talked to students extensively before purchasing materials and equipment, she says. “That approach will ensure that the maker space is well designed.” For more information about the Maker Workshop. visit

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