Invention Literacy Wrap – Up 2017

This year’s Invention Literacy PBL was hard fun and a great experience! I was stoked to try out this PBL with two different English classes.In April/May both a 9th grade ELA and 10th grade ELA teacher came to the library to explore the invention literacy concept. Mrs. Melvin’s classes explored materials as the intro to this PBL, while Mrs. Feranda’s classes attended the Melvin’s students’ maker fest. If you didn’t read about the 2016 Invention Literacy project, read about it here and read more about the big ideas behind Invention Literacy here.  (My obsession with this concept was inspired by Makey Makey co-inventor, Jay Silver.)

Pinecrest Slides Making and Literacy (1)

PBL Format

We started this year’s project by having students explore materials and techniques with cardboard, circuits, LEGO, Hummingbird Robotics, etc. For one teacher, Mrs. Melvin, I made a list of materials they could explore and let students choose a material to learn more about.Instead of having stations where students explore all materials, they chose something to work with to explore this day. So if they decided they wanted to make something with littleBits, they explored littlebits and started prototyping. If they decided they wanted to build something with cardboard, they explored cardboard techniques! This material exploration was based on a workshop I attended at SXSWedu with Erin Riley, Christa Flores, Patrick Benfield, and Sean Justice.

For Feranda’s classes, we had guided stations with cardboard techniques, squishy circuits, and a write-around activity with Jay’s Invention Literacy Medium post. (Similar to how we started the PBL last year.)

After material exploration, our students focused their thinking with this driving question:

“How does ______  work and can I make my own version of it with recyclables and available material?”

After brainstorming invention ideas, students were required to research the history of the invention, and discover how the invention works. For students that still weren’t sure what they wanted to make, I shared a list of crowd-sourced invention sites as well as tips for evaluating crowdsourced resources. (If you are interested in this concept, Aaron, Diana, and I wrote a lot of info about crowdsourcing research in our Challenge Based Learning book!)

Here are my favorite crowd-sourced sites to look for invention ideas:

Reputable Sites for Inventing

After deciding on an invention and researching the history and some material ideas, the students spent time prototyping and making the invention with the materials we had available in the library.  While students could create projects based on other things they’d seen in the sites above, we told them they had to change it in some way and make it their own. For some students this meant substituting materials and for others it meant completely running with a new idea.  Big concepts tied to maker mindset seen in this project were:

    • Seeing everyday materials in a new light with inventive material usage.
    • Encountering real problems and tinkering to problem solve with creative solutions.
    • Allowing students to pick up new skills when needed instead of being directed to learn specific skills.
    • As teachers, stepping back and letting kids try new things, experiment with ideas, fail forward, and persevere through failure.
    • Allowing students to own their learning!

Read more about how the prototyping experience helped immerse our students at Ryan in the maker mindset in this previous post on the 2017 PBL here.

Adding Exploration and Documentation

One thing we added to the PBL this year, was exploration of materials as an intro to making. I think the students who were allowed the freedom to explore whatever material they wanted, ended up making more unique projects than the students who explored materials in set stations. Partly this is because some student explored materials they were unfamiliar with and found new things they wanted to use in their inventions. The open ended exploration also made certain classes focus on certain types of making like making things light up or building things with cardboard. However, the outcome of learning seemed similar for both.

Adding Documentation

Three days into prototyping, Mrs. Melvin and I noticed that some students appeared to be starting from the beginning.  However, we knew we’d seem them engaged and working consistently.  For three days they had tried ideas, failed, and improved their thinking. Unfortunately, they hadn’t tracked this learning because we didn’t have documentation as part of our process yet.

For this reason, Mrs. Feranda and I instituted some time for students to document and reflect on their learning after prototyping each day. For documentation, wtudents wer asked to take a picture of what they worked on for the day, summarize what they learned, and discuss any new skills they picked up. By incorporating documentation, we were able to stress to our students that the process is more important than the outcome. We were able to celebrate persevering through failure and celebrate all the new skills kids added to their toolbox as they were making their inventions.


Arkansas Summer Maker Workshop.png

Cool Stuff Kids Made

The students were really into building things out of cardboard and crafting DIY circuits and switches this year. Mrs. Melvin helped me teach so many kids how to sew circuits for wearables projects! One of my favorite was a light up dog collar that a student made for walking her dog at night.  These videos compile a lot of cool stuff our students made:

The dog collar project got me thinking that I’d like to have inventions focus on empathy this next school year.  However, I still see a lot of validity in letting students experience figuring out how to make something just for the challenge of understanding our world.

This PBL creates authentic problems for students to solve, especially if you push utilizing inventive materials.  Running into lots of problems was a very good lesson for our high school students, as many of them said they were not used to being able to do their own thing during the school day.


Students reflected on their invention process with Flipgrid videos, but Mrs. Melvin also had them write reflections.  We found out that many students didn’t realize they could be creative, nor did they realize they could solve their own problems. Here are some of  Mrs. Melvin’s favorite reflections from our sophomores:

  1. What skill/skills did you have to learn in order to complete your project?  
  • Problem solving and Improvisation  
  • Team work
  • Patience
  • Communication
  • To not give up and to keep going
  • You have to work with what you have
  • Sometimes you have to alter instructions to fit your circumstances
  • I’ve learned to share my ideas with another person and give my opinion instead of keeping the creativity to myself. It helped me be more patient when working with partners because i couldn’t go as fast as i would by myself. I now realized sometimes i can create something better with someone else.
  • How to work led lights and the safety of cutting styrofoam.
  • Learning by doing
  • Understanding directions
  • The skills I had to learn in order to create this project was creativity . Since we were not able to make the design exactly like the instructions I had to find other objects to make my project unique.
  • Reflect on the whole invention making process.  What did you enjoy about the process? Dislike?



  • I enjoyed working with friends and accomplishing the goal that i wanted to get done.
  • I enjoyed cutting out pieces, and then gluing them together.
  • I enjoyed the freedom given in deciding what we could build
  • I liked is finding what stuff to use to make the guitar.
  • I enjoyed everything on this project, because it was a different assignment than other on this class. I liked to look at everybody’s projects and all the variety of things we make.
  • I thought the neatest part was we had the freedom to make anything we wanted.
  • I enjoyed being the one who made it. I got to work with my hands to make my idea “come to life.” I also liked seeing my invention be successful after it was done. It was able to carry several pounds.
  • I liked how we were able to learn new things and work together when we needed help to succeed.



  • I didn’t really dislike anything probably just us arguing but that’s about it.
  • I disliked that i got lazy around the end and made her arms out of yarn. `
  • I didn’t like everyone being cramped in the card board area.
  • I disliked that it took longer than expected and the instructions for the tutorials on how to use a 3D printer weren’t as clear as expected.



  1. What was the most challenging part of the project for you?
  • working together because we would argue on where the things go.
  • The most challenging thing for me was teamwork.
  • to communicate with others
  • Making it work the way we wanted it because it kept messing up after we would shoot it. (Catapult)
  1. What did you learn about yourself during this project? How can you take what you have learned and apply it to your own life?
  • I learned to have more communication with people and don’t get off track.
  • What I learn about myself is that i can actually make something, before the project I didn’t think I could build anything.
  • I learned to be more patient on what am I doing and being more independent doing difficult things by myself.
  • I learned that you have to be really flexible and roll with the punches because, lots of things didn’t work out. In the project I had to fix many things just like in life I’ll have to be flexible when things don’t work out and have to fix things.
  • I have learned that I can solve difficult problems on my own, and that if it doesn’t work the first time it doesn’t mean it’s not meant to be.
  • I learned that you can make anything with junk. That i can problem solve and take junk and make something new.
  • I learned how to plan things and sketch things out. Basically, like a blueprint I could use later on when I’m trying to build something useful
  1. What advice would you give your teacher to help improve the process for next year?
  • Give more examples
  • Give more time
  • the library didn’t have all the supplies we needed
  • Showing us more invention examples, explaining why this is important, and giving us more direction in starting our inventions.
  • The advice I would say is maybe more resources for wanting to accomplish something beautiful that would be awesome and interesting that we made up but other than that, this was fun on trying to figure out how to make new inventions out of everyday objects  




Maker Mindset and our Invention Literacy PBL (8).png

(If you haven’t read my other posts on invention literacy, this project was inspired by Jay Silver. Read more posts about invention literacy at RHS here.)

I had some visitors in my library makerspace last week that were wanting to add an aspect of maker education into their own libraries.

As they walked around our space, visited with my collaborating English teacher, and witnessed students prototyping for our invention literacy project, they said something surprising.

“We noticed you have traditional wooden library chairs and tables, so it isn’t about the furniture, is it? Maker Education? It’s about the mindset?” (9)

One of the best things about this Invention Literacy project is that students can come in with little to no maker experience and become completely immersed in the maker mindset with one simple question, “How does ____ work and can I make my own version with limited materials?”

Let Students Own the Learning

Students brainstormed inventions, researched the history of their invention and crowdsourced some ideas for making, then begin building and prototyping with cardboard and other materials. Mrs. Melvin and I noticed that in the beginning, her students were asking us for a lot of help and weren’t spending enough time finding solutions to their own problems. So early on in our PBL, Mrs. Melvin told students, “This is about you tinkering and figuring things out. Don’t ask us questions, instead, see if you can find the answer yourselves. Plus, if you don’t have a material you think you need, see if you can substitute a different material. You can use anything here in the maker storage bins.” (10)

We quickly saw our students transform and begin finding their own answers by trying out different material types and learning new skill sets. My favorite things that blossomed from Mrs. Melvin’s directive was:

  • Inventive material usage -lots of tinkering with motors for cars, a swamp boat with computer fans, and catapults made from knitting needles.
  • Tinkering to problem solve -students hit roadblocks and instead of asking for our help, they had to tinker to debug and creatively problem solve! (YES!)
  • Learn skills when needed – Mrs. Melvin and I taught quite a few kids how to sew circuits, Mrs. Moor taught students how to sew, I gave quick lessons in soldering, using a saw, making a DIY switch, etc. IT WAS AWESOME! It was great to see students pick up skills when needed to move their project along. MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld wrote about this phenomena in his 2005 book Fab (see quote below.) If you are doing a similar project and your students need to learn to solder to complete a project, teach them to solder! If they need to learn 3D design to create a solution to an existing problem then let them teach themselves how to use 3D modeling software.

“Once students mastered a new capability, such as waterjet cutting or microcontroller programming, they had a near-evangelical interest in showing other show to use it. As students needed new skills for their projects, they would learn them from their peers and then in turn pass them on. . . . This process can be thought of as a “just-in-time” educational model, teaching on demand, rather than the more traditional “just -in-case” model.”(Gershenfeld)

  • Focus on perseverance not failing – When things didn’t work, Mrs. Melvin and I encouraged students to continue to tinker and not give up. This is part of the mindset that seems to often get overlooked. Yes, failure is okay, but it is really persevering (and creative problem-solving) that we want our kids to gain as a life long skill. (12).png

A Warning on Inventive Materials

If you tell your students to get inventive with materials and then give them free access to your maker supplies, they might end up turning double-pointed knitting needles into catapults, paper circuit templates into decoration for their cardboard Skee-ball machine, and who knows what else into an invention prototype. I should’ve known this would happen after talking with Krissy Venosdale at SXSWedu, but I didn’t think my teenagers would tear up things that were so obviously not consumable. Lesson learned! I am now working on labeling materials as consumable and non-consumable and moving maker supplies to different spots in the library for different purposes. (Maker storage update post to come! I’ve moved consumable materials far, far away from non-consumable ones!)

Making things that fling things for #inventionliteracy at #rhs ! #Makered #libraries

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Equitable Access to Making

I love how this project allowed an entire class to make cool stuff and try on the maker mindset. If you truly want to provide equitable access to making for your own students, you’ll have to make time for students to explore ideas and come up with creative solutions. This project is an excellent way to provide time for creative problem solving and teach students to be self sufficient in their learning. (And while I’d love to be able to offer this class to my 2,000 students in my school, I also know that won’t be possible to do in one year. However, it could become a project that one whole grade level could tackle!)


Some Student Projects in the Making

When I started this post, we were in the very beginning of our Invention Literacy project, and the students have astounded me EVERY DAY since then! I want to share some of their works in progress so you can see some of their process and I will share their final projects in an upcoming post.

Car Tinkering

I shared #LEGOtinkering during our material exploration, but somehow, our students ended up doing a lot of car tinkering! Some students got very creative with gears and finding motors to power their cars. Plus, we had one student build a pretty cool classic truck with Hummingbird Robotics.

#rhs Ss using #crazycircuits to light up #LEGO car.

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Close up of DVD motor powering #LEGO car! #tinkering for #inventionliteracy ! #rhs #makered

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Cardboard Creations

If you don’t have access to any fancy “makerspace materials” just stock up on cardboard, hot glue, and tape. You’ll be surprised at the amazing things students can make with cardboard!

#rhs Ss made catapult with marble release for #inventionliteracy project. #makered

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Cardboard #robotic hand 2.0 at #rhs for #inventionliteracy project! #makered #libraries

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Circuit Madness

Tons of our students really wanted to make things blink and light up. These students learned about simple and parallel circuits as well as conductive materials. Something that made me smile was the student with the “swamp boat” talking about how he didn’t know ANYTHING about electricity before this project.


As much as I love electronics, my students don’t always gravitate towards this style of project. Here are some of my favorite gadgets by Mrs. Melvin’s students.

Working soda machine for #inventionliteracy project! #makered #libraries

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Sweet #arduino multiblink by #rhs student. #libraries #inventionliteracy

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It is about the Mindset

So no, maker education is not about special furniture, or even about specialized equipment. Instead, it’s about developing a maker mindset and spreading a culture of creativity throughout your school. As a librarian, it’s about developing partnerships with teachers and bringing inquiry, curiosity, and an inventive lens to collaborative lesson planning. As an educator, it’s about giving students the opportunities to find their inner awesome, think for themselves, and gain creative confidence. And while it might seem like you need a 3D printer or a laser cutter…. you don’t. You just need some creative storage solutions for lots of clean recyclables, hot glue, and CARDBOARD. Once you get those things organized, start finding ways to incorporate the maker mindset into everyday classroom curriculum.