Invention Literacy PBL- A Visitor’s Perspective

As I’m wrapping up the last round of this year’s invention literacy PBL, I wanted to share a visitor’s perspective. New middle school librarian, Kelly Korenek, came to visit during the beginning of our building phase, and she sent me this note after leaving the buzz of Mrs. Feranda’s students prototyping:

Dear Colleen,

Thank you for allowing me to step into your Maker World today. You’ve created much more than a space-you have created a true maker culture at Ryan HS. As I begin my personal journey, I will reflect on all that I’ve learned from you. Here are a few highlights from today:

  • I observed most students working collaboratively with partners. Students were engaged, on task, and shared the workload. Several students verbally expressed their excitement about their inventions. Many students were re-creating items that are currently trending, and I believe this had a huge impact on their level of engagement and effort.
  • Students could verbalize their plans when asked, describe the materials they had chosen and why, and list specific materials that they were going to bring from home. Initial research and planning on the collaborative Google docs seemed to provide students with a clear purpose and sense of direction. I asked one group of students why they thought they had been assigned this project. Their response was, “So we can learn how to communicate better and work with other people to accomplish something.”
  • I was impressed with the level of collaboration between you and the classroom teacher. Your roles were clearly defined, but you worked together and overlapped in many cases to ensure that students had support at their point of need.
  • You allowed students to create and learn through trial and error. One group was designing a projector with sound. Rather than directing them to the Little Bits right off the bat, you allowed them to tinker-they thought that they might be able to use the speaker in the old laptop. Even though the two students realized that their initial plan was not going to work, they did not give up. Most students seemed quite comfortable with the invention process. While some students struggled more than others, I did not witness any group “give up.” Students were focused on looking for alternative sources or new prototypes. I witnessed a lot of GRIT!
  • As a middle school maker-librarian, I will have to make decisions regarding the types of tools I will keep in my makerspace- particularly those for cutting cardboard. I have to factor in the age and maturity level of my students. Safety training is essential. When students don’t follow the rules, they lose the privilege to use the tools. I heard a lot of complaints during the class in which students lost some of their tool privileges. Responsible making and safety procedures are a must.
  • Partnerships were key to student engagement and success with this project. Students whose partners were absent lacked motivation and direction. Students fed off of one another’s strengths, enthusiasm, and energy. They made jokes as they worked, they had fun, and they tossed ideas back and forth until something stuck-then they went for it! PBL is the best way to prepare our students for the future-they must learn how to communicate their ideas, listen to others, solve problems, and learn from failed attempts. It’s a messy process (figuratively and literally!) but it is well worth the effort to teach through an authentic, hands-on process.
  • The best teachers I had growing up were the ones who really challenged me. Your students were given the freedom to create what they wanted using whatever materials they deemed suitable. That in and of itself is, in my opinion, quite challenging. Standardized testing has, unfortunately, created a culture of multiple choice solutions. Kids have grown accustomed to learning a strategy to find the “right answer.” So many of our students don’t know how to think critically or reach the conclusion that there may be an unlimited number of “right answers” – an abstract concept that is difficult for many students (and adults!) to comprehend. This invention project was a huge challenge, and because you and the classroom teacher established high expectations from the outset, most students met or even exceeded the expectations. These students will remember you, and they will thank you for this opportunity to learn through making. I want to provide my students with the same kinds of opportunities to learn authentically.
  • In any given  group, you will always have kids who readily accept a challenge and wow you with their results. You will also have kids who struggle-who have no earthly idea where to begin. Interestingly, the kids who excel and the kids who struggle with a project like this are not necessarily the ones you might expect. A teacher-librarian must be willing and able to support all students. I observed you providing support at all levels. Some students were challenged to add a technological component while others were directed to look at a real guitar for guidance. This kind of support requires the librarian to build relationships with teachers and students.

Building a space, gathering the materials, developing the knowledge, and creating a culture of collaboration is a process. I am so ready to get started! It was impossible NOT to get caught up in the students’ enthusiasm, and I enjoyed observing them learn through a truly organic process. Your makerspace is not the norm, but I believe that your advocacy for makerspaces is making a huge impact on our profession and overall school culture.Thank you again! I’m looking forward to learning more and sharing my knowledge with my students next year!

All the best,


Thank you for letting me share your letter, Kelly! I loved seeing the outsider’s perspective because you noticed so many things I hadn’t even thought about!


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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Wow ! Our students ran out of LEGO motors and now they are hacking DC toy motors! #inventionliteracy #makered

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

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#rhs Ss #hummingbirdrobotics car for #inventionliteracy project! #libraries #makered #studentchoice

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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!

These #rhs Ss are working on a DIY candy dispenser for their #inventionliteracy research project! #makered

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#rhs students' invented candy dispenser for #inventionliteracy ! #cardboard is awesome!!!!! #makered #libraries

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

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Handmade paper #fidgetspinner for #inventionliteracy class! #rhs #libraries #instructionsnotincluded #makered

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

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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.

#rhs Ss made lots of cool stuff for their #inventionliteracy research! #makered #libraries #teens

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Can I keep him, students? #simplecircuit #robot at #rhs #library for #inventionliteracy project!

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Yeah! Ss made working parallel circuit with a homemade switch! #inventionliteracy #rhs #sewingcircuits #makered

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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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One of Mrs. M's Ss hacked @joshburker 's #MakeyMakey joystick project for his #inventionliteracy project! #makered #libraries

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

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Hovercraft #prototype with DIY switch for #inventionliteracy project at #rhs #library ! Mrs. Melvin's Ss rock! #makered

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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.