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!


Invention Literacy Research Project -2nd Iteration – Post One (6).png

I’m excited to be starting the second version of the Invention Literacy Research project this year with a second English Language Arts teacher! If you are new to the blog, here are some links to last year’s PBL:

Invention Literacy 2016

2nd Iteration

Making Something

To intro the project this year, we had sophomores follow the instructions from The Big Book of Makerspace Projects and make kazoos. Mrs. Melvin and I thought about having them make the LED bookmarks, but we really wanted them to make something simple. We were surprised to find that these teenagers REALLY ENJOYED making and playing kazoos!

Making kazoos with sophomores ! Surprisingly engaging for #teens! #rhs

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Exploring Something

After our kazoo making bonanza, we shared some videos on Invention Literacy and talked with students about how they could make anything they wanted and their only constraints are the materials we have available in the library and time! (We told them we didn’t want anyone going out to buy anything for this project, because we want them to re-use materials that are normally thought of as trash.) However, before deciding on what they wanted to invent, I wanted to try a different material exploration than last year.

Planning with a new teacher means that we are modifying this project to meet the needs of these new learners. While Mrs. Melvin and I were thinking through ideas for her students, we agreed to let students explore materials before deciding on an invention. (This idea sprang from my exploration of cardboard at a SXSWedu session led by Erin Riley, Christa Flores, Sean Justice, and Patrick Benfield.) Last year, Mrs. Feranda and I had students create Makey Makey poetry, work through littleBits challenges, and think aloud on Jay’s Invention Literacy Medium post as an entry point to the project.  So this year, instead of guiding their explorations, Mrs. Melvin and I wanted to attempt letting students choose a material to explore via this Googledoc. This worked great for some classes, but not so well for others. Some of our students really needed to decide on an invention before exploring materials.  (If only there were some way our schools could better support exploration before inventing as well as exploring materials during inventing!)

Exploring materials for #inventionliteracy project! #rhs #libraries #bestdayever Cardboard resource from Erin Riley!

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Researching Something

For the classes that really struggled with material exploration, Mrs. Melvin created an awesome checklist and had them start researching both invention ideas and the history of the invention they wanted to re-create.

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Her students were already familiar with color-coded Cornell notes for researching, so these bright colorful research notes in the Googledoc were easy to use for research!

One thing we both agreed on about our students ability to research is that they sometimes struggle with finding really good information on crowd-sourced sites like Youtube and Instructables. Our teens tend to gravitate toward the highest views rather than the best content. So we gave them a list of questions to ask as they were researching. These questions range from checking on the crowd-sourcer: “How can I tell who this person is? What qualifications do they have?” to self-assessment questions like: “Can I replicate this? Do I have the skills to accomplish this project? Do I need to gain new skills? Or find another way to do this?” ( These questions are based on information from the  Challenge Based Learning  book I co-wrote with Aaron Graves and Diana Rendina.)

Some of our students also seemed to want more help on garnering ideas and finding ideas to hack. So I made this quick list of great crowdsourced sites that students could search through by material or by invention idea.

Crowdsourced sites for sparking ideas and inventions

Learning Something

During student’s first round of prototyping, I had to share a lot of examples of some ideas to frontload ideas for some students. I had so many kids wanting to sew circuits and make paper circuits, but they all wanted to be able to turn their creations off and on. So I showed some students the concept behind making a switch with alligator clips and tin foil.

Other students were self guided in their research on how to make things. Some students really got into the LEGO books by Isogawa, lots of kids used the #bigmakerbook,  and other kids found inspiration in the Chibitronics Circuit Sticker notebook (and of course they scoured Youtube.) But a lot of kids just built and tested to see if they could get working prototypes.

So many kids wanted inventive switches, that I realized I needed to make a tangible example. I saw a similar switch in the Tinkering Studio Sewing Circuit guide, but the picture wasn’t enough, my students needed an example they could examine. This has been quite a handy example to have around, it even helped some boys figure out how to make a switch for their recycled bottle car!

One of the best things to happen during prototyping is that Mrs. Melvin told students, “If you can’t find something, figure out what else you can use to make the same idea.” The kids are now getting really inventive and into tinkering to figure things out.

I can’t wait to share their prototype progress in the next post!