2nd Grade Design Challenges

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Brown Bag Challenge

A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, I saw a tweet that encompassed some of my favorite concepts of a maker mindset. In the tweet, Angie O’ Malley, a STEAM educator in Washington(and a FABLearn Fellow), challenged her #elemakers to make robots with super powers ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. (High five, Angie!) By handing kids a simple bag of random materials, students were challenged to create a robot with the everyday materials in front of them.  I loved how she added the context of super powers, because it gave the students just enough direction (and constraint) to all make completely different and amazing robots.

I knew that I had to see what our Mason students would make with this fun challenge, but I also wanted to do this with FIVE different 2nd grade classes. So and I decided to add teaching the importance of recycling and re-use, and told students up front that they would build robots, snap a picture, and then dis-assemble after building so the next group could re-use the same materials.

The robots they made were super adorable. I took pictures and stored them in a Googledoc for each teacher with the intent that students could write about their robots in the future. (I’m also thinking if time allowed, it would be fun to have students make a Chatterpix of their robot describing its super powers.)

Here are some of their amazing creations!

Mrs. Denny’s sweet students wrote me thank you notes for “letting” them make robots in the library.

Designing an Accessible Playground

After seeing Angie’s great tweet about robots, I delved further into her work and discovered her amazing blog: Elementary Innovators.  She has so many great ideas posted, but one that really stuck out was a post about designing accessible playground equipment. Since we might be getting new playground equipment at Mason, I thought it would be great for our 2nd graders to design a new playground that is accessible for ALL of our students.

Using the design thinking process, we discussed user needs and the concept of accessibility. We asked students to brainstorm ideas out loud and on paper, and then sketch out accessible playground ideas.

Ideas included:

  • Lower Monkey bars so a student in a wheelchair could use them
  • Lower Monkey bars with a platform underneath that would move the wheelchair as the user “swung” across the bars
  • Zip line swings
  • An elevator to the slide
  • A moving sidewalk to the Playscape
  • A computer talker – A student wanted a computer so that one of our nonverbal students could tap on the computer to have it speak and tell others where he wants to play.
  • A Wheelchair zipline that lifts the chair safely
  • A lift to put a child in a swing
  • An accessible trampoline- a platform for a wheelchair that bounces the rider while they are safely in their chair.
  • And some students had super complicated ideas that were just plain awesome like this dinosaur with a slide coming out of it’s mouth!


Listen to this student talk about her design:

Little people have pretty amazing ideas! I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

Maker Mindset and our Invention Literacy PBL

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(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?”

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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.”

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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

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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!

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.

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.