The Direct Network

Designing for a Community of Makers

Posted by Guest Contributor on Jan 25, 2016 7:00:00 AM
Topics: K-12, ed tech, design thinking, maker-space
by T.J. Edwards, director of Design and Engineering Programs, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs, Georgia is in the midst of designing a Maker, Design, and Engineering program that will serve students in pre-K through 12th grade. Building on a strong foundation of design thinking and maker-ed, the upper school campus in particular is in the process of opening the HIVE, a new maker-community space. The design of both the program and the space is supported by the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, which serves as the R&D arm for Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and beyond.

As the HIVE is coming to completion, the work to (re)define the space begins in earnest. In a previous post, I noted some distinctions between a maker space and a maker community. You might consider the science lab, art studio, kitchen, or library at your school a makerspace. You might also note that makerspaces vary to a large degree in the tools, spaces, materials, people, and curricular focus. By taking the space totally out of the equation our design challenge became: How might we build a maker community?

A Design Thinking challenge where the user is … yourself

Over the last few months Jim Tiffin, Parker Thomas and I took a deep dive into our Maker, Design, and Engineering program in an effort to build for a desired future. This post is a brief snapshot of how we used pages from the MVIFI Design Thinking playbook to organize our thinking. It is imperfect. It is messy. It is crazy optimistic. That is what it design thinking feels like, and hopefully by sharing our ideas (and mistakes) it will help to inform others as they tackle their own design challenges.

Having done some discovery and empathy work centered on the needs/pain points for various stakeholders, we began to tell stories about how these stakeholders would weave in and out of the Maker, Design, and Engineering program. Those stories we told of an “imagined future” (hat tip to Tim Hurson) served as a launch pad for divergent thinking. Below are just some of our hopes and dreams for a maker community.


The benefit of “going for volume” during our experiment phase is that that it allows patterns (and important outliers) to emerge. 3 C’s (another Tim Hurson hat tip - seriously, I have no affiliation. It’s just a great book!) is another tool that can be helpful to uncover those patterns. In our work we began to notice four primary categories: 1) sharing and celebrating student work, 2) telling stories of teacher and student work in the program, 3) facilitating behaviors that might be different from other classes, and 4) creating a general “buzz” around the program.


Living the Dream

I feel really good about our prototyped attempt at "making space magical," but until the jots and sketches are turned into action, then we are only living in a dream. Culture and community are an intersection of spaces, behaviors, language, and people. I think we are intentionally working on building out each of these aspects. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the space - the HIVE - was designed with our community in mind. We are programing specific cultural routines that will help to reinforce behaviors we desire:

  • CareCheck - a safety protocol and mantra (Hands, secure, bubble, pause)
  • “Ring the Bell” - literally, when a “fail” moment is worth sharing in order to move the rest of the group forward
  • Build Permit - a written plan and commitment to build until “done” (as defined by the student)

We are embedding common language PK-12 that is designed to offer various pathways to making. One trio of these words - Hacker, Artisan, Tinkerer - is meant to help guide makers down project paths that best fit their identity and present specific skill sets. Another trio of words - instigation, invitation, provocation - might be just the thing to bring people to our maker community. Be on the lookout for a post at by Jim Tiffin that will dive into how he uses these prompts on a daily basis to spark creativity in his classes. As an example, though, each of these prompts have afforded me the opportunity to connect with students, community members, and teachers alike. Within the last week:

  • Myself and a highly motivated student instigated an afterschool robotics “taste test” where kids that are interested in robotics can try out stations where they solder, program, and 3D print robot components. The instigation seems to be working in terms of attracting students, and I’m excited that the event will also reconnect us with the creators of Sumo Robot League who will be on hand to help co-facilitate.
  • I was also approached by one of our biology teachers who is interested in offering an invitation to make within bio class. We are working to design and 3D print DNA models and skeleton bones and offer quick CAD lessons as a way to invite her science students to consider other things they might make in class.
  • Another teacher approached me with a provocation. He is interested in helping to provoke students to consider designing and building a school frisbee golf course (fun!!!). We quickly brainstormed variations of types of topographical maps they could make, or try overlaying designs from Sketchup onto Google Earth.

The next chapter of our Maker, Design, and Engineering program is only just beginning. These small anecdotal examples and observations of students and faculty beginning to use the space and speak the language make me excited for the community that is being built.

About the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation:

T.J. Edwards is the Director of Design and Engineering Programs at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs, Ga. T.J. is recovering engineer who has taught science, technology, and engineering for the past 5 years. T.J. is also part of nucleus team at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI).

The Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation is a team of maverick leaders and educational designers who are helping schools transform through people-centered design. MVIFI grew from the thought and action leadership at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and maintains a symbiotic relationship as outgrowth, accelerator and amplifier of the School’s work. Continuously innovating ourselves, MVIFI provides leadership in transformational learning and school redesign in a number of ways. We share thought leadership. We host dynamic learning events. We run innovative educational programs. And we consult with schools and organizations working for their own transformation and innovation.

*This post was simultaneously published on

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