Guest Blog: Eight tips for facilitating maker activities with youth

by Erin Murphy

By Emily McLeod, Director of Curriculum at Techbridge, with contributions from Sarah Smith, Jane Smith, and John Smith, all Program Coordinators.

At Techbridge, making is a big part of the afterschool and summer STEM programming we deliver to more than 600 girls from underserved communities in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about what high-quality making looks like and what staff can do to ensure that all participants are engaged and learning. Here’s our eight best practices for facilitating Maker activities with youth:

1. Take time to build a community of Makers

It is essential to take the time to create a culture and supportive space where it’s OK try new things, ask for help when you need it, and dream big. At the beginning of our Summer Academy, girls decided together what they wanted their community to look like. Every day, there were icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities, a practice we carry over into our afterschool programs.

2. Encourage youth choice

Youth are more invested in projects when they have ownership and seeing their own ideas come to life is a strong motivator. Youth choice also fosters equity, empowering youth to bring in their expertise, background, and personal interests. Therefore, most of our projects give youth meaningful choices about the direction they will take their work. In our high school programs, girls spend much of the year building projects of their own design to take to the local Maker Faire. With younger students, we often start with a prompt, concept, or design challenge (e.g. “make a robot that can interact with humans”) which provides focus, while allowing room for creativity.

3. Build peer and near-peer leadership

Taking on the role of an expert helps empower youth. To develop peer leadership, identify participants with more experience and actively encourage them to support their peers and share knowledge. During our Summer Academy, we invited girls from Techbridge’s high school programs to act as group leaders for middle school participants. This allowed older girls to develop leadership skills, provided younger girls role models and support, and gave program coordinators assistance in facilitating complex projects. You can try this model with college students as well!

4. Acknowledge challenges and focus on process, not product

Making can be challenging and projects may not turn out the way we intended. Acknowledge this! We make time to share our “Glorious Goofs” and talk about girls’ work as prototyping, rather than setting an expectation of creating polished products. Our facilitators encourage girls to think about the skills they are gaining, and the ideas they are developing, as the most important things they’ll take away from the project. For more information about addressing and reframing failure, see this blog post and this paper.

5. Share models and your own making experiences

We often share samples made by facilitators or girls in other programs. Youth love to see and play with physical examples, which can spark ideas for those who may be struggling to get started. If you can, make a variety of models; we’ve found that if there’s just one kind, youth may be tempted to copy it. Making models ahead of time also gives facilitators direct experience with the project and can help them see potential challenges youth might face and develop troubleshooting strategies.

6. Don’t forget aesthetics

Although Making encompasses a variety of interests and skills, the spotlight is often turned on projects that are tech-heavy, with focus on function over form. These projects don’t always appeal to everyone. For some youth, the way a project looks is just as important as what it does, and we make sure to build in time for visual design alongside the coding and engineering. Although it’s tempting to think of art-making or decoration as things to do if there’s extra time, for some youth, it can be the difference between engaging wholeheartedly with a project and tuning out.

7. You won’t know everything and that’s OK

Sometimes, youth will ask questions that facilitators don't know how to answer or ask for help with something they don't know how to fix. That's OK. We take a co-learning approach to our Maker projects, and are upfront about the fact that we don’t have all of the answers. In these situations, model how a Maker should address challenges—ask a peer; use a variety of resources (e.g., online guides, role models, fellow staff members, books); or be willing to try something that might not work. Taking risks and being vulnerable shows youth that it’s OK for them to do the same.

8. Celebrate successes along the way and share with others

You can help youth celebrate all kinds of success, not just completed projects. Use opportunities such as group shout-outs, gallery walks, and one-on-one feedback to appreciate youth for their progress along the way. At the end of a project, give youth opportunities to share their work through presentations to peers, at a science fair, or family event. It teaches them how to communicate with others and act as STEM experts within their own communities.

© 2013 Afterschool Alliance