Aaron VanderwerffEditor’s note: Today’s post is written by teacher Aaron Vanderwerff, who started a Young Makers club at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California, so that he could encourage his students to make things to exhibit at Maker Faire. Aaron is a Physics, Chemistry, and Robotics teacher at his small public charter school.  They have been exhibiting projects made by his students since Maker Faire 2011. The school is one of our pilot sites for MENTOR Makerspace program in 2012-13. Here, he shares the approach he has taken with his class last year and this year.

Why make in class?

In this post, projects are envisioned as lying on a spectrum from teacher-led to independent.  Teacher-led projects are when students all complete the same project.  Completely independent projects are student creations from the concept to the product.  Most projects fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  For example, some student projects are entirely the students’ own vision, some are hybrids of projects they have seen in Make magazine and on the internet, and some projects are pulled from a website, following the instructions they read online.

Students learn different concepts from different types of projects.

Teacher-led projects teach students…

  • To be creators, not only consumers
  • New skills (hands-on, design, collaborative)
  • Pride in their work

More independent, student-visioned projects allow students to see their own idea come to fruition.  For many students this is the first time they have participated in a long-term, open-ended project.  This experience mirrors the post-high school world much more closely than a majority of school work.  The very process of thinking up an idea and creating it is the major learning goal for independent student projects.  This process is not self-evident, and is best learned by going through it multiple times.  Each time students complete the design and build process, they gain confidence to complete future projects.

Independent projects teach students…

  • To take a concept and turn it into a real prototype, allowing students to experience the full journey of creation (including bumps and difficulties).
  • To use resources (mentors, teacher, internet, magazine, etc) to create a project.
  • To grow creation skills (sewing, woodworking, programming, circuitry, soldering, etc.)
  • To explain their project and their creation process to an audience. 

Year-Long Timeline

  • August – November: Students build their skills.  They learn C programming using robots and develop basic skills in woodworking, crafting, soldering, and use of Arduino for making.  Through this period, they work for two weeks on robotics followed by one week of making skill building.
  • December – March:  Students develop their own vision for a Maker Faire project and create a first draft of the project to show at a local LCCS Maker Faire (school organized); they continue working on robots.  Through this period, students work one day in class each week on making their independent project.  The remainder of the time required happens outside of class.
  • March – May: Students refine their Maker Faire project for exhibition in San Mateo; they also compete in a robotics competition.  Through this period, students continue making in class once a week until mid-April, when they are able to use all class time to finish their project and prepare for exhibiting at the Maker Faire.

Phase 1: Building Skills (1 to 2 weeks per background skill Mid August – End October)

After having worked with students on independent projects our first year, I decided that I would use fun, interesting, skill-building projects in the beginning of the year to get students more comfortable with the idea of making.  Projects were designed to develop skills many student groups needed in order to complete their independent projects.  I wanted to expose all students to different types of projects so they would not be intimidated by a specific project because it involved a saw or a sewing machine.  These skill-building projects were done between two week robotics projects to maintain student interest.  I had students work in same-gender pairs to discourage gender stereotyping of who should be using specific tools.  In the end, all students developed some proficiency in all areas.

Our areas of focus were:

  • Soldering
  • Woodworking
  • Crafting
  • Using an Arduino and Shield


Working in same-gender teams of two, students assembled Elenco Soldering Kits.  (Two pairs of students shared a soldering iron, so I needed one soldering iron per 4 students.) The kits have soldering practice areas for students to try before they are assembling electronics they might burn up.  They come with step-by-step instructions and a description of the different electronic components.  After showing students the basics of soldering, pairs showed me their first few soldering joints, and I was able to give them individual feedback.  Throughout the week, I circulated through the class, providing feedback to students and ensuring that all students were participating in soldering.  At the end of the week students passed the projects if their kit worked.

Pairs whose projects didn’t work had to check for incomplete solders or soldering joints that were bridged.  Students struggled to desolder incorrect joints and often delaminated the pad because they would heat it too much.  Students whose projects didn’t work the first time were given a second kit if the first was beyond repair and had to solder it on their own time.


Working in same gender teams of two, students built chairs based on the ‘stud chair’ (Make magazine, volume 27, page 122).  To complete the project, students learned to use a small circular saw, a hand saw, and a drill.  This year, I plan to either use a different plan or use lumber that is already the correct dimension (2”x2”s and 1”x4”s), so that we do not have to use a table saw.  Students started by cutting the 8’ – 2”x4” into the proper lengths.  Another teacher brought a table saw in to make the rip cuts.  He made the cuts during class, showing students how to safely use the tool.  Students then assembled the chair, squaring corners, pre-drilling holes, and gluing joints before they screwed the boards together.  Keeping all corners square proved to be one of the major difficulties for students, but the end products made it clear why taking time to work carefully made a difference; the more precise the cuts and the more square the chair, the sturdier the chair was.

During this project, I gave each student an extremely short lesson on the tool they were using and assessed  their knowledge before they were approved to use that tool.  This tool lesson was meant to increase competence and decrease fear.  For example, when using the cordless circular saw I asked students to show me how they would hold the saw – reminding them that both hands must be on the two parts of the handles (it’s hard to cut your hand if it is holding a handle).  Next I asked them to turn it on and turn it off right after so they knew what it felt like when it was on.  I followed by showing them how to line the saw up with their mark and back it off the wood before they started the saw.  Finally, I allowed them to cut. I also provided small group instruction on using the square and the drill.  Students showed me their clamped together parts before they pre-drilled the holes so I could measure how square it was.

The class shares a circular saw and a few hand saws.  Having multiple goggles, drills, squares, clamps, and bottles of wood-glue (one set of each per four students) allows this project to flow more smoothly.  These materials can be borrowed for the week if your school doesn’t have them.


Staying with their partner from the woodworking project, students decorated their chairs and made a cushion for the seat.  Students started by painting and decoupaging their chairs.   Students embroidered a design onto a piece of fabric that would be the front of their cushion.  They were required to include one button in their design.  They traced their designs from something they drew or printed by placing fabric (recycled sheets) over the design on a window.  Each partner took turns hand embroidering the design.  Students learned to use the sewing machine to sew the back and front of the pillow together.  They stuffed the pillows and sewed the final edge together by hand.

A part-time teacher assisted in the instruction of students in sewing.  After initial instructions on each of the areas of crafting, we both circulated to help students when they were not sure how to proceed.  After students completed the embroidery of their pillow, both of us worked with students to safely use the sewing machines.  This year, I plan to have students start the week developing a cohesive vision for the design of all parts of their chair, and I’ll add a simple electronic component to their pillow so they can start to see the intersection of crafting and technology using soft-circuits.

This project requires a sewing machine for the class and an embroidery hoop and needle for each pair.  Students also need paint, brushes, decoupage glue, thread, and fabric.

Using an Arduino and Shield

Working with a partner, students put their soldering skills to the test again.  Students were provided with an Arduino shield kit (LoL Shield and WaveShield) which they assembled.  I chose these shields because of the inherent appeal of making an iPod-like device and a message/screen device.  The LoL shield took the entire week to assemble because there were so many LEDs to solder.  LoL shield users were able to assemble and run a couple quick programs from the library.  Generally they were able to change the message on the shield, but didn’t get too much further than that in programming the Arduino.  WaveShield users were able to finish soldering earlier, which was good because music must be reformatted to be compatible with the shield.  On a Mac this is relatively easy, whereas on a PC it took some time to find and install the correct programs.  Students were able to get their shield up and running and show me it worked by playing a song of their choice.  They also played a bit more with programs in the library than the LoL shield group was able to do.  Initially there were also small issues in installing the libraries.  I ended up installing them on all the computers because of the Admin password issues (putting files into the Program Files folder).

This year, we are planning to completely change this project.  We have two ideas currently and plan on choosing one based on the group of students in class and their preferences.

  • Option 1: Using the Examples – Students will use the examples already built into the Arduino program.  By doing this they will learn to use example code and relate it to the C programming they already did in the robotics portion of the class.  In addition, they will learn to interpret the circuit descriptions in these example files.  Students will work through a series of these examples chosen to highlight specific electronic components and programming skills.  They will be asked to modify the programs to make a visible change (e.g. make the light turn off twice as long as it was on while it blinks) and to combine multiple programs (e.g. make the light blink when the button is pushed).
  • Option 2: Semi-Independent Project – Students will be provided with a menu of options for a semi-independent project.  Since the next thing students will work on is a vision for their Maker Faire project, this would give us a chance to help them think through some of what they will encounter in working on their own projects.  These projects will be designed to take seven days in class and will use an Arduino and basic electronics/sensors.  Students will provided with instructions for the project of their choice.  The directions will be pulled from the Arduino cookbook or online.

Phase 2: Independent Maker Faire Projects — Choosing a Project
During the first two weeks of November (at the same time as the Arduino project), students were given the assignment to look through Make magazine and find projects that interested them.  Each week they were given the opportunity to see more projects and share interesting projects in a class discussion.  At the end of the second week, students were asked to form groups of one to three based on common interests and compatible schedules (because they need to work outside of class on projects).  The week before Thanksgiving break, they were given the task of coming up with a project concept for something they were interested in pursuing.  The major requirement was that they thought it would be something that would hold their interest.  Over Thanksgiving break, they started their initial project plan.  The Monday after Thanksgiving, students met mentors for the first time.  I split students into three groups and mentors circulated, giving feedback and ideas to each project group.  This gave students a chance to get feedback and hear how feedback is given to other groups.  After the class, mentors gave preferences for groups they thought they could best support.  Students were given their mentor assignments later that week and shared their initial project plans with mentors.

One Group’s Story

When everyone else had a team and a vision, these three girls found themselves left without either.  In fact, they hadn’t really wanted to be in the class in the first place.  So they decided to be a team.  They toyed around with many ideas.  They saw articles in Make about a magic mirror that got them thinking about how to create a project that would interact with people, and they saw others made from recycled materials that inspired them to think about creative reuse as well.  Still, they had trouble putting it together into a concrete idea.

Their first idea was to create a picture frame out of recycled materials, integrate a webcam into the frame, and have the picture in the frame be the person looking at it.  They wanted it triggered somehow, maybe even changed in a playful way, but they couldn’t figure out how.  They discussed this idea with each other for weeks, researched online, talked with their mentor, but they couldn’t get past the idea stage.

At some point, I am not sure why, they decided to scrap their first idea and start over.  But the recycling theme stuck and they discovered that if you cut a plastic water bottle in a spiral it makes a pretty cool looking curl.  This was the a-ha moment.  A spiral of clear plastic became the centerpiece from which they built.  They had to figure out how to make it work, and the process took many iterations, but when they were done, they had created their own recycled LED chandelier.  At Maker Faire that spring, many people stopped to look at it, intrigued by the same curls that had finally inspired the team.

The Class Context

The students participating in making are enrolled in Robotics class, which is in its fourth year at Lighthouse.  During that time, students have participated in the regional Botball competition each year.  Two years ago, by participating in Young Makers, we added an independent project to the curriculum, which students showcase at the Maker Faire in San Mateo each spring.  From August through November, the robotics curriculum supports basic skill development in collaboration, programming, mechanical design, and creation skills (woodworking, soldering, sewing, etc.).  The remainder of the year is spent preparing for the Botball competition by running mock competitions using last year’s rules and preparing for Maker Faire by working with mentors to hone each small groups’ project vision and bring it to fruition.  In the spring, all students participate in a robotics competition and take a project to the Maker Faire.

Students in the Robotics class are 11th and 12th graders, low-income, and are usually the first in their families to attend college.  The class generally has about 24 students enrolled and runs for 70 minutes four times each week.  In the past, most students in the class did not choose to take Robotics and were intimidated by the class at the beginning of the year; this year, however, students have some choice of which science classes they take, but they are ultimately assigned to the class.

The classroom space we use for making is a science lab.  We do most ‘clean’ activities such as soldering, programming, and assembly inside the lab.  Outside the lab are picnic tables that we use for ‘dirty’ activities like woodworking.

The primary purpose of the Robotics class is to give students multiple opportunities to work on long-term, collaborative projects which more closely reflect what students will encounter in college and the work world.  The class is designed to expose students to a variety of technical careers and prepare those who are interested in studying technical areas for their post-secondary studies.  Making provides an additional component, allowing students to conceive of an idea, try it out, and make it happen.  Along the way they fail, change their plan, try it again, fail again, learn from others and try something different.  They learn that making a vision reality is not easy, but that it is within their reach.


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2 Responses to A Year at Lighthouse: from chairs to Arduinos to interactive chandeliers (and more)

  1. [...] time to learn these hands-on skills, and it was therefore great to see the following post about a Young Makers club highlighted on the MakerSpace website this week.  Teacher Aaron Vanderwerff started the club at Lighthouse Community Charter school in Oakland, CA [...]

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