Lorena and Daniela's "Girly Pedal Car" with their mentor, bike hacker Johnny, shown before hey exhibited at Maker Faire 2011

For their final project, Lorena (pictured above) and Daniela worked with their mentors, bike makers Max Chen (pictured) and Johnny Payphone, on their very pink human-powered vehicle. They exhibited it at Maker Faire 2011.

Starting an independent project can be a daunting task, especially if your students have never been asked to take something like this on before.  For my students it is especially intimidating because of the six-month timeframe of the project, the fact that they will be required to learn new skills that will be different from their peers, and also because they are being asked to innovate in some way.

The process we have developed at Lighthouse is intended to help our students make their way through creating an initial project vision. We’ve defined five stages of getting started on an independent project:

  • Explore (2 months)
  • Share ideas (2 weeks)
  • Individual ideas (1 week)
  • Project proposal (1 week)
  • Project presentations and refinement (continual through project deadline)

We describe each of these stages in greater detail below.

(2 months)

GoalStudents are exposed to new ideas and learn new skills.

Students are given multiple opportunities to explore because they generally have had little exposure to DIY style projects (from any genre).  The first exposure to new types of projects comes as we work on our skill builders, where students are exposed to woodworking, design, embroidery, soft-circuits, soldering, and using the Arduino.  As we started to work on the basics of Arduino, and during the following three week period, students were shown videos of different projects at the beginning of class that could inspire them to think about different ideas for their own projects.  In the second and third week of our Arduino unit students have the opportunity to carry out a project that is similar in process to their individual projects, except that they will be assisted with the steps by a teacher throughout; this provides students with a glimpse at how a more complicated project could come together. As students are exploring and sharing ideas, they are recording the ideas they find the most interesting in their journals.

(2 weeks)

Goal: Students use print and Internet sources to find ideas for projects.

At the same time as they work on their Arduino projects, students checked out Make magazines and were encouraged to explore instructibles.com.  After looking over these materials, students shared a project they found interesting and explained why they found it interesting.  It is important to remind students that at this stage they are not choosing a project, they are only sharing something they found   in order to better inform themselves and their peers.  This process can be repeated multiple times and can be used to start discussions with the group about what students and teachers are looking for in a project.

(1 week)

Goal: Students express their own ideas, hear about other students’ ideas, and start to get excited about the ideas.

Our students then write up individual ideas for projects.  Although we eventually want students to work in teams of one to three, we ask them to complete this step individually to push them to have agency in the project they eventually choose.  Listening to each other’s ideas encourages them to choose who they work with based on project interest more than peer-relationships.  We find this important because students in groups bound together by a project have historically shared the work more evenly as long as they could find time to work together; whereas groups of friends often don’t share the work equally because they don’t have equal levels of interest in the project.

Students were provided with the following prompt and will present their idea to the group during class.

Be sure the project you describe is something you think you will be interested in over the 6 months you will be working on it.  Remember, it does not need to be a robot or electronic – it can be mechanical, sewing, crafting, an interactive experience, programming, electronic, robotic, etc.  Finally, you must work on this proposal on your own and be open to working with people whose ideas you like, but who you don’t know as well.

  1. Describe a project have thought about that you would like to make.  You may base your project on those we have seen over the past couple of months.
  2. What does it do and how does it work?
  3. Why is it interesting or exciting to you?
  4. If this project is based on another project, how will you make it your own?  What will you do to improve or change it?

During the class discussion, all students share their ideas.  As each student shares, their peers are encouraged to ask clarifying questions.  It is helpful to remind students that this is not their final project; they are just putting an idea out to the group to add to the diversity of ideas.  In addition, students take notes on at least three project ideas they thought were the most interesting.  The teacher, meanwhile, is taking notes and pairing up project ideas in order to offer suggestions at the end of the presentations.  Once everyone is done presenting, the teacher asks students to identify their top two projects.  Each student is then asked to go discuss these projects with the project’s originators.  This was the first year we tried this step in the process and it did mix the groups more than has happened in the past.  Since we have some tight knit groups of friends in the class, we asked students to talk to others they don’t know as well.  Through these discussions students are asked to decide who they want to work with based on common interest and availability (outside of school schedules).  They give their group lists to the teacher before leaving for the day.

(1 week)

Goal: Students express the object or experience they would like to create.

Groups of students work together prepare a project proposal in order to get ready for a final pre-project presentation to their future mentors.  In our class, this work is done as homework, but it could easily be done in class with teacher guidance.  Each group is given the following format for their proposal:

If you are having trouble coming up with an idea – or aren’t satisfied with your current idea, there are a bunch of websites with ideas at the Young Maker’s site, my blog site which I will keep updating, or even go look at what some suppliers have to offer.  In addition, you can come up with hybrid ideas (meaning two ideas that already exist combined into something new) by cutting out pictures from magazines or printing some out from the web and arranging them in pairs until you find something interesting!

  • Name of Project:
  • Participants (who is your time manager?):
  • Primary Mentor (To be determined):
  • Mentor Contact Information:
  • Project Description (1 paragraph):
  • Divide your project into smaller projects – in other words what are the different types of tasks you will need to accomplish in order to complete this project? (e.g. electronics to control lights and motors/ mechanical systems to be able to grasp an object)
  • What is your plan for splitting these sub projects among your group members?

Your homework will be to spend a minimum of two hours per week per person working on your project.  You will keep track of this work in your project journal (online) and it will be assessed each month.   Part of your homework will be to communicate with your mentor, update your plan, and attend Young Maker events (dates to be announced).

  • How do you and your team plan to decide what homework you are giving yourselves – and how will you split it up?
(continual through project deadline)

GoalStudents receive feedback from a knowledgeable source and to break the project into smaller pieces that can be worked on concurrently

Students presented their project ideas to a group of their peers and a mentor.  After each presentation, students were given feedback, mostly by mentors.

Mentors generally need guidance from the teacher about what type of feedback you want students to receive so it is helpful, yet not overwhelming.  Our mentors were asked to help students split their project into sub-projects because  students often struggle with this key step, but it helps projects move forward efficiently.

After receiving this feedback from mentors, students start to work out the sub-projects they will need to plan for.  Students use the following organizer to start planning the sub-projects:

 Sub-projects:  Write a description of each sub-project below.  Then fill in the table.

 Confidence: Rate how well you understand this step from 1 (I have done it before) to 5 (I really don’t have a clue how to do this and will need to do research / talk to mentor and teachers to accomplish it).


Skills Needed & Confidence

Materials Needed

Time Needed

Who is in charge?

Time with modifier


Bringing an idea to life

Every year it is a pleasure to watch students move towards creating a project vision.  Getting a group of students to their own idea of a creation is often not at all linear and you generally end up asking yourself how they came up with the idea they present.  After completing the process earlier this year, one of my students told the group that it is “exciting to think that right now we have a bunch of creative ideas, and in six months these ideas will have come to life.”  Each year we go through this process it seems to get easier for students to find a vision. I wonder if that is due to our teaching practice improving, or if it is because students have seen those in earlier classes come up with ideas which has shown them what is possible.


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