The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

CHICAGO – Laser cutters, robots, 3D printers: when people talk about educational makerspaces, images of expensive, high-tech gadgetry comes to mind. In Colleen Graves’ library, they make use of a much cheaper resource.

“It’s trash,” she said. “But don’t call it that.”

The school librarian from Leander, Texas, was speaking on a panel about how to make makerspaces affordable and accessible in low-income and rural schools. To get her kids interested in building and engineering, Graves uses lots of recycled goods or material found in nature. While she does have access to some gadgets, any invention her students make starts off with a prototype made from cardboard.

“What we really want our kids doing is building things with their hands and learning how things work,” she said.

While the term “makerspace” is broad – any space where you make things can qualify – it’s usually thought of as a place where students interested in engineering and science can experiment freely with advanced tools to build physical objects or practice coding. The panel discussion, which took place at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference last week in Chicago, convened five teachers from California to Long Island to share practical advice on how to make a makerspace in a school with limited resources – and how to make sure that makerspace attracts a diverse array of students.

Related: EcoHackers: These kids track pollution with balloons and kites

“For me, that was a very personal lesson,” said Rafranz Davis, a technology coach in rural Lufkin, Texas. Her school district is majority black and Hispanic. As a black woman, she hoped her presence at the makerspace would encourage more students of color to join. But that did not happen automatically.

”Taking those apart will teach you so much about how things work. They’ll learn about gears, learn about switches, they’ll learn about so much stuff.”

“I thought, ‘If you build it they will come,’ and they see me, therefore, they will come,” she said. “And that was not the case. So I had to learn how to be intentional.”

To recruit more students of color, Davis worked with local community groups like Concerned Black Men of Lufkin. She also got teachers invested in the project, so they’d develop enough passion to pass on to the students. To do that, Davis asked teachers, “What have you made lately?” Some cooked, some sewed or quilted, and one teacher even made jewelry to sell at flea markets.

“We tapped into, ‘How did you grow because of that?’” said Davis. “And that’s when we brought them back to what it meant to be a learner yourself and what that felt like. And once our teachers connected to that part of themselves, the conversation of what our kids needed to do it was our next transition.”

Makerspaces often encourage students to feel they are part of a community of “makers.” That can be empowering for some, but if students don’t see being a “maker” as part of their core identity, they may assume that the makerspace is not for them. A recent report from Drexel University found that makerspaces often recruit students using terms like “nerd,” “geek” and “hacker.” Students who chose not to join the makerspaces said these terms added pressure and made them feel unwelcome.

Related: A district that pays students for their work

Another panelist at ISTE, Robert Pronovost, was a STEM coordinator in East Palo Alto, a low-income with a large Hispanic population. To make a space where everyone could feel excited about participating, he said, “I started with student input from the very beginning.”

He recruited five fourth- and fifth-grade girls to test out a few gadgets and give their feedback before he launched the makerspace. He said he faced skepticism from the school board; as in many low-income, low-performing schools, there was enormous pressure to raise test scores and it was unclear how a makerspace would help do that. Filming his students and taking them to board meetings to show off what they had created was key to winning the board’s support, he said.

“If you bring in students and show the 21st-century skills that they are building as a result of this hands-on learning, then they’re a little bit more forgiving with the test scores because they realize that’s not what really matters,” said Pronovost.

Regardless of where they came from, all the panelists had found ways to tap into the resources of their communities. Some had reached out to factories to ask their engineers to give the kids hands-on lessons. Graves had Tweeted to the creator of a tech kit her kids were using, Makey Makey; he and his team “visited” her students via Skype. Libraries sometimes provide free tech kits to check out, and if they don’t, the Institute of Museum and Library Services can provide a grant.

Local businesses can also be partners. Tanger Outlet and Walmart offer educational grants; civic associations like Lion’s or Rotary Clubs can donate materials; and hardware and convenience stores are often happy to give schools $50 worth of materials or out-of-season items they don’t need.

Using donated material can even end up making the school some money. At another ISTE event, a from Colorado, Mark Schreiber, described how he taught an entrepreneurship class where high school students made Christmas stocking stuffers from items like bicycle tubes (donated by a local bike shop) or cork (donated by a local Italian restaurant). The kids learn about engineering, mass production, and marketing, and proceeds from each year’s stocking stuffers go to fund the next year’s project.

Graves offered the story of one teacher who had collected a host of broken animatronic toys and had brought them in for the kids to have an awesome take-apart-toys session.

“Taking those apart will teach you so much about how things work,” said Graves. “They’ll learn about gears, learn about switches, they’ll learn about so much stuff.”

This story about educational makerspaces was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *