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Developing and Using Low-Cost MAKEngineering Kits for Youth Engagement.

But dad, I don't want to go home. I want to stay and build a roller coaster," Jeffrey stated while constructing a paper roller coaster for a marble to travel from one end to another. This making task took place in an after-school program developed by a local science museum for elementary-aged students. The focus of the program was to engage underserved youth as scientists and engineers through making and tinkering tasks. However, over a 12-week period, researcher-observers Simpson and Maltese noted that materials were never sent home with participants. There were no examples of youth being encouraged to extend their explorations at home or to take a "work in progress" home and bring it back for discussion or troubleshooting.


We, the authors, have collaborated on several research projects and community-based programs and professional development around making and tinkering activities. Yet, as outside observers and educational researchers to this science museum program, we questioned what the students were learning and doing and how it transferred to their home environments. Were they continuing these activities at home? Did they have access to materials and tools to tinker when they wanted to? Our sense was that involvement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities ended when they walked out the door. This did not seem unique to this particular after-school program.

Through conference networking, online conversations, and email exchanges with fellow researchers, maker educators, youth-based makerspace directors, and professional development coordinators across the United States, we discovered that others also witnessed minimal opportunities for youth participants to continue STEM activities outside similar programs. We interpreted situations like this as limiting the development of interest in STEM and, thus, as missed opportunities. This is particularly concerning given that a number of previous studies cited examples of home engagement in STEM activities by participants with their caregivers as sparking and developing interest in STEM at a particularly early age (e.g., Maltese & Cooper, 2017; Maltese & Harsh, 2015). These STEM-related activities included helping caregivers fix things around the house (e.g., clothes dryer) or receiving verbal support and access to materials.

Based on the observations of the after-school program and discussions with colleagues, we sought and received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to design, develop, and refine "MAKEngineering" take-home kits that would provide learning experiences for youth in grades 3-6 with their families/caregivers in local underserved communities. An additional aim of the grant was to examine the logistics of circulation and sustainability of a set of maker bags/ kits.


Since our focus was on youth from underserved groups, we decided to partner with local teacher librarians within Title I elementary schools. The librarians' role within this study was to circulate the kits through their library, as well as document information such as which kits were checked out more often, what material was missing when returned, and how long it took to reshelve the resources. We also encouraged our partner school librarians to pair the kits with relevant and age-appropriate books from the library as another approach to sparking students' interest in STEM.

Additionally, we worked with four librarians across the United States to refine the instructions for the kits and advise us on age-appropriate and relevant books for youth to read. Figure 1 is an example of one of the kits, Hinges. Similar kits or bags have been developed to reach families that do not typically participate in school-related activities due to factors such as transportation and language barriers (Solomon, 2003). These take-home bags were noted to be beneficial in increasing caregivers' understanding and awareness of effective and age-appropriate ways to provide academic support in literacy (e.g., Downing & Grande, 2004), science (e.g., Reinhart et al., 2016), and mathematics (Epstein, 1994). The kits offer a goal: to support and engage students and caregivers in engineering practices at home, some through inclusion of making-related activities and low-tech materials (e.g., conductive tape) and/or household products (e.g., cotton balls).


The general purpose of the kits is to engage youth and families in a variety of activities grounded in STEM practices and principles, with a particular focus on an engineering design process. The purpose of two of the kits, Hinges and Linking Sticks, is to build or create a structure using laser-cut materials. We provided broad suggestions such as a form of transportation, a favorite character or animal, and a famous building or structure. The Car Carrier kits ask youth to use the least number of ZOOB BuilderZ pieces to build a vehicle to meet at least one of the following challenges: (1) follow a straight track for a distance of 10 feet, (2) carry a load of material such as rocks, (3) and/or achieve top speeds when rolled down a ramp. The goal of the Watercolor Bot is to use household products to construct a motorized bot that "paints" a work of art. The purpose of the last kit is to create a greeting card that lights up (i.e., Glowing Greeting Card kit).

The estimated cost of the kits is $17 to $25, but there is an economy of scale when making multiple kits that significantly reduces this cost. To manage the expenses of creating the kits, it is helpful to reach out to the local community for donations and funding, as well as local parent-teacher organizations, for household items such as cotton balls and craft sticks. The kits are small enough to fit into a backpack but durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of transport and use by young students. Additionally, they are packaged in clear pencil and ruler boxes, so that students can see the contents of the kit. A materials list is taped inside the lid, so librarians know what should be replaced before recirculating.

Instructions for the kits are provided both online and in print. The online instructions were developed through Instructables (see https://www.instructables. com/id/Glowing-Greeting-Card for an example). Instructions include additional information such as links to videos on careers, kit-chats or questions that caregivers could pose to children during the task, and information on documenting the process. Prompts included with the instructions were written to evoke persistence, enjoyment, creativity, and exploration. We field-tested the instructions with parents/caregivers and their children, as well as with school and public librarians that currently implement making programs, and used the combined feedback to enhance the instructions.


The kits were donated to nine Title I elementary school libraries. Unlike other research projects where researchers have ongoing roles, once the kits were dropped off, there was intentionally little to no communication with the partners to see how these kits would work in practice. As described earlier, the school librarians were asked to circulate the kits to be checked out by students in grades 3-6. Approximately 7 months later, we interviewed six of the nine school librarian partners to gain an understanding of how the kits were circulated and utilized by students. The interviews included the following questions: (1) Talk about the circulation of the kits. What worked well? What did not work so well? (2) In what other ways were the kits used? (3) How easy and/or difficult will it be to sustain the circulation of the kits? Why or why not? The interviews were conducted over the phone and lasted 5-10 minutes.


The following is a compilation of what we learned from the interviews with six of the nine participating teacher librarians related to their use of the kits. We included direct quotes from the interviewees, as well as suggestions for additional applications of the kits.

First, as intended, the kits can be checked out by students to take home to engage in the MAKEngineering activities alone, with a peer, or with a member of the family. Although the purpose of the grant was to serve underrepresented students through Title I elementary school libraries, it was suggested that the kits be made available to all students in the respective grade range. Some librarians reported too little time to devote to circulation of the kits. As explained by one librarian, Tiffany, "In my district, librarians only get 28 hours a week, and they have a full schedule, so there's not a lot of time to go back and count to make sure everything is there." One solution for circulating the kits could be to train a few students in the school to reshelve the kits. This responsibility could invoke a sense of student empowerment and ownership of the kits.

Second, the kits can be used in the library for day-to-day learning activities, because the instructions are self-explanatory and allow for adult-free, independent use while promoting collaboration and innovation among peers; there could be a designated space in the library for students to engage with the kits on their own.

Third, the kits can support curriculum requirements as they relate to several of the learner standards defined by the American Association of School Libraries (AASL, 2018); for example, "persisting through self-directed pursuits by tinkering and making" (explore) and "generating products that illustrate learning" (inquire) (AASL, 2018, pp. 4-5). Additionally, students can be encouraged to conduct research prior to, during, or after engaging with the kits. For example, after creating a Glowing Greeting Card, students can be encouraged to research different types of careers in which knowledge of circuits is necessary (see Figure 2).

Fourth, the kits can be used within the classroom setting. Katie, for instance, gave a presentation to classes about the kits that illustrated how teacher librarians can work alongside classroom teachers to plan and deliver a lesson where students engage with the kits as part of the learning process and to address state standards. As another instance, teacher librarian Janine discussed how she tends to "tie things back to simple machines and simple mechanics. That is usually where we try to address science standards--work versus load." Similarly, our teacher librarian partners encouraged teachers in their schools to use the kits as part of their classroom for reward time, break time, and/or down time.

Fifth, the MAKEngineering kits can be made available for after-school programs, nonprofit organizations, or organizers of family STEM nights. The kits can also be utilized in STEAM parties held by librarians. For example, one teacher librarian took it upon herself to hold STEAM parties every 3 months from 11:00-12:30 on Saturdays for youth aged 6 and up. The kits were set up as an activity.


We are passionate about the MAKEngineering kits and expect to utilize additional funds from the IMLS grant to donate the kits to Title I schools in other regions of the United States. Our goal is to continue exploring the logistics of the circulation process and ways teacher librarians can get students and caregivers excited about the kits. As explained by teacher librarian Tiffany, "it is worth it." In other words, regardless of the time, money, and responsibility to circulate and maintain the MAKEngineering kits, it is worth it to engage students in STEM-related making tasks. While utilizing the kits in her library, teacher librarian Christina shared these observations that denote the benefits of this project: "The chatter of the ideas and how students would work, and then when working together, changing it completely to create something different or making additional things to complement their creation. Very talented students!"

In the future, we expect to develop additional kits for different age groups and kits relevant to a broader range of cultural backgrounds and historical periods. Beyond school libraries, we believe there is potential to circulate the kits through community organizations and institutions such as the Boys and Girls Club and mobile public libraries. As researchers, we encourage others to replicate these kits and/or develop new kits to then share their experiences, ideas, and feedback with others.

Readers are encouraged to visit our website at https://makengineeringkits., as we include all the information needed (e.g., instructions and material) to replicate the MAKEngineering kits. The website includes a list of recommended books from librarians that complement each kit. The kits (i.e., material, container, instructions) are affordable to create and maintain, as well as sustain when particular material are not returned.


This work was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under Award LG-99 17-0025-17. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of IMLS.


American Association of School Librarians (AASL). (2018). AASL standards framework for learners. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Downing, J. A., & Grande, M. (2004). Increasing parent participation and knowledge using home literacy bags.

Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(2), 120-126.

Epstein, J. (1994). Family math that's above average. Take-home activities for kids and their parents. Instructor, 103(8), 17-18.

Maltese, A. V., & Cooper, C. S. (2017). STEM pathways: Do men and women differ in why they enter and exit? AERA Open, 3(3), 1-16.

Maltese, A. V, & Harsh, J. (2015). Pathways of entry into STEM across K-16. In K. A. Renninger, M. Nieswandt, & S. Hidi (Eds.), Interest and the Self in K-16 Mathematics and Science Learning (pp. 203-223). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association

Reinhart, M., Bloomquist, D., Strickler-Eppard, L., Czerniak, C. M., Gilbert, A., Kaderavek, J., & Molitor, S. C. Taking science home: Connecting schools and families through science activity packs for young children. School Science and Mathematics, 116(1), 3-16.

Solomon, J. (2003). Home-school learning of science: The culture of homes, and pupils' difficult border crossing. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(2), 219-233.

Amber Simpson is an assistant professor of mathematics education in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Leadership at Binghamton University in Binghamton, NY. Her main topic of concern is the low number of individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups entering and persisting in pathways toward STEM careers. She conducts research on understanding the role of making in formal and informal educational settings, as well as the role of the family and how youth are engaged in mathematical play through such experiences. Email:

Adam Maltese is an associate professor of science education at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. He researches how individuals develop and maintain interest in STEM, as well as identify the gains students make from participating in maker programming. He directs the Make Innovate Learn Lab at IU's School of Education. Recently he helped to start the Indiana Maker Educator Network and developed a Making for Learning class for university students. Email: amaltese@

Caption: Figure 1. Hinges kit

Caption: Figure 2. Glowing Greeting Card
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Simpson, Amber; Maltese, Adam
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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