Maker Movement Grows in K-12, with Librarians Leading the Way, Finds SLJ Survey

Since 2014, when SLJ conducted its first maker survey, maker activities have increased by four percent at the elementary and middle school levels.

Illustration by Traci Daberko


Old-fashioned board games and puzzles are what first drew students at a Jacksonville, NC, middle school into the library’s maker space. Now they’re experimenting with Snap Circuits and coding robots. At a rural school in Maryland, library participation has increased because of activities such as 3-D printing and Tinkercad design—especially among girls.

Meanwhile, at an elementary school in Iowa City, IA, students work at a “tinkering table” in the library, taking apart old equipment and using scrap pieces to make new creations, such as jewelry and robots.

These are just a few examples illustrating how maker space learning has become integral to many school librarians’ roles. According to the results of this year’s School Library Journal School Maker Survey, sponsored by littleBits, librarians are involved in organizing maker activities in over 90 percent of the schools with maker programs. Library assistants are involved about 12 percent of the time.

Robust collaboration with teachers

About three-quarters of librarians overall say they coordinate maker activities with other teachers, with elementary-level librarians more likely than those in middle and high school to report such collaboration. In addition, 32 percent of respondents say their maker activities are tied to the curriculum. These connections are also more likely in urban schools, schools in the South, and elementary facilities. An elementary school media specialist in Minnesota, for example, reports that it is challenging to expand maker activities and still provide her regular curriculum. So the school’s specialists—such as art, music, and physical education teachers—are offering maker activities tied to their lessons.

Some librarians, however, say they still struggle to partner with classroom teachers on integrating maker space learning into the rest of the curriculum. In fact, 14 percent of the respondents who offer maker programs agree that they sometimes feel they are stepping on another teacher’s toes by offering maker activities in the library. Middle school and high school librarians are even more likely to feel this way.

“Teachers know their curriculum the best,” one North Carolina elementary librarian commented in the survey. “When I suggest something, I’m always afraid that it won’t match their objectives and/or curriculum. Also, there is a lack of time to plan together so I can make sure that activities match the curriculum.”

Making on the rise

Since 2014, when SLJ conducted its first maker survey, maker activities have increased by four percent at the elementary and middle school levels. Fifty-five percent of elementary school libraries and 61 percent of middle school libraries provide maker activities for students. At the high school level, however, maker programs in libraries have dropped seven percentage points, to 49 percent. This may be due to the fact that maker activities sometimes originate in the library and continue in the classroom, one respondent says. Another high school librarian noted that activities in the library are meant to “drive interest in classes that the tech department offers.” In high schools, more students are also involved in organizing maker activities on their own, which could be another reason why they are moving out of the library.

Overall, school libraries in the South are the most likely to offer maker services, and those in the West are the least likely. Over half of the respondents also report that maker space participation increased over the 2015–16 school year.

More than two-thirds of schools with maker programs also have a dedicated space for these activities, a finding that confirms the results of a Communities for Maker Educators study released last fall by SRI International. Supported by the Maker Education Initiative, that study found that “a large number of teacher survey respondents work in K–16 settings, which may be indicative of a trend toward increasingly incorporating making into the school day” rather than confining it to after-school clubs or programs.

Since 2014, coding and 3-D printing have increased in school maker spaces, while there has been a decline in video production and editing, the SLJ survey shows. Overall, arts and crafts are the most popular activities, with circuitry, robotics, and building materials such as LEGOs or K’Nex also among the most common activities—especially in the elementary grades. “Original wood Tinkertoys are a huge hit!” writes Jennifer Hitchcock, the librarian at Carus Elementary School in Oregon City, OR.

Finding time and money

Over the past 12 months, middle or junior high schools spent the most on maker supplies or equipment—an average of $1,076, compared to $743 in elementary schools and $700 in high schools. While many schools use book fair proceeds or apply for grant funds to support maker spaces, lack of funding and a dearth of supplies were listed as the biggest obstacles to expanding maker services. Only two percent of respondents say they have a dedicated maker budget.

The availability of supplies and cost were also the two leading factors that respondents consider when deciding whether to offer maker services. If they had additional resources, “more types of circuitry,” LEGO kits, and 3-D printers are some of the items they would purchase. Sixteen percent of the respondents say they expect an increase in funds available for materials and equipment this fall.

At the elementary school level, maker activities tend to take place during whole-class instruction, with three-fourths of these librarians saying that they provide maker activities using this framework. Almost 40 percent, however, also let students use the materials during free periods, and 28 percent provide activities before or after school. In middle and high schools, students are more likely to participate in maker activities during free periods and before and after school.

More than a third of middle schools that responded also have maker clubs, and schools in the West were most likely to offer maker activities during school events outside the school day, such as STEM nights. Thirty-eight percent of high school respondents and 49 percent of those in middle schools also reported offering maker activities during whole-class instruction, but this may also mean that other subject-area teachers are bringing their students to the maker space.

Christina Johnson at Mosaic Preparatory Academy in New York City used to run an after-school coding program on Wednesday through Friday, but students showed such enthusiasm that she expanded it. “Now we stay open five days a week after school for my coders,” she says. “I call that a successful program.”

Measuring success

A few respondents noted that they need help convincing their colleagues and others of the benefits of maker education. “Parents, too, have questioned the value of spending a lot of money on [a] maker space,” wrote Shirley Soon, librarian at Carver Christian High School in Burnaby, BC.

The effects of maker activities on students’ learning also surfaced in the SRI study. That survey showed that educators want more evidence of the benefits of maker programs in formats that they can share with practitioners and others. “I would love more professional research on how the maker movement has/is going to transform education. Where will the most impact be?” one respondent says.

Most of the respondents who answered the measurement question in the SLJ survey say they currently measure success by students’ reactions and excitement and by the popularity of specific materials or activities. A few say they feel the program is working well if students create “anything.” Jennifer Giebel at Mound Fort High School in Ogden, UT, says she looks for “reoccurring excitement” among students for specific maker space activities or stations. “If it is only exciting the first time and not repeatedly, it is not a great use of our money,” she says. One librarian in Arkansas says she looks for students to demonstrate “soft skills” such as creativity and perseverance, and another in North Carolina says the success of maker projects connected to the curriculum is measured by test scores as well as the quality of students’ work.

Leaders at the Maker Education Initiative have been thinking a lot about the topic of assessing students on what they make.

“We see a need to reframe assessment, because there is a tension in K–12 with making and assessment,” Stephanie Chang, the organization’s director of programs, and Jessica Parker, the director of community and learning, said in a joint email. “Advocates of maker education have been cautious about applying traditional assessment measures to making because they fear that its richness and complexity will be diluted or fundamentally changed by narrow definitions of learning and success.”

In addition to looking for evidence of soft skills, they added, there are also conversations in the field about measuring the progress students make in their work, “not just the final product.”

Sylvia Martinez, the coauthor of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom (Constructing Modern Knowledge, 2013), says judging the success of maker programs by students’ reactions should not be considered weak evidence.

“Not only should we measure success by student reactions, we should make it a priority. We need to capture video of these successes throughout the year, so we can tell the story of what success looks like with words and pictures,” Martinez says. “This creates a compelling picture for everyone—parents, students, administrators, and the community—of what real learning looks like beyond test scores.”

Martinez also comments on the concern some librarians expressed about encroaching on a colleague’s curriculum. Schools, she says, should take advantage of what libraries and librarians can bring to maker projects, such as “cross-grade, cross-curricular experiences” and fewer time constraints.

“Librarians help people make sense of new ideas and things, and that leads to new learning experiences,” she says. “Librarians can model this innovative approach and offer a bridge into experiences for students that go beyond the traditional classroom.”


How many librarians work with outside organizations to provide maker programs? Just under a quarter. Among those, public libraries are the most common collaborators, and partnerships are more common in middle and high school than at the elementary level. At one school, for example, a community volunteer teaches knitting, and in partnership with the University of Montana, a faculty member coordinates maker activities at Corvallis (MT) Middle School—a visit that draws students to the library during lunch and keeps them there during recess.

Over half of the respondents, however, say they wished they could partner with outside groups. Schools in small towns, in rural areas, and in the South were most interested in partnering.

Even with maker education moving into the mainstream of the school day, some respondents say there’s still much work to be done before those with a traditional teaching and learning approach understand making’s place in the curriculum.

“Interest needs to begin in kindergarten and work up into the higher grades before a true maker space mind-set takes hold,” says Soon from Carver Christian High. “It will take at least 20 or more years before we can say we have a maker space generation.”

Some librarians, however, are already catching a glimpse of that generation by turning maker activities into service learning projects. At Chippewa Middle School in Okemos, MI, the whole school got involved in creating paper cranes to show support for a teacher with cancer, explained Cyndi Webster, director of the library media center. A math class used the cranes as a lesson in geometry, and another class created over 1,000 cranes in a few weeks. Most of the paper birds now hang in the library, but 100 of them were used to make a mobile, bearing get well messages that students wrote in their native languages. The teacher, Webster says, “was so moved. Since she is at home, she looks at it every day and gets strength from all the love it represents.”


SLJ sent a blind email survey invitation to approximately 7,000 school librarians in early March 2017 and a follow-up email two weeks later. The survey closed on April 3 with 426 respondents representing 152 elementary schools, 122 middle or junior high schools, 55 high schools, and 50 schools identified as other. The respondents are from the U.S. and Canada. The data presented in total was weighted based on school level: 65 percent elementary, 11 percent middle/junior high school, 15 percent high school, five percent other school (K–12, K–8, etc.), four percent school unknown.

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