Building STEM Knowledge in a Breakerspace

Janet Sweat’s middle school students in Lake City, Florida, disassembled broken toys
to create cars, some that would run with remote controls and others without them. Photo courtesy Janet Sweat.

A breakerspace—a makerspace workstation where students can disassemble toys, electronics, and appliances—engages students “in the ‘how does this work,’ ‘what makes things work,’ ‘I wonder,’ and tinkering phases of investigating the world around them. In the age of touch screens, cell phones, headphones, etc., it is important to stress engaging with others and the world around them and to foster [students’] curiosity,” says Cynthia Crockett, science education specialist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This is not a new phenomenon—the ‘take-apart table’ [dates back to] the 90’s—but…[it] has seen a resurgence [recently] with the advent of makerspaces.”

Crockett emphasizes that “no smashing or wanton destruction [is] permitted; that defeats the very purpose.” Instead, teachers should encourage students to “explore and move toward understanding the workings,” which happens when students study objects “to figure out how to ‘get inside,’ see how it is put together…‘ undo’ it, then…[re-examine it].” Students can further their learning by reassembling the item, she adds.

When Janet Sweat of Lake City, Florida, taught middle school, her students “would take apart broken toys to create cars that run. We would repurpose motors and create circuits…A broken PlayStation became a car with a pop-up top and headlights,” she recalls. “The students were extremely creative.”

Sweat had students sketch their creations beforehand. “The art piece was necessary [to show] what will the thing look like? What is the energy source? How will the circuit be designed?”

Afterward, the students “remembered those circuits and did well on tests,” she asserts.

Lucas Carr, technology teacher at Sullivan North High School in Kingsport, Tennessee, says his breakerspace “is a large part of my classroom…I have had students run through labs [in which] we took older/inoperable computers apart; students have brought in old electronic toys to repurpose parts; and we also compete in robotics competitions, which have involved many disassemblies of completed robots. In all, I believe these activities offer increased student motivation, and an opportunity for educators to present the knowledge and skills that students need to work with 21st-century concepts and equipment.”

Carr has a closet designated for storage of items to be dismantled. “One of the biggest challenges is having enough space so you can keep a good supply and give students a range [of items] to choose from,” he reports. 

While Carr’s students are most focused on electronics, he suggests teachers who want to establish a breakerspace “start with what you’re most familiar with.” Some teachers and students might be more comfortable working with “dolls and stuffed toys, or old lawnmowers,” he notes.

“Our Makers’ Lab has always had a take-apart space, as well as our Tinkering carts and spaces…Our largest item was a washing machine disassembled by kindergartners,” says Matt Pearson, director of the Makers’ Lab at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California. Before students work with “CRT [cathode ray tube] TVs and microwaves, which are high-voltage,” Pearson says he removes “the dangerous pieces” from microwaves and ensures the capacitors in electronics are discharged. 

“I’m most interested in electromechanical items like pulleys, gears, motors, and switches because students learn a lot more” from them, he contends. “My most sought-after take-apart is the VCR [videocassette recorder]” because of “the many simple machines and electromechanical parts it contains. Students gaining an understanding of simple machines directly connects to the NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] engineering standards in grades 3–5. An understanding of transferring or transforming energy is most easily taught with simple machines doing a task. VCRs have many.”

To initiate a project, students “have to formulate a pitch, why they want to do it, and argue it, like in the real world,” says Pearson. “They have to do research…I give them a budget for carrying out the project,” he relates.

“You have to foreshadow the takeapart, so I do it myself first,” Pearson advises. Students have to demonstrate the safe use of tools before using them.

Tinkering, he says, “serves as the creative and innovative connection between Making and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math]. A STEAM education environment includes creative, stimulating, and inspiring classrooms where creativity is used to problem-solve interesting and culturally relevant challenges. I suggest that Making is the gateway to such a classroom, with Tinkering serving as the means to acquire new knowledge and skills and explore how to recombine the traditional in innovative ways.”

Anthony Perry, invention education coordinator for the Lemelson-MIT Program—which encourages students to invent and develop hands-on STEM skills—has facilitated summer camps in which elementary and middle school students learned engineering design by disassembling electronics. Students entering the camps typically “had zero experience working in a group. [They learned] you can’t do it alone; you depend on your teammates,” he asserts.

The camps also helped students develop persistence, he says. “Things aren’t going to work right away. You have to change course, ask a peer, or try something else.”

Perry had students keep engineering notebooks. “For each step, they would sketch it out and make observations,” he recalls. The notebooks also “made it clear that smashing something is not the way to learn about [electronic circuits and systems].”

Suggestions for Safety

“Like with any type of demolition work, safety preparation is critical,” asserts Ken Roy, NSTA’s chief science safety compliance consultant. He cites “the need to be aware of personal protective equipment requirements and appropriate use [e.g. eye (safety glasses or goggles) and hand protection (work gloves)]; the need to work [safely] with hand tools; and the need to assess hazards and determine risks of materials/equipment to be worked with.”

Above all, students must be trained “on all of these safety issues noted and [successfully assessed before doing]… breakerspace activities. Teachers [must] make sure [to have] continuous and direct adult supervision of students…under ‘duty or standard of care’ legal requirements…to ensure that behavioral expectations are being followed and to be prepared for the unexpected safety issues.”

For a complete list of safety procedures for breakerspaces, see Roy’s safety blog.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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