Finding Starter Projects: Project Sets

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Finding Starter Projects: Project Sets
Tel Makers’ Optical Theremin project made during Maker Camp 2014. (Thanks, Cindy!)

Teachers are looking for projects to get their kids into the Maker movement! Today, we share project sets carefully selected by a few of the many groups who care deeply about making. Together, each of these sets take a stab at something of a “curriculum” — or, if that word makes you bristle, then maybe you could think of each of these project sets as just a plain ol’ good introduction to making.

To compile the lists in this series, we asked teachers where they go to get ideas of what to make in the classroom, and they shared with us a few of their favorite resources.

In this edition of Finding Starter Projects, we share sets of projects that have been designed or culled by a single author or institution. While there are many project sets out there, we like that these introduce students to a wide range of making and engineering. In a future post we’ll share project sites that focus on one particular kind of project (such as single-goal contests and challenges.) In the last post we shared databases you could use to search for Instructables, Make It @ Your LibraryHowtosmileOER Commons, RAFT, and Pinterest.

There are so many wonderful choices, today we’re going to share them alphabetically. Any one of these would be a good place to start, but you’ll find that some of the same projects crop up again and again so you’ll want to pick and choose when you sample from multiple sources.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 12.08.04 AMCommunity Science Workshops

We have long admired the work of Community Science Workshops, so much so that Make: published the book Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff by one of CSW’s teachers, Curt Gabrielson, pulling together many of their most successful activities that they have been using in communities all over California over the past few decades. I can still feel the light in my heart when I came across their bus at an early Maker Faire, and they had tables full of kids busily building buzzing bees and flapping birds. Their projects use easily obtained materials for great effect.

curiosity Curiosity Machine

Iridescent created the Curiosity Machine to bring together scientists, engineers, and kids. Their very attractively designed materials are a delight to read. In addition to the challenges, make sure you take a look at their Curiosity Kit, which includes an overview of their take on the engineering design process (inspiration, plan, build, test, redesign, reflect), mentoring tips, a preparation checklist, and a curriculum planning guide. Challenge categories range widely: aerospace, art of science, biomechanics, biomimicry, civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, food science, mechanical engineering, neuroscience, ocean engineering, robotics, and satellite systems. is a site organized around skill-building, with about 115 skills from actor to zoologist. This includes such unusual roles as Darkness Engineer, Yeti, ForagerRadographer, and Tape Ninja. Kids who take on challenges build their skill sets and portfolios while soliciting feedback from their peers and snagging snazzy embroidered patches. The language of the site is open and fun: “When you’re ready to stop getting everything in a bag from the store, you’re a Pioneer. We’re the brave and crazy ones with the skills to provide for ourselves, to make new places, to build our own world.”

I met the folks behind as they were getting started a few years back. I was impressed to hear that they weren’t interested in teaming up with any other adults for a while. They weren’t taking funding or any kind of input from others, besides the team of four who founded it. They told me something along the lines of: their priority is listening to the kids, as their primary audience, to start. Partners, grants, investors could all muddy the waters a bit. Now a few years later, this approach clearly has paid off.

EIEEngineering is Elementary

A friend (and former colleague on Makerspace), Joel Rosenberg, worked on a curriculum called Engineering is Elementary. It introduces design challenges only after the teacher first reads a book with a relevant story in a book. Rather than first diving into exploration and tinkering, the kids step back to hear the design constraints of the story (also known as the use case), and only then do they tackle the problem. I really appreciate this approach of giving young makers a narrative into which they can tie their experiences. We live for stories. (And this is part of the reason why we tell stories behind the projects and the makers in our magazine and the blog, so tell us the stories of what your kids make, why, and how.)

Courtesy of The Tinkering Studio
Courtesy of The Tinkering Studio


The Exploratorium has long been a go-to source for our teachers for its After School Activities and Snacks, decades before the Maker movement came to be. Some even work with their students to build their own versions of the classic exhibits using the three volumes of Exploratorium Cookbooks. Make:‘s closest collaborators within the museum can be found amongst the heaps of inspiration in The Tinkering Studio. The studio shares their projects on its blog and in its beautiful, recent book The Art of Tinkering (read my review of that here.) You can also retrieve older PDFs of PIE ideas — similar work that pre-dates The Tinkering Studio but done by the same creative and conscientious group of people back when they ran the Playful Invention and Exploration Network with the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group and others.)

emmeHigh-Low Tech

Speaking of the MIT Media Lab, be sure to check out the set of projects produced in Leah Buechley’s group a few years ago, especially Emily Lovell’s Getting Hands-On with Soft Circuits and the book Sew Electric by Leah Buechley, Kanjun Qiu, and Sonja de Boer.



Howtoons is a distinct feature of Make:, combining the form of comic books with some friendly how-to and girded up with some solid real-life science and engineering principles. We used them in Maker Camp, and we know lots of teachers find them to be an especially appealing entryway into making for their students, many of whom devour graphic novels and comics. “Challenged to make something ‘other than trouble,’” a brother and sister use everyday objects to invent toys and change the world around them. Read my full review of their recent collection here.

WYEInstructables’ Workshop for Young Engineers

The Workshop for Young Engineers focuses on project-based engineering lessons for kids. This collection of a few dozen project-based lessons focus on basic principles of physics, structural, and mechanical engineering. Your students will build physical models from a shared set of easily found material.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.26.32 AMK12 Lab Network

Many teachers who have told us they are excited to get making in the classroom have also introduced Design Thinking to their students. The K12 Lab Network is a great place to get started in this endeavor, getting your kids into the process of empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. (Make sure you bulk-order some sticky notes before you get started, though, as your room will soon be covered with them!) If you are already very familiar with Design Thinking, Bootcamp Bootleg is a good set of worksheets to use with your students as a refresher.


We covered our own resources in the first post in this series, but it in this context we’d like to remind you of a few of them:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.48.38 AMOpen Materials

The Open Materials research group promotes with a wide variety of materials and share dozens of activities through which you too can investigate and experiment. The website—started 5 years ago by Catarina Mota and Kirsty Boyle—shares knowledge, resources and discoveries and documents experiments and processes. For each material, tool and technique in their repository, they describe physical properties, tricks and hacks, where to get it, who’s using it, who’s improving it, and what it’s good for and what it’s not.

On their About page, you can limit your materials by category: papertextilespolymersmetalconductivesorganicsceramics & glass. Also, a check out their collection of circuits. The site is open under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA.)

SONY DSCStart Making! @ Clubhouses

The Intel Computer Clubhouse Network of about 100 international community centers devoted to mentoring youth to express themselves creatively through technology. Mentors use the Start Making! @ Clubhouses Activity Guide to facilitate a series of Maker activities, including basic circuitry, coding, crafting, and engineering. Introductory “spark” activities lead into individual and small group “open make” self-designed projects.  The Intel Start Making! initiative piloted this program with girls ages 10-14 in five diverse Clubhouses. The network will further develop and evaluate it with both boys and girls in 40 more Clubhouses all over the world through 2015. Adapt this Guide for your own learning context and add your input as they further develop this guide.

makingstuffNOVA: Making Stuff

NOVA: Making Stuff shares a set of four very well-documented activities on the themes of materials that are stronger, smaller, cleaner, and smarter. Each unit connects to an episode in the series that aired on NOVA (produced by PBS station WGBH), and the lessons were designed for ‘tweens but can be adapted to older and younger children. The site offers video clips, toolkits, demos, information sheets, prep materials, and even a few black and white masters for printing worksheets. (By the way, that’s not Stephen Colbert, pictured left, but rather the show’s host David Pogue.)

NYSCI-SolarOvenNYSci Design Lab

NYSci Design Lab offers DIY videos,  Design Starter Activities, and Extended Design Projects. The Extended group challenges kids to create real-world solutions: Car Idling, Emergency Shelters, Floating Cities, Neutral Buoyancy, Pothole Problems, Refrigeration, Solar Ovens (pictured right), Sound Reduction, and Window Farms… oh and also Surprise Bots, always a fun project even if it’s not solving some dire problem facing humankind. These projects emerged from years of work with dozens of teachers.

build-featured-balloon-joustPBS Design Squad Nation

WGBH produced Design Squad Nation as a 10-part series introducing kids to some of the key topics in engineering: electricity, force/energy, green, health, simple machines, sound/music, space/transportation, sports/games, structures, technology/materials. The producers added 20 related activities to the site, including hovercraft, lunchboxes, balloon jousting, air cannons, slingshots, puppets, marshmallow blaster, and a variety of cars and pop-up cards.

mashProject MASH

Project MASH Toolkits focus on a few areas: Learning Through Internships, Citizen Science, Tinkering & Making, Engagement Games, Problem-Based Learning, and Design Thinking. Each one is a set of activities unto itself. For example, the toolkit on Tinkering and Making, written by The Exploratory, includes three project examples: Industrial Shark Tank, My Body eTextiles, and Spy vs. Spy. The Design Thinking toolkit, on the other hand, has another three maker-friendly projects: Trashketball, Night Hawks Nest, and Spoken Walls.

sparktruckcardsSpark Truck

Spark Truck‘s Tool Cards have projects organized by the tool you’d like to use, with five suggested projects for each tool: laser cutter, vinyl cutter, shop tools, hot glue gun, laptop, 3D printer, clay oven, laminator, as well as a group of simple circuits projects and three collections of projects to do with crafts supplies (paper, popsicle stick, and creatures.)

teamThe Tech’s Design Challenges

For nearly three decades, The Tech Museum of Innovation has been running an annual design challenge, The Tech Challenge. Some of these are archived into timeless Design Challenge lessons which teachers use to lead their students through science and engineering lessons. They also make very fun and effective team-building activities for groups of teachers.

Psst… Capture the Flag (or: Stealing from Camps)

Summer camps are hotbeds of making, so at our home we pick up brochures from local summer camps and use them as a way to decide on a set of projects we want to do as a family. Camp counselors and planners invest a lot of youthful energy into coming up with a great lineup of fun projects, and these projects come kid-tested. It’s a bit like collecting menus as you learn to become a chef.

As camps are often planning for dozens to hundreds of kids at a time, these activities can often easily be adapted into the making classroom. So check out the descriptions of what some of the most maker-friendly camps in your region are offering. The projects chosen are rarely completely unique, and with a bit of Internet sleuthing you can find instructions for doing similar projects in your Maker Club or classroom. I won’t name names here, but here are a few links to give you an idea: a very clever camp, another super genius camp, and a third outstanding camp that I have found inspiring, but honestly you can’t go wrong by learning from camp. (And I’ll mention our own Maker Camp here again, why not?)

What did we miss? Tell us!

Check out our earlier posts in this series:

In our next post we’ll include more specific project sets like  Makey Makey, Nerdy Derby, and lots more.

Be sure to check out the growing resource library built by our friends at the Maker Education Initiative.

What’s your favorite resource for making projects? Add to our list by commenting below.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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