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.

Eagle Scout Project: 3D Printing In A Public Library

DSCN1157 (Medium)
A large part of obtaining Eagle scout status is to do a project that benefits the community. Often these are things like park benches, drinking fountains, etc. Jacob Bruner had different ideas though. He wanted to bring 3D printing to his community. I especially loved the fact that this project doesn’t just provide something to the community, but also encourages other people to make things!
Jacob, can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve put together?
For my Project I created a 3D printing Lab in my Local Public Library. It took me about 9 months from start to finish. In that time I attendend board meetings, raised awareness, taught the public about 3D printing, fund raised almost $3,500 and built the lab and put it into the library. I also am in charge of finding volunteers to run the area because the library cant quite yet devote a staff member full time.
How did you end up deciding to do a 3D printing space in your library?
Originally for my project I was just going to put in park benches, but one day over dinner I had this idea, and I just HAD to do it. I am really passionate about 3D printing. It’s been a huge hobby of mine for about 3 years now. It started when i saved up my money to buy and build a Thing-o-matic, and since then its sort of taken over. Ive built two 3D printers, and I also got one in our school. Ive done presentations in the library and local clubs that im involved in, and I think its something that everyone should have access to. It’s just so cool, and I really think its the future, and I want to bring people into the future.
What kinds of things are people printing there?
Well right now we have a whole range of things. Mostly toys printer buy younger visitors, but as word spread that the printer is available we have been getting requests by artists for pieces they’re working on, another person needed a new hinge for a boat window that can no longer be bought, and i spoke to a person who is interested in printer parts for his custom guitars he makes. I can foresee a greater variety in prints as time goes on, after all its just coming up on it 1 month birthday.
Where is this located, just in case a Make reader happens to be local and would like to visit?
Its in my local town library, Mary Riley Styles Public Library in Falls Church City, VA. Here’s the libraries webpage, but we have also made a page just for the printer.

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Build a Bigger Mousetrap

Mark Perez, Rose Harden and the team behind the Life Size Mousetrap have taken a childhood game and turned it into a sideshow spectacle that any carny would be proud to be a part of. The structure itself is an impressive Rube Goldberg style machine, wrought large. Take a marble from the kid’s game, and turn it into a bowling ball. Now expand everything else to scale, and you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about. The bathtub is a real bathtub. The diver is the size of a person. The machine spreads over a 60×100 foot area, and weighs on the order to 50,000 lbs. It’s a pretty impressive engineering feat. The show has been touring for about seven years, and the team did some necessary rebuilding and refurbishing this year to keep things running smoothly.

As an entertainment, the show is more than just the machine. There’s music, composed and performed specifically for Life Size Mousetrap by the one-woman band Esmerelda Strange. Can-can dancers dressed as mice, unicycle riding clowns, and humorous patter accompany the already impressive display of physics in motion. Life Size Mousetrap recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund their efforts. Part of the funding will go towards further developing their STEM curriculum. If there’s anyone who can make engineering seem approachable and fun, it’s the creators of Life Size Mousetrap.


Maker Faire was very happy to have Mark, Rose and crew back to World Maker Faire in New York this year. It’s one of my favorite things at Maker Faire, and I look forward to it every year. If you missed the show, be sure to check their webpage or their Facebook page for announcements.

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Eepy Bird Showers The Crowds With Diet Coke Do you know why we share videos of Eepy Bird doing their Diet Coke and Mentos show every chance we get? Because it is fun every single time you see it. There’s something inexplicably fun about the incomprehensible mess they’re making and how much fun everyone has watching it happen. They always have a massive crowd, as you can see in the video!

Sit back and enjoy Eepy Bird making a mess.

The Idosyncratic Products of Stern Design Works


Rebecca and Cameron Stern of Stern Design Works create jewelry, sculptures, and toys through a mix of traditional metalsmithing, 3D printing, hand painting, mixed mediums, and plant derived epoxy resin, but what makes their work especially unique are the stories behind them. For instance, an organic chemist asked them to create a 3D printed necklace depicting the molecular lattice structure of a diamond for his wife, y’know, like an actual diamond necklace, but more thoughtful.


One of their little 3D printed sculptures features a portrait of Émile Durkheim, which a sociologist friend of theirs had them create on a dare.


They also incorporate aspects of their personal lives into their works. Cameron designed some of their 3D printed animal sculptures on his iPad while he was at the zoo with their daughter.

They’re nestled in the Bust Craftacular pop-up shopping festival for the rest of the day if you want to stop by and find out the stories behind some of their other works!

Live from New York: The Day Before World Maker Faire

In this special edition of Maker Camp, we’ll be coming to you LIVE from New York, one day before we open the doors to the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth! We invite classrooms, kids, teens, families… anyone to join us for this 30-minute virtual field trip on Friday, 9/19/14 starting at 2 p.m. Eastern / 11 a.m. Pacific Time.

Watch on Google+

Ask your questions to the makers, live with the Q&A chat function

Watch on YouTube

You can also watch the live stream on YouTube

Our host Paloma (Maker Camp Director 2014) will be talking to a few of the hundreds of makers who will be sharing their creations this weekend, September 20  and 21, 2014.

If you can’t join us live, you can always check out the Hangout on Air archive on Make’s YouTube Channel.

Featured Makers

Help is at Hand

Sashimi Tabernacle Choir

Beatbox and Bicycle Wheel

NYSci World Maker Faire Village

Sphero Goes Extreme with New Ollie



Sphero, the little, round, programmable robot, rolled its way into many hearts since it was released in 2011, confounding pets and expressing a unique form of movement. It was a reimagining of both robots and remote control.

For its second act, the company is reimagining wheels — at least, wheels in the context of robots. So, meet Ollie, which is a Sphero-sized body, elongated slightly, and equipped with a wheel on either end. It’s not quite so omnidirectional as Sphero, but what it lacks in that department it makes up in creative programming that allows it to recognize its position and direction, and maintain its course in the face of bumps, jumps, and flips. But it stays true to — and even improves upon — Sphero’s programmable, hackable nature.

“The robot itself is always keeping track of its tricks, so it always knows how it’s oriented in the air, it knows if it’s in the air, it knows how many spins it’s done in the last certain amount of time. It’s actually doing those calculations on the actual robot, and then it sends the results up to the phone,” says Brandon Dorris, Sphero director of product development.

Earlier this year, Sphero released a video showing off the Ollie with a bunch of skaters and their skateboards. (Note the robot’s skate-inspired name.) The emphasis now is on more extreme play, but it’s still programmable — you can create tricks, the company points out, and Ollie will track its own air time, spins, and more.

Necessary for the zippier acrobatics was a refinement of Bluetooth LE. To get the phone to communicate with the Ollie faster, they needed to use LE, but LE can’t transfer as much information. So, to get the data across, the app sends them in packages of six, explains Dorris.

“It’s constantly checking itself, and its constantly giving feedback to the phone on what’s going on, so the phone can react to what’s actually happening in real life,” he says. “The person is really interacting with the toy, but the toy is interacting with the person at the same time.”

The apps for Sphero will also work with Ollie, including Draw N’ Drive, which follows routes, and Macro Lab, which teaches basic programming. Advanced users can even program in a version of BASIC. And the device itself is hackable, or more so at least than Sphero, which had to be cracked open if you wanted to get at its insides. Ollie opens easier, and later this year Sphero will be releasing a software development kit for it. “You can use it to create your own robots, or create your own things that you want to be able to control with Bluetooth LE,” says Dorris.

OllieProductHR-5562And Ollie is fast, up to 14 miles per hour. It’s that speed, along with the clever wheels that make it more of a driving machine than its predecessor. It drifts too, for those fans of The Fast and the Furious who aren’t ready to do so in their cars.

All that speed makes driving it a bit more challenging. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “You get better over time. You learn how to control what you’re doing and get it to do what you want to when you want it to do it,” says Dorris. “It’s kind of this whole idea of mastery, and playing with it for a while. You feel better each time you play with it, because you get better at actually doing it.”

10 Years of “Tools of Mass Construction” with Howtoons

When I was a little kid, my family got a few magazines that were a bit beyond my grasp, but I still felt like those subscriptions were mine. I didn’t understand all the jokes in MAD magazine, but I still pawed through the pages, ran the Spy vs. Spy flipbook, and spent many a minute folding and unfolding the back covers with their hilariously adroit visual trickery. With GAMES magazine, I could solve some of the one- and two-star puzzles, plus many of the Mixed Bags, but I would always ace the Eyeball Benders and nearly always “Find the Fake Ad.”


howtoonslogoAs subscribers to Make: magazine well know, we’ve got a similarly fantastic gift to kids of all ages nestled in the pages of our issues, going all the way back to Volume 01. 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. In these ‘toons, we follow siblings Celine and Tucker as they learn through play. “Challenged to make something ‘other than trouble,'” the pair use everyday objects to invent toys and change the world around them.

howtoons-coverFans of Howtoons could revisit the cartoons by hunting through the pages of Make: to find them, but now you can dive into 10 years of these Easter eggs all in one place, because the book Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction was published last month. This remastered collection contains 360 pages with over 70 projects of the “best of” Howtoons over those years, along with new material, photos, and essays by the creators of the series. Projects include soda bottle rockets, origami robots, marshmallow shooters, ziplines, zoetropes and more!

My son Ion, now 6, has grown up with Howtoons. It’s the page he turns to during his longer visits to our bathroom-based Make: library, which I know because he comes out revved up to start on projects. Like many kids his age, he’s graduating from picture books by binging on longer form graphic novels, so this book had his name written all over it.

When I was able to wrench this book out of his hands, I saw that alongside all of Nick Dragotta’s gorgeous full-color drawings, in this edition author Saul Griffith and company also include real-life photographs of the projects. These are so helpful!

sub-comic sub-pic

rocket-comic rocket-pic

cutting-comic cutting-pic

We also appreciated the table of contents for each section, which my younger son Q (who isn’t quite reading yet) could use to tell me which project he wanted me to read next.

Born at MIT over a decade ago, Howtoons has also been featured in WIRED, Harper Collins, the Cooper Hewitt and Smithsonian, and even Maker Camp. (I’m not quite sure what we would have done without Howtoons! From the Rola Bola Balance Board to Shake Ice Cream, so many of the projects are so well placed at the intersection of interesting + cheap-and-easy materials + happily challenging.)

The creators of Howtoons told me a little about their inspiration:

We created this series to inspire children to be active participants in the future, to teach them skills and inspire them to invent, engineer, problem-solve and create, not just consume. The books are wonderful for mediated play between parents, mentors and kids of ages 5-8, and as stand-alone project books for kids 9-12. We believe that inspiring stories of imaginative adventure, and rewarding hands-on projects build intuition in children that will be useful throughout their lives. We aim to hook kids as young as possible on the notion that you can create the world around you, starting with toys, activities, and play.

reignitionWhile you are on the hunt for Howtoons, keep an eye out for Howtoons [Re]Ignition, a new mini-series featuring a new all-star creative team: Fred Van Lente (writer), Tom Fowler (artist), and Jordie Belliare (colors). Howtoons’ largest story yet, it centers on energy literacy. Comic book stores have been carrying it for a little over a month, and you’ll be able to buy the full collection by the end of the year.

What Goes Up Must Glide Down

Ever since Rick Schertle’s original Compressed Air Rocket Launcher project appeared on the pages of Make:, it has been a hugely popular build for people everywhere. I helped my son and his friend build one for their 3rd grade science fair project, and it was a huge hit. We still use it today, when it’s not on loan to our local children’s museum.

“We first brought the air rockets to World Maker Faire New York last year and had no idea how popular they would be,” Rick said. “New Yorkers apparently love rockets as much as folks in California! We’re excited to be back this year ready to build and launch rockets by the thousands in the Fly Zone.”

Although watching the original paper air rockets blast 200-300 feet in the air and then come barreling straight down is fun, recently Rick has collaborated with Keith Violette to add a whole new dimension… wings!

Inspired by a decades-old catapult launched folding wing glider toy, Rick and Keith have come up with the Air Rocket Glider, which launches up, deploys its wings, and then glides down. The Air Rocket Glider project was featured in Make: Volume 39. They’ve also launched a successful Kickstarter for the new version 2.0 of their launcher and the Air Rocket Glider kit.


The Air Rocket Works team will be at World Maker Faire in New York this September showing off the Air Rocket Glider and the all new Compressed Air Rocket launcher v2.0. They will have several units that people can test launch in the Fly Zone. Although I haven’t seen the new glider in person yet, it looks even more fun than the original. You can also build and launch your own paper rocket to keep. So come on out and play!

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Rick and Keith have established the Air Rocket Works website. Check it out to learn more about their innovations in compressed air rocketry.