Here at the MakerBus we’ve had the privilege of testing a lot of different tools and ideas with a lot of different audiences. From developing a teen literacy module that taught at-risk youth to build their own drones, to trying to set a World Record, to building a 3D printer on a kitchen table, we’ve gotten our hands on a lot of different maker tools.
One of our favourite parts of the maker movement is learning to embrace failure. And while we’ve worked with some amazing tools, we’ve also had our share of failures. After helping more than 50,000 people engage in the maker movement, here is our list of maker tools we don’t really recommend. It’s worth noting that pretty much anything can create an amazing learning opportunity, so don’t take this as us saying to never use these tools, just be mindful in how you use them.
littleBits : This might be a controversial opinion given the popularity of littleBits in school and library makerspaces, but we no longer recommend littleBits. If you’re not familiar with these mainstays of education-focused makerspaces, littleBits are a system of snap together circuit components that promise the ability to create a near infinite number of STEAM learning possibilities – from learning to code, to engineering, to art, and beyond.
Why are we reluctant to recommend littleBits? Two reasons – cost and durability.
littleBits kits are really expensive. Take their “STEAM Education Class Pack” which sells for $1779.95 (USD) on their website. littleBits advertises that this kit offers “learning solutions for up to 18 students.” If you look at what is actually inside the kit, the STEAM Education Class Pack only comes with 6 power supplies. This means that to engage 18 students you would need to have students work in groups of 3. While we’re big proponents of group learning and team work, asking more than $2,200 (the Canadian conversion at the time of publishing) is a lot to ask for something that only comes with 6 individual power supplies. And given that most Canadian classrooms have more than 18 students, if a school wanted to invest in littleBits they would need to purchase supplemental kits in addition to the $2,220 STEAM kits. Even the $4,799 (nearly $6,000 CDN) “Pro Library” only includes 16 power supplies, making this library kit a less than ideal solution for a school interested in investing in littleBits.
Getting the most out of the littleBits ecosystem requires spending thousands of dollars (we know, the MakerBus has spent more than $2,500 on littleBits kits and have consulted institutions as they’ve invested in significantly larger amounts). And for an investment of this magnitude, one would expect the kits to last a long time, however after using our kits for the past three years, we’ve found that the modules become significantly less reliable over time.
Some bits, like the “Vibration Motor,” break almost the instant students use them and we’ve found that our “Servo Motors” (which littleBits sells for $25 a piece!) consistently break over time. Even more worrying is that the connection points, that allow power to pass through the littleBits and for the bits to communicate with each other, become bent over time making the bits increasingly difficult to connect. Now when we run a littleBits workshop we have to spend the first 5-10 minutes showing students the special trick we’ve developed for getting the bits to connect properly.
These reliability issues would be acceptable if the littleBits we inexpensive to replace, but with individual bits selling for as much as $50 (USD), this makes us very reluctant to recommend that educators invest in littleBits.
Tape: Tape has a time and a place in a makerspace. Tape can be great for prototyping and great for quick fixes. Tape, however, should never be used as a construction material.
Three years ago we were invited to host a pop-up at the Detroit Maker Faire. Since we couldn’t bring the actual MakerBus down with us (darn borders), we wanted to build a full-sized bus out of cardboard. If we had used tape to hold the cardboard together we would have needed dozens and dozens of rolls. These rolls would have been used once and then they’d be garbage. We’ve seen schools and libraries use tape for construction projects and each time it just ends of creating loads of non-recyclable garbage. Take our advice, if you’re going to build things out of card, look for a reusable construction method (we recommend Make-dos).
Mini Drones: I fully take the blame for this one. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea – to teach a grade 5/6 class about the principals of flight, I’d buy a bunch of mini drones and we’d use them to test a bunch of different theories. Six drones entered that classroom and only one returned. As it turns out, things that fly are extremely easy to lose. Within minutes drones were stuck in overhead lights, broken, and disappeared into thin air. Take it from me, don’t give a bunch of grade 5/6 students access to flying things and expect it not to be chaos.
Paint Pendulums: We’ve definitely had some stressful times with the MakerBus, but one of the most stressful things I’ve ever experienced was watching a group of kindergarten students play with a paint pendulum inside of a school gym.
I learned that day that paint pendulums are a fantastic outdoor activity. They allow students of all ages to make stunning abstract art while giving them a really tactile art creation experience. As an indoor activity, however, paint pendulums are always one moment away from disaster. Students fling paint with reckless abandon and no matter how many drop clothes you bring, it never seems like quite enough.
MaKey MaKey Go: I love the original MaKey MaKey. They’re relatively inexpensive, can be used for almost anything, and bring joy to people young and old. When the company announced their smaller, cheaper MaKey MaKey Go, I was one of their first Kickstarter backers. While I was excited for a smaller, cheaper MaKey MaKey, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with a smaller version that had a significantly smaller number of inputs (2 inputs compared to the original’s 18 inputs).
After receiving our MaKey MaKey Go’s and testing them with a variety of uses, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with them. Right off the bat there are some obvious limitations with this product. Alligator clips just don’t stay connected to the shallower grooves on the MaKey MaKey Go. If you’re using these in a classroom environment, be prepared for frustrated students who have trouble getting their clips to stay connected. Also the two-button interface isn’t very intuitive. Students don’t automatically understand what the different coloured lights mean and understand the difference between a button tap and a button hold (I tap changes input method and a hold resets the device). I’ve also noticed that if someone is touch anything connected to the MaKey MaKey Go when you try to reset the device, the reset doesn’t work.
While the original MaKey MaKey is more than twice the price of the Go, you’re better off staying with the original. They’re easier to use and offer significantly more learning opportunities.
What are some maker tools that you wouldn’t recommend? Share you wisdom with us in the comments below – let’s learn from each other’s successes and failures. Also, follow us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube) for the latest maker movement news, tips, and tutorials – let us help you create fun-conventional learning opportunities!
-Ryan Hunt, MakerBus Co-Founder