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Making It Work

First conceived with the goal of “teaching kids how to make things,” Prep’s Makerspace class has developed into a program that helps students learn independence, initiative, innovation, and the importance of failure as motivation for eventual success — or at least motivation to give it another try.

The one-semester elective course open to all Upper School students is a non-linear, self-paced, and highly interactive introduction to technology, from 3D printers to laser cutters to sewing machines. In the classroom, students are granted the agency and opportunity to choose their own projects, knowing failure is never punished and the only expectation is to troubleshoot, experiment, and try again.

Here, Ambrose Ferber ‘93 — Prep’s Associate Director of Technology, Technology & Engineering Department Chair, and Makerspace program leader — and a few of his students, past and present, tell us a bit about what the Makerspace has taught them. 

The very first seeds of the Maker program at Prep actually began when I first started teaching here, and our technology offerings were still under the department of Computer Science. The Computer Science electives were pretty hardcore — math modeling and visualization, dabbling in artificial intelligence, that kind of thing. The kids in those classes were doing serious work, but there were only a couple of those kids each semester, and the demographics lacked diversity. When I took over, there was a strong mandate to think about ways to be more inclusive and get a wider population of kids interested in technology. My first classes were just a Digital Citizenship class in the Middle School and Web Code in the Upper School. I thought maybe the accessibility and ubiquity of the Web, coupled with an opportunity for visual graphic design work, would appeal to more kids. It has mostly worked over the years, but even at the beginning I knew I wanted to get more “engineer-y,” and that something like a MakerSpace would appeal to an even wider demographic.

We also had an Upper School Robotics course then, taught by phenom science teacher and fencing coach Rob Madril. It was pretty old school, with a heavy emphasis on electrical engineering problems and circuit design. When Rob left Prep, I took the opportunity — with the unfailing help, support, and guidance of Director of Technology John Utsey — to take over that course, add some more modern tools like 3D printers and Arduino micro controllers, and rebrand it as “MakeRobots” as a transition to a full blown Maker class. That first semester was a doozy! I didn’t yet know exactly what the class should look like, and the room was more like a wild playground than anything. Some of the very specific rules for this space and for the course were created in the wake of that semester, many of them actually named after students in that class. The “Steinkraus Voltage Limitation Rule,” in particular, comes to mind.

After learning all John and I did running that first class, the current evolution of the class began to take shape, including its emphasis on teaching failure and its non-linear structure. We also added some new equipment, like laser cutting. These days, students drive the areas in which they want to focus, amassing “ranks” in four different disciplines, instead of the class linearly moving through disciplines all together. Their abilities and skill sets are built through a combination of optional discipline-specific workshops, their own research, a curated library of papers and videos, and one-on-one interactions. I almost never supply anything that resembles a checklist style recipe that students can just follow, check off each item, and get a good grade. The class is specifically designed so that students will fail on the first few iterations of every project, and are forced to accept that failure, alter some aspect or aspects of their design, and iterate again until they reach a point of success. Students are graded on their ability to iterate more than anything else.

The non-linear, rank-based approach is also helpful for students who take the class more than once, as they can progress through later ranks without having to sit through fundamentals. Students who achieve the “Architect” rank (or who are trying to achieve it) in a discipline can also act as TAs or junior instructors in that discipline. They even have a hand in maintaining equipment. It makes for a vibrant and energetic room — with students and teachers running around, tons of projects going on, and a delicious sense of chaos pervading the space. The only thing this paradigm isn’t good for is keeping track of everything in a traditional gradebook system.

Makerspace is 21st century shop class — I want students to be able to write some code, be able to solder, be able to use some traditional tools, be able to fail, be able to think through problems, be able to use their hands, be able to repair things, be able to design in 3D, be able to self-start, be able to write a proposal, be able to articulate their thoughts. But more than anything, I hope every student who leaves this room is beginning to look at the world in a new way, and is beginning to challenge some of their assumptions about themselves.

Ambrose Ferber ‘93

I’m in my second semester of Makerspace. There are many enjoyable aspects of the class, from the choose-your-own-adventure style, to learning how to work with machines such as our 3D printers and laser cutters, to wiring, coding, and printing pieces to create little games. There is a feeling in this class that I have not found in any other class. My favorite skill I’ve learned is how to use the 3D printers. One night you can have an idea or a problem that you need to solve; for example, you need a pencil holder for your desk. You can come to class the next day, measure the pencils you need to hold so they fit perfectly, make a model in one of the various software programs we have access to (my favorite is TinkerCad), start printing during class, and have it for the next day. Once it comes out, it’s super strong. The filament we print with, I have found, is stronger than most everyday plastics I use. This is my absolute favorite class at Prep!

Steck Harwood ‘26

Makerspace is a creative space where one can almost build anything that they imagine. It teaches us to problem solve when we encounter problems in our projects and to solve them in inventive ways. All of this is important, but the one thing that makes Makerspace truly unique is how “hands-on” it is. Instead of just drawing up diagrams or designing projects. You make these designs come to life by using a wide array of machinery and tools. One project that I especially enjoyed was a lamp engraved with a character. With a friend, I custom designed this lamp and we used the machinery and tools to prototype and develop it. We 3D printed the base, laser-engraved acrylic for the lampshade, and used an Arduino to code multi-color LEDs to light the lamp. Throughout the process of building this, my friend and I encountered many problems, especially with the coding. However, with research and some direction from Ambrose, we solved it. Ambrose allows his class to be fun, while teaching an array of impressive skills. For a great class and all the memories, I thank you, Ambrose.

Alex Ingram Jacobs ‘24

Makerspace taught me how to fail. I know that’s a strong statement, but it’s the honest truth. What meant the most to me in this class was not the friends I made or the projects I finished — thank you to the 3D printers for surviving my touch-activated Toothless model. It was the ability to go to a class where the only ask was for you to do your worst, and the expectation was you would use the tools and people around you to ask for help. There is nothing like it anywhere else on campus. I learned that when the project means everything to me — or at the very least, I’ve spent too much time on it already to give up — I can finish it. I took classes in the Makerspace at the beginning and end of my Prep career. Both times I learned this lesson and watched my classmates learn it with me. I am an engineering student now, and I fail more often than I would like to admit. However, Makerspace showed me that failure is a part of life, but is not my final destination, merely the motivation to ask for help and try something new. 

Caroline Moore ‘22

Makerspace has been the most influential class I have taken in my time at Prep. The freedom and encouragement in the classroom have built my confidence, creativity, and passion for designing and building to heights I never thought they would reach. I have learned to use CADs, 3D printers, a laser cutter, and soldering irons. I have learned why electrical circuits work the way they do and tried my best to memorize the values of resistor bands. Most importantly, I have learned to try things. When I want to make something, I should try making it. Even if I’m not sure it’s going to work, I should at least try to design it, and I will. I have all the basic skills I need to design, cut, print, and solder, and all the necessary tools at my fingertips. Ambrose’s passion is contagious, and as crucial as his direct support is, his style of making me figure things out for myself has been the most effective. There are no limits to what can be made in his classroom, and no restrictions on where I can apply those skills on my own.

Chloe Roberts ‘25

Even before I took Makerspace, I had a passion for technology and engineering. As a little kid, I started building PCs and keyboards just because it intrigued me. By the 11th grade I had built several more, as well as electric guitars and drones, so naturally I was excited to take Makerspace. Initially, the class seemed complicated but still very interesting. I started off with basic soldering and 3D modeling, which inspired me to start my first independent project outside of class with a friend. I noticed that when I would export from the 3D modeling software I was left with an STL file, which made me wonder if it was possible to write the raw code for an STL file. Discovering that this would be no easy job, I turned to generative AI, knowing its coding potential. To my surprise, it was able to write raw STL code, but that didn’t mean that this code made the shape it was instructed to. In fact, most of the code we looked at was missing pieces, which — after cross-referencing with correct code — I was able to hand correct. After several long nights staying up trying to remedy this, we were able to create several basic shapes. After a lot of trial and error, we were even able to make a complicated 8-sided cube. We quickly 3D printed this cube and presented it to Ambrose, to which we were awarded our own rank for our innovation, “Inventor.”

Mars Buetens ‘24

When I was little, my father had this reference book of code for web developers, and I carried that book with me wherever I went. To me, that book was a thousand different worlds. Some days those codes held the answer to every spy mission, other days those were the codes needed to shut down rockets that would destroy our world from Dr. Evil. Other days that book was used to create the new and very best in flying cars. It was not until I was much older that I finally realized what that book actually was. I still have never picked it up to write code for a website, much to my father’s disappointment. But what I lack in ones and zeros I hope I make up for in my creativeness for mixing my passions with technology. 

Over the course of my time at Prep, I took Makerspace a number of times, and not because my father was the teacher (despite what some might say), but because the Makerspace was a place for me to make whatever my imagination could come up with. This sometimes led to my downfall, as I often let my imagination get way too far ahead of me (though I never did even attempt a flying car). There were two things I made that I think were some of my best work: The first would be my replica of the rose from Beauty and the Beast. It glowed from beneath, and had the illusion of floating. It was made by using the laser cutter to cut the rose out of acrylic, which was supported by a 3D printed stand, and inside of which was housed an Arduino microcontroller and LED strip lights. A string of actual code that I wrote told the rose when to light up and what color to be. The second thing I created was a light-up purse that contained some light sensors, an Arduino, and more LED strip lights within. Some much more sophisticated sets of code detected when it was dark, and caused the LEDs to light up, and make the bag glow. These are but two of the many things that I created, but the two that I am the most proud of. Makerspace taught me that if you can dream it, you can make it.

Fiona Ferber ‘23