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Tutorials, topic guides, and course plans related to making, makers, and makerspaces


The purpose of this guide is to provide ideas, resources, and inspiration for making activities when all the advanced tools of a makerspace aren't available.

Even when you are limited to the materials commonly found in your home, dorm room, or office, there are still lots of ways to engage hands-on learning for academic, entrepreneurial, and creative purposes.

Why Prototype?

Why We Make Models

Physical prototypes, even when extremely "crude" or "low resolution," can be very valuable in a wide range of creative, academic, and entrepreneurial processes. 

In almost all use cases, it's important to remember that the model is PART of a process, and doesn't have to stand completely on its own. You'll be able to explain what the model means, so it doesn't have to be perfect. 

Physical objects help us tell stories. A model, or set of models, can serve as props or characters in narrative we use to explain ourselves and the world.

Physical objects help us elicit feedback. Presenting a physical object to a person is a great way to open up a conversation, and get them talking about their own perspective an experience. Do they like the features of the object? Are there things they would change? How does it make them feel?

Physical objects help make the abstract concrete. When we communicate only in words, meaning can be missed as our listener's attention drifts, or they misinterpret our meaning. Models provide a focal point for conversation and meaning-making.

Physical objects help us check ourselves. Making things with our hands activates different parts of our brain. This work often forces us to look at problems from new angles, opening up new pathways for further exploration, or identifying untested assumptions

Physical objects build community and connection. When we make models for others, either as gifts or part of an ideation process, we demonstrate that we HEAR them, that we empathize with their feelings and point of view. Iterating on a model with someone else provides more opportunities to actively listen, and to demonstrate empathy.

Some of the processes that benefit from Model Making include:

  • Design Thinking
  • Active listening
  • Rapid prototyping
  • User research (gathering feedback)
  • Community building
  • Wellness support
  • Gift-making
  • Representing ideas

Material Ideas

Ideas for Materials

What follows are some categories of use for different types of items you might find in your home. This list does not include many typical "crafting supplies," as if you have those, you probably already know what they are for.

Even if you have access to proper crafting supplies, you are still encourage to peruse this list, as it may get you looking at everyday materials in creative ways that could contribute to your model-making.

This is NOT an exhaustive list. What else can you find in your house in these categories?


  • Scissors
  • Kitchen knives
  • Razor blades: can be carefully wrapped in tape to make a craft knife
  • Screwdrivers: can also pry things open and punch holes
  • Spoons and forks: good for poking holes, molding things
    • Bend all put one of the tines back on a fork to make an awl (hole-poker)
  • Needles

Materials that carry meaning you can use:

These are materials that carry cultural significance by representing complex ideas in a simple, culturally-contextualized form. In semiotics, we would call them "Signifiers" of some cultural meaning. These are extremely useful, because for example instead of making a model that represents "beauty myths" you can use a barbie doll, or image from a beauty product ad. Bear in mind that in most use cases you'll be explaining your model with words as well, so the meaning doesn't have to be obviously apparent to everyone immediately.

  • Action figures, Dolls, Toys
  • Pictures from magazines
  • Ads
  • Brand logos
  • Sports gear
  • Junk drawer contents: a battery can represent "power." a broken digital watch can be "technology,"

A more personalized version of this category is "materials that mean something to YOU," for modeling exercises where you need to express something about yourself. 

  • School yearbooks
  • Childhood pictures
  • Trophies, ribbons, awards
  • Family heirlooms
  • Favorite article of clothing

Materials that add texture, color, decoration

These materials can add decoration, color, and emotional content to your models through the addition of color and texture. Fabric tends to humanize your models. 

  • Clothing
  • Puffy paint
  • Glitter: I do NOT recommend using glitter, unless it's embedded in glitter glue or tape. Glitter gets everywhere, and is bad for the environment. Don't buy it, don't use it.
  • Fabric: Old towels, handkerchiefs, pot holders. Anything with a useful color or pattern.
  • Markers
  • Ribbon
  • Plastic bags: plastic bags are super useful, they can be twisted into rope, cut into ribbons, flat sheets, crumpled into filler, etc.
  • Colored Tape

Materials that add add structure, or can be molded into shapes

  • Aluminum foil: Another great material that can be molded into shapes, turned at the corners to make bowls/trays, etc. The shiney material can represent water, screens, the sun, etc.
  • Duct tape: You can press the sticky sides of two lengths of duct tape together to make a strong fabric. 
  • Paper
  • Plastic wrap
  • Paper clips
  • Scrap wire
  • Cardboard: Save old boxes, because cardboard is a great material for molding into useful shapes. If you don't have glue or tape you can push holes in cardboard and thread it with string to hold it together. 

Materials that hold things together

  • Tape
  • Glue
  • String
  • Shoelaces
  • Thread (you can pull from old clothes)

Random things that can look like other things

These are items that can useful for making parts of a model because its shape suggests other things. Use your imagination: grab an object at random and ask yourself: What else can this be?

  • Silverware: Spoons can be heads, knives can be legs, forks are great hands, etc.
  • Plates: great stages for holding your entire created "world"
  • Cups: upside down they can be torsos or skirts, right side up they can be boats, on their side they can be wheels.
  • Old batteries: need a cylinder? Grab a battery!
  • Junk Drawer” contents, pencils, springs ...
  • Vegetables!: Many veggies can be carved with a kitchen knife into all sorts of shapes. 

Making Kits

Maybe you never threw these out from your childhood, maybe you still love them, maybe you have a younger sibling or nephew...

  • LEGOs 
  • Wooden blocks
  • Tinker Toys
  • Play-doh


Activity 1: Taking Inventory

Review the list of materials under "Ideas for Materials." Search your home/office/dorm/streets for as many materials as you can that fit in these categories. Don't just find items on the list, but consider how other every day items might fit into one or more categories.

Take pictures of every item and put them in a document under the appropriate category. 

Make it a contest:

For the contest, though an item might fit under more than one category, for the purpose of points, you have to pick one category for each item.

  • For each item from the lists: 1 point
  • Each item NOT already in the list: 2 points. Be prepared to justify it!
  • Find 3 items in every category: 20 points

Activity 2: Concept Modeling

Take a concept from your class's reading material or discussion, and make a model that represents this concept as a physical manifestation. 

The more abstract the concept, the better. You're going to explain the model and how it represents the concept, so don't worry about the model standing on its own or being "obvious".

Some aspects to consider could be:

  • What individuals or groups are involved in this concept, and how to they relate to each other? What are their identifying characteristics?
  • Is there a hierarchy, or network of relationships you can represent?
  • What kind of "landscape" or environment is the concept playing out in?
  • Is there a temporal aspect, a journey or process that you can represent? Some change or transformation?
  • Are there "positive" and "negative" aspects or goals that you need to identify? 

Activity 3: The Interview

Pair up with someone in your class or group. 

Interview each other. The conversation can be open-ended, or you can try one or more of these prompts:

  • Tell me a story about your childhood that makes you smile when you think about it.
  • What's your superpower (this could be a real skill they have, or an imaginary superpower they wish they had, or might have)?
  • What's your favorite vacation location?
  • If you had a million dollars that you could only spend on yourself, what would you do with it?
  • What's your favorite story (from a book, movie, game, etc)
  • What's a product that you interact with a lot? What do you like/dislike about it? 
  • Or come up with your own prompts

Whatever the prompt, and whatever the response, ask the interviewee follow up questions like:

  • Why?
  • Tell me more.
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What else?

Practice active listening by repeating back what they told you in your own words, using phrases like:

  • If I understand you correctly, you think that _____. Is that right?
  • So you're telling me ____________, but I think I still don't understand _________, can you tell me more about that?
  • You say that _______________, why is that?

Activity 4: Gift-Making

After doing Activity 3: The Interview, make a gift for your interviewee based on some portion of what you learned from them.

The gift doesn't need to be perfect or beautiful. It should, however, demonstrate that you listened deeply to them during the interview, and you now understand something special about them.

When you present your gift, provide an explanation of what you learned from the interview, what you chose to focus on for your gift, and what you made for them. Explain a bit about what the gift represents AND the process/materials you used to make it.

If this activity is done online, you may not be able to physically present the gift. In which case, some pictures with a caption could be a nice substitute

Activity 5: The Product Prototype

After doing Activity 3: The Interview, design a PRODUCT PROTOTYPE for your interviewee (now your USER), that meets a need or solves a problem for them.

Begin by making a problem statement, which defines what the user is trying to DO, and some insight about them that will help you to build something that will appeal to them. This is usually of the format:

"[User Name] needs a way to [Need]. Interestingly, in their world, [Insight]"

(note: the reason you need this statement in this format is to make sure you have a CLEAR and CONCISE expression of the user's need, not a vague understanding)

Then, make several rough sketches of potential solutions.

Present these sketches to your user for HONEST, CRITICAL feedback. You don't want to hear "it's fine," you want to hear about PROBLEMS, missed opportunities, misunderstandings, etc. The goal here is not to get uncritical approval, but to improve your understanding of your user, and of the requirements for the design.

With this feedback in had, build your prototype.

When done, present your prototype to the group, explaining:

  • What you learned about your user
  • Your problem statement, expressed in the concise format provided above
  •  What you decided to make
  • How your prototype solves the problem as defined
  • Weakness, or areas for continued development/refinement

DIY Materials

Here are some tutorials for making your own making supplies.

Research Links

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