Prototyping brings an idea to life. It takes an intangible, abstract, and invisible vision of the mind, and turns it into a form that everyone can understand. For me, prototyping is the last step in a 3 step process that begins with a spark within the mind, which then moves onto the page in the form of a sketch, then finally leaps into the real world and takes shape in the form of a prototype. It’s there that the designer can evaluate and re-think the idea so it can eventually live in the real world. It’s also where others can appreciate the idea and give feedback.
To this end, a prototyping station is essential. Recently, I have received many requests for advice on how to build a great prototyping station. Fresh off my makerspace curriculum training at Stanford University, which reinforced my own ideas of what a prototyping station should contain, I was inspired to write about how to build one.
First off, before we get to the materials and tools, we should talk about the station itself. In this case the word "station" is the idea of where they will be stored, not an actual structure such as a shelving unit. If your classroom space is limited and all you can afford is boxes or bins to keep tools and materials in, so be it. For me, a prototyping station is the idea of having materials and tools available for constructing ideas, not necessarily an actual station. If bins or boxes is all you can do, that’s fine! You can take them out when you need them and then put them back, out of sight, when you’re done. If you want something more permanent, then by all means purchase a unit that will house what you need. My favorite set-up is using metal racks or "carts" and plastic bins, which I have written about before on this blog. I find a prototyping station is not only useful, but awesome looking too, so having something permanent is a plus even if it’s small.
That brings me to my second point. A prototyping station should be tailored to the user's needs. That means you have control over size and what to include in it. If you know your learners and what they will be doing, you can customize the station for them and you. I will be giving a large list of materials and tools later on in this post, but that doesn’t mean you have to have it all at your station. The list is comprehensive. It includes many items to make many kinds of prototypes. However, you can decide what materials to use, whether its cardboard, paper, or something more sturdy. Cost is also a factor, although many of the items can be sourced at the dollar store or from your own desk drawers. Many of them are recycled items such as water bottles and cardboard.
I have divided the list into categories that will make the process of choosing what to include easier. For example, you can choose what “connectors” to include, in case you can’t get them all or because of the age group of students you’re working with. If hot glue seems too dangerous for your young designers, then choose tape or clips to join two pieces together. If there are no restrictions or safety concerns, then by all means load up your prototyping cart with as many building options as you can. The more choices designers have for building prototypes, the more they can really express their ideas more fully.
We’ll start at the beginning of the designing process with...well…the design! For this of course you will need paper and pencils….and oh yes, lots of erasers.
Post its - all sizes
Now for the main building materials. Here you can have choices. Remember though, this is what the prototype will be mostly made from, so be thoughtful in your choices.
Next, are the “connectors.” These are important because they join all the pieces together. Again, the more possibilities, the better the prototype will be. You also have to be aware of what “connector” will work with what building material. For example, you wouldn’t join two pieces of fabric with Scotch tape.
Hot Glue Gun/Sticks
White Glue, Rubber Cement, Glue Stick, etc.
Tapes - Scotch, Masking, Duct, etc.
Binder Clips - (many sizes)
“Tools” is a large category, because it's difficult to know what might be needed when making a prototype. Some tools might not even be used for their intended use. For example, a philip head screwdriver can used to make an opening bigger, after using an awl.
Screwdriver (all kinds)
Quick Grip Clamps
Blade Disposal Container
Recyclables are cheap and a great way to reuse things that would ordinarily be thrown away. There are no limits to what you can include here, but these are great items to include.
Plastic Water Bottles
Paper Towel Rolls
Toilet Paper Rolls
Finally, always have safety gear on hand. Although it's not always needed, its still great to have for little learners.
Blade Disposal Container
Prototyping releases ideas and makes them accessible for everyone to see. It physically represents an imagined idea, no matter how primitive the outcome is. After all, the word “prototype” comes from the Greek word “prototypos” meaning “original” or “primitive,” so the results will be crude, but nonetheless, a good representation of a new concept!
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* images were taken at the D-School at Stanford University