Materials, Themes, and Bugs at Edmunds Middle School - Digital Promise

Materials, Themes, and Bugs at Edmunds Middle School

by Ann Gatch, Graham Lambert (Edmunds Middle School, VT) and Stephanie Chang (Maker Ed)

How might we help educators develop a maker mindset? “Materials, Themes, and Bugs” is a challenge-based activity that is simultaneously structured and open-ended, flexible in timing, and adaptable to different groups of educators. This activity can be the foundation of a semester-long project, can be a short icebreaker activity to get creative juices flowing, or can be integrated deeply into content areas.

The concept: a collaborative activity that helps educators take on the role of designer and creative problem-solver.

At Edmunds Middle School, we incorporate creative design activities into professional development to help teachers develop a maker mindset and put it to use in their classrooms across the curriculum.

“We were able to meet the standard and still play right into our interest areas. It was a great way to hook me into what the PD was about without having someone telling me what to do.  Sometimes we are our own worst instructors and we forget to differentiate instruction when it comes to teaching ourselves.  It was a beautiful way to learn and apply these techniques for my classroom.”

– Ann, special educator

How can you use “Materials, Themes, and Bugs” to engage the teachers at your school?

Prepare for the activity

  • Set out sticky notes and markers for learners to use.
  • Create/modify slides or instructional signs.
  • Designate 3 areas on walls (can be separate walls, can be different sections of the same wall, can be whiteboard, chalkboard, or completely plain). Sticky notes should be able to stick to walls.
  • Prep small signs for each of those 3 areas: “materials”, “bugs”, and “themes
  • Lay out a table of maker supplies, whether recycled and crafty materials or high-tech equipment. Ideally, start with no-tech, including materials like cardboard, glue, paper clips, fabric, bottle caps, egg cartons, etc.

Cover the walls with sticky notes

  • Show the first slide and encourage learners to brainstorm “materials”. Write one idea down on each sticky note. Give an example of a “material” if learners seem stuck or hesitant: cardboard, pebbles, plastic wrap, etc.
  • Learners can discuss with one another; they can write silently. Encourage them to jot down 2-3 ideas – some will generate 20 sticky notes; others will write one. This should take about 5 minutes.
    As they’re writing, the facilitator should put up the sign for “materials” on the wall.
  • When done, have learners stand up and stick all notes to the section of the wall designated as “materials”.
  • Repeat with the second slide (“bugs”), and then, with the third slide (“themes”). For each, have them sit down to brainstorm and write, then stand up to stick on the wall.
  • It may be helpful to explain that “bugs” are “things that bug you”, i.e. everyday annoyances, small frustrations, big worldly problems, or anything in-between.
    • Examples of bugs: stinky socks, traffic, dog poop.
    • Examples of themes: Harry Potter, the Olympics, colors.

Collaborate, design, make!

Find a team of 3. Choose 2-3 materials, 1 bug, 1 theme.


  • Once all three categories have been brainstormed and sticky notes have been posted to each of the labeled sections of the wall, show the fourth slide. Have them form into groups of 3-5.
  • Once formed, 1-2 group members should head to the “materials” section and choose 2-3 materials. Have them grab the sticky notes off the wall. Another 1-2 different group members should simultaneously go to the “bugs” section and choose 1 bug, taking the sticky note off the wall. And last but not least, the last group members should choose 1 theme. The selection should take about 5 minutes, possibly a bit longer, but it’s useful to keep it quick and focused.Develop a project, idea, or solution that addresses the bug, using the materials, along that theme. And make it!
  • Show the final slide! Groups are challenged to develop a project, idea, or solution that addresses the bug, using the material, along the chosen theme. And make it!

“From the small group experience we had in the PD, we were all bringing our own creative energy around a project.  We had a lot of anxiety about performing because everyone else showed a project — a piece of material that they created.  And, we came out with a performance piece, which I think shows the beauty of not giving directions and seeing where something can go. So, my biggest takeaway from that was that we were able to be creative and spontaneous and we were able to bring our own character to that experience.”

– Graham, music teacher

Facilitation tips

  • The facilitation and pacing of the instructional part is important. Brainstorming shouldn’t take an immense amount of time; the purpose is to generate a high quantity of wild and fun ideas. There can be duplicate ideas, there can be silly ones, there can be serious and practical ones.
  • Try to keep the mystery alive as to why they’re brainstorming materials, bugs, and themes. Some will guess the concluding challenge, but others will be surprised and delighted to see the three sections connect – and therefore tasked with creating a solution to three very disparate pieces.
  • Some will be dissatisfied with the fact that their brainstormed material ideas will not match exactly what’s available for their actual use. They can be further challenged to find a replacement or stand-in from what’s available, or the challenge can be structured so that they can use any/all materials but must incorporate the 2-3 selected.
  • Groups can work on their solution for as short as 10-20 minutes or significantly longer. Most sessions take about 45-60 minutes.
  • Make sure to leave time at the end for all groups to show off their creations, explain their logic and planning, and reflect on their own work as well as the activity itself.
  • Facilitators can pre-plan the materials, bugs, or themes to best fit their audience, content/subject area, or intended skills. For instance, if working with English Language Arts teachers, themes can be based on literary selections. The bug can be one consistent challenge for all groups, with variables being themes and materials. Any of the constraints can be widened or narrowed.

Back to Develop a Maker Mindset

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