Maker spaces providing hands-on technology experience for area students

August 21, 2016 GMT

This past spring, the students in Susie Lavallee’s reading classes at Cecil Intermediate School in Canon-McMillan School District partnered with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Gateway to the Arts to make pillows for children undergoing medical procedures and treatment at the hospital.The students gathered in the school’s new maker space, where they met with a child-life specialist from Children’s Hospital and spent 10 class periods with fabric and textile artist Amy Masters, learning to stitch by hand and with a sewing machine, and created about 125 soft, washable pillows for the Children’s Hospital patients.The students also organized a fabric drive for a Cecil Township nonprofit organization, Jameson’s Army, which donated the material to nurses in the cardiac unit at Children’s Hospital to make more pillows.“With makerspace, the students learn that they have skills or can learn skills that can impact the community,” said Lavallee.Canon-McMillan, Burgettstown and Trinity Area school districts, along with Peters Township Library, are among a growing number of schools and public libraries across the country that have added makerspaces, do-it-yourself classrooms which engage students in hands-on projects that put them in charge of the learning experience.Maker education is an offshoot of the STEM movement, which exposes students to science, technology, engineering and math and emphasizes the engineering design process.“The purpose of makerspace is to create an environment where you can do some non-traditional learning and get some practical, hands-on experience outside of the regular learning environment,” said Cecil Intermediate School Principal Robert Kleinhans. “We always say we’re preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. It’s very important to have kids trying and creating and making and failing, because when you get into the workforce, you’re expected to think creatively, think outside the box and solve problems. We want critical thinkers.“Canon-McMillan launched its makerspace during the 2015-16 school year, after receiving $25,000 in grants from the Washington County Community Foundation, Washington Financial, FTS International and the Sprout Fund.Lavallee said makerspace is a return to hands-on learning that once was common in schools, but has been replaced by high-stakes testing.“It’s a return to the roots of our nation, in terms of innovating and inventing and using our ingenuity,” she said.Burgettstown was selected by The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to partner on a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to build maker spaces in its elementary school science labs and middle school library. The school district also received a $20,000 STEAM grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit through the Benedum Foundation, and a Washington County Community Foundation grant.In addition, Burgettstown entered a four-year partnership with Inventionland, an invention factory in Pittsburgh, which will enable 60 students per year to attend a program similar to “Shark Tank” that will result in the students turning an idea into a product.Trinity Area School District used a portion of the more than $200,000 it received in grant funding for STEAM initiatives last year to renovate the high school library in order to add a makerspace, which it will launch this year. Also in the works is a state-of-the art fabrication laboratory at the middle school and high school that will include 3-D printers, laser engravers, vinyl cutters, spindle routers and a T-shirt press.Not all makerspaces are alike. They often contain hand tools, video equipment, sewing machines, 2-D and 3-D printers, green screens, iPads, and robotic, building and electronic kits. There also are low-tech items such as paper towel holders, straws, buttons, popsicle sticks, Legos and cotton balls.Most of the projects students complete are tied to the curriculum. For example, the pillows crafted by the Cecil Intermediate students was the culmination of a reading unit in which they studied the emotion of fear.“It’s about creativity and perseverance. We want open-ended projects,” said Mandi Figlioli, assistant to the superintendent at Burgettstown. “We want students to know that they can’t give up. Part of being creative is being gritty. We push kids to re-think problems. There’s a lot of instant gratification for kids today, and a temptation for them to give up quickly when they run into a problem.“Rebecca Grabman, who manages the maker space activities at the Children’s Museum, said the maker movement began in Europe about a decade ago, and has caught on in the United States. Worldwide, there are about 1,500 makerspaces.Canon-McMillan Superintendent Michael Daniels noted makerspace education is different from traditional education because it requires teachers to design an activity in which they don’t always know what the outcome will be, which can be messy.“We have a very dedicated and talented staff that not only learned how to utilize the resources we have, but who also encourage our students to use their creative potential,” said Daniels. “Students make a connection between thinking, learning and doing. They are in charge.“Kleinhans recalled one project in which a student wanted to see how plants grew in various liquids: water, Coca-Cola, salt water and fruit juice.“He put the plants in a piece of gutter that you’d find on a house, and he wanted to see what they grew better in and why,” said Kleinhans. “That’s what makerspace is about. It’s about trying things out.”