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A Maker Movement

Monday, January 5, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
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By Sarah Stewart

Schools around the country have been adding maker or innovation labs where their students can participate in project-based learning. From students exploring engineering concepts with 3D printers to participating in Lego or robotics challenges to building worlds with Minecraft, maker labs provide students a place to spark their creativity and curiosity by tinkering with a variety of projects while developing important STEAM skill sets (science, technology, engineering, art, math). The work is open-ended, flexible, messy, and hands-on. 

Courtney Walker and Dottie Smay of Shorecrest Preparatory School spearheaded the school’s addition of a maker lab in its library. Walker is the upper and middle school librarian and Smay is the lower school media specialist. The two had seen maker labs at various conferences and in trade journals. In 2013, they decided it was time for Shorecrest to make the jump. They secured funds from a grant and began discussing possibilities with school leaders as well as the technology and art departments. 

In order to add the maker lab, Walker and Smay reworked the layout of the school's library. This involved rearranging furniture and adding a large table at the center of the room painted with white board material so students could brainstorm ideas. They also added new work stations, a card catalog filled with Legos, and a Lego Wall. 

Their first and most expensive addition was a 3D printer for the school’s library, followed by project kits from littleBits, Rasberry Pi, and Arduino. They also added low-tech materials such as paper towel rolls, feathers, bottle caps, and Styrofoam balls. They used their new Lego wall for design challenges. In November, the students were challenged to design something with 15 Legos, which they then posted on the wall with their name, grade, and a description. Posting their work was important, Smay said, as students could see what other students were working on and be proud of their own creations. Student projects included an underground restaurant, a reading robot, and a waterfall. 

Walker and Smay describe the creation and operation of the lab as a collaborative effort among many departments, as well as the staff and students. Walker and Smay also launched a Maker Club. In the summer of 2014, they hosted their first Maker Camp, where lower school students designed 3D logos or electronics with littleBits; middle school students integrated art, math, and technology by printing 3D tessellations; and upper school students designed game pieces for a history board game. 

Walker and Smay said the transition has brought fresh life to the library, creating a more collaborative and energetic atmosphere among students and faculty. Libraries have always been a source for information and research, so adding a maker space there was a natural fit. 
“The children, even the older children, it inspires them and allows them to explore and be creative,” Smay said of the new lab. “It’s a place they can discover and tinker and consider solutions to real problems.” 

Smay said the lab also helps students become more fearless learners. “Students can be so grade-driven and we want them to focus more on the process and we promote the failure part. Working through mistakes and learning to ask questions and try again are what lead to learning and breakthroughs,” said Smay. “I was in the classroom for ten years and our lesson plans and approach were neat and tidy. This is the opposite of that - no lesson plan and tentative goals.” 

Shorecrest’s maker program has also gained national attention. Smay and Walker have spoken at numerous conferences about their work, and their school was selected as one of three schools in the Tampa Bay area to host the Association of Independent School Librarians Annual Conference this April. 

The Children’s School (TCS) has been participating in maker-type work since its creation as a lab school in 1970. Its founders believed strongly in the connection between teacher and student and the importance of play in learning. With the recent popularity of the maker movement, it has been opening its doors to the community to show others how elementary school children can be makers. Head of school Nishant Mehta attended Maker Faire Atlanta at Georgia Institute of Technology in 2013 and struck up a conversation with its founder about maker spaces for young children. Organized by Maker Media, the Maker Faire is a national event which was first held in San Francisco in 2006. It is described as a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness, and has grown exponentially to cities across the country. When Maker Faire Atlanta expanded to a larger space in Decatur in 2014, TCS was able to secure a full parking lot where they could demonstrate maker projects for elementary-age children. The children’s Maker Faire inside the fair was called “The Innovator’s Playground.”

Both the staff and the students at TCS pulled together to organize and run the activities at the Innovator’s Playground, which was held last October. Some activities featured were understanding matter by playing with gack, play doh, and silly putty; scribbling with homemade scribble machines; working on lights and circuitry projects provided by Acuity Brands; a design challenge to create the perfect chair for learning; and exploring bioengineering with representatives from Zoo Atlanta. 

“The whole concept of making and tinkering is not really new, it’s just becoming trendy and it has always been a core value of what we do – that children learn by doing,” said Mehta. ”But at the fairs, a lot of spaces we would come across were for middle and high school students, or going directly to the high tech, 3D printing component rather than offering something for young learners based on the theories behind making.”

Christy Robinson, director of the extended day and summer learning at TCS oversaw the development of the program. She said the school was thrilled with the response from the community as well as the number of businesses that wanted to participate. They partnered with businesses such as Acuity Brands, Ikea, The Home Depot, Jason’s Deli, and MAD-learn. 

“It’s been exciting watching it come to fruition and to pull off such a major event in such a magical way, where we were participating but also shining light on the need for programs specifically for elementary aged children,” she said. 

Robinson hopes the Innovator’s Playground will become a collaborative demonstration of early maker learning and attract new partners in 2015 from businesses, non-profits, and other private and public schools in the Atlanta area. 

The Steward School in Richmond, Virginia made a significant investment in innovative and creative learning with the building of its Bryan Innovation Lab, which opened in 2013. The 6,200 square foot facility is described as a 21st century problem-solving environment that will inspire a new generation of innovators by placing emphasis on the value of self-discovery. The space includes flexible indoor and outdoor learning spaces divided into five areas: an innovation lab, a core, a wellness studio, a kitchen studio and gardens, and more outdoor learning environments. The facility was funded by John Bryan III family, Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, The Steward Community, Edward E. Ford Foundation, and Robins Foundation. 

One project conducted at the center included studying energy consumption via the lab’s exposed, labeled, and metered mechanical systems, while working with real time data. At its gardens and in its kitchen, students can experience a meal from farm to table that they are personally involved with growing. Students can design and build a prototype for a water bottle filling station on campus or build and install native habitats to increase the health of the local ecology and create green corridors for migration. 

Seniors at the school also recently participated in a biomimicry challenge. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks to solve problems by emulating patterns and strategies from nature. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies that are sustainable and ecofriendly. Students were challenged with designing wings based on hummingbirds, and another group built structures based on the design of a honeycomb.

In addition, the Steward School wants the lab to be used as a community resource. It launched a Visiting Innovator program, where experts from a range of industries speak to the school and greater community about their work or research. Last fall, the school welcomed numerous experts including Steve Tanimoto, a professor at the University of Washington, the author of An Interdisciplinary Introduction to Image Processing, and the lead developer of PixelMath. Tanimoto spent a day working with Steward faculty members. The lab also hosted a number of parenting sessions in partnership with Commonwealth Parenting, a non profit arm of The Children’s Museum of Richmond. In November, it welcomed author and clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair for a session on families maintaining balance in the digital age. 

“It’s such an exciting time to be working in education, and the Bryan Innovation Lab has been a dream of our leadership for some time,” said Director Cary Jamieson. “We’ve moved outside the boundaries of the classroom and beyond lesson plans and have created something fresh and meaningful. It’s an experiment in many ways that reaches across subjects and will be a source of discovery for our students, our faculty, and the greater community.”

We want to promote the maker space at your school! #SAISmaker

We would love to promote the great work your school is doing with maker spaces. Take photos, shoot videos, or write blogs about your maker space, then tweet it with the hashtag #SAISmaker and we'll make a compilation on Storify to send out with our next newsletter! And if you haven't followed us on Storify, visit us at

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