Maker spaces become more common in schools across Western Pa.
Lyla Sebeck crinkled her forehead as if deep in thought as she tinkered with a Phillips screwdriver and a block of wood.
Her first-grade class at Avonworth Primary Center in Ohio Township were gathered in the school's “maker space,” a do-it-yourself classroom equipped with sewing machines, woodworking materials and a 3-D printer.
“You're going to screw it all the way into the board,” a teacher called out from the front of the room. “When you get it in there, you're going to reverse it and turn it the other way to get it out. Righty tighty, lefty loosey.”
Maker spaces are becoming more common in schools across Western Pennsylvania as educators try to engage students through hands-on activities.
Robert Morris University recently launched a partnership to add maker spaces in the Avonworth, Cornell, Quaker Valley and Moon Area school districts.
The partnership, dubbed the Ohio River Consortium, secured a $225,000, two-year grant from the Grable Foundation, a Pittsburgh nonprofit, to pay for materials, supplies and teacher training.
“Research tells us students are more engaged when they are producing something,” said Mary Ann Rafoth, dean of RMU's School of Education and Social Sciences.
“That's really what underlies the whole maker movement — the idea that students will be much more involved and think much more deeply if they're producing things.”
The consortium's focus this year is to bring maker education to the primary grades. It will concentrate on middle schools next year.
Maker education is an outgrowth of the STEM movement, which exposes students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics through hands-on experiments, Rafoth said.
The maker movement began in Europe about a decade ago. There are some 1,500 maker spaces worldwide, researchers at Dartmouth College estimate.
The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh pioneered the concept locally, providing maker workshops to more than 20 school districts, said Rebecca Grabman, who manages the museum's makeshop activities.
“It's really catching fire,” Rafoth said. “It all goes back to working with real things and connecting with the real world.”
Maker ed teaches students 21st-century work skills, she said: “Information is in everybody's cellphone right now. There's no point in teaching for regurgitation. What we need are people who can invent and create.”
Tom Ralston, Avonworth's superintendent, agreed.
“It's creating the mindset of an innovator,” he said. “That's a mindset you have to cultivate from an early age.”
Avonworth was among the first districts in the region to buy into the concept. It began when Ken Lockette, the district's assistant superintendent, attended a maker boot camp three or four years ago at the Children's Museum.
District officials installed a maker space a short while later in the collaboration center, a shared space between the high school and middle school. They consulted with the museum in designing the space.
For the primary grades, a teacher wheeled a cart from classroom to classroom and facilitated maker activities. Last year, teachers began using a classroom in the Primary Center's basement as a maker space. The center has more than 400 students in kindergarten through second grade.
The district is using its share of the Ohio River Consortium grant to add a maker space to its elementary school, which has 385 students in third through fifth grades.
“By the end of this year, we're going to have maker spaces in all our buildings,” Lockette said. “Kids are going to have these experiences all the way from kindergarten up to 12th grade.”
Other districts such as Cornell are just beginning to incorporate “maker ed” into their curriculum. Teachers are undergoing training, and district officials are converting an unused elementary school classroom at the district's K-12 building in Coraopolis into a maker space.
“This is a whole new concept for our staff, and it's a new concept for me,” said Aaron Thomas, Cornell's superintendent. “It'll be ongoing throughout this year. It'll not be done in a week or a month. It'll be continuing to transform.”
Many teachers struggled when Avonworth began implementing its maker ed program.
“It's very messy, The traditional way of teaching is easier,” Ralston said.
“To say, ‘I'm going to give a test every Friday and these are going to be things I go through in my lectures,' that's simple. But when you're designing an activity that you don't really know which way it's going to go when the kids start on it, that's difficult.”
Despite a bumpy start, the shift has been worth it, said Becky Kolesar, a third-grade teacher at Avonworth Elementary School.
“The engagement the children have when they're involved in these activities is phenomenal,” she said.
The students seem to enjoy it, too.
“I like it,” Lyla, the Avonworth first-grader said. “You can use your imagination to make things you always wanted to make.”
Tony Raap is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.