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Western Pa. school districts unite with Robert Morris to push Maker Movement

| Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 8:34 p.m.

Cornell School District plans to turn an elementary classroom into a “maker space” by adding desks with erasable white-board tops and tools such as 3-D printers and electronics kits, Superintendent Aaron Thomas said.

Along with the Avonworth and Moon Area school districts, Cornell has joined an educational partnership with Robert Morris University called the Ohio River Consortium that's designed to increase students' project-based learning.

Quaker Valley's school board is to decide this month whether to join the effort, which would establish maker spaces in every elementary and middle school in the participating districts.

When students are engaged in learning-by-doing activities, “They tend to think more critically, retain better what they learn, learn how to work together as a team,” said Mary Ann Rafoth, dean of the School of Education and Social Sciences at RMU in Moon.

The RMU school is leading the creation of the consortium, which will feature science, technology, engineering, arts and math as major focal points in the curriculum, Rafoth said.

RMU faculty will head some of the consortium training, and RMU education students will work alongside teachers in the district to learn from them and help execute the projects, she said.

The consortium will receive a $225,000 grant over two years from the Grable Foundation, a nonprofit which provides support to organizations that improve the lives of children in the Pittsburgh region from early childhood through the formative years, inside the classroom and out. The grant money will be divided among the districts based on student enrollment — to pay for creating a “maker space” in each of the districts' elementary schools in the 2015-16 school year and in all their middle schools in 2016-17, Rafoth said. It also will pay for some teacher training, she said.

The maker spaces will include 3-D printers, 3-D pens and other materials that allow students to create projects.

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh's Makeshop is being used as a model nationwide by schools and museums, for how to engage children in hands-on learning using sewing, woodworking, electronics and digital tools. The Ohio River Consortium will work with the museum to shape maker-space activities and programs, and RMU students will intern at the museum, Rafoth said.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit will assist in setting up the school districts' labs and teacher training, she said.

Avonworth, Cornell, Moon Area and Quaker Valley already are partners in RMU's teacher training program.

“Avonworth School District currently has a strong partnership with RMU as they assist us with tuition and facilities while we provide pre-service teaching opportunities for their students. Avonworth Middle School is a professional development school for RMU,” said Dana Hackley, spokeswoman for Avonworth.

Cornell, whose kindergarten through 12th-grade schools are in the same building in Coraopolis, has identified some items, such as electronic circuit equipment suitable for children, as potential tools in its maker space. Teachers will be asked for suggestions before the classroom layout is finalized, Thomas said.

The district plans to use a $20,000 grant from the AIU, as well as its $24,000 share of the Grable grant, to create its elementary school maker space.

Some school districts already have taken active roles in creating maker spaces where students can express creativity.

Last year, Avonworth converted its middle and high schools' shared library into a 21st Century Collaboration Center, which includes a Maker Lab where students use power tools, sewing machines, a 3-D printer and other tools and supplies.

Cornell has a STEAM lab, similar to a maker space, in its high school, Thomas said.

The possibility of collaborating with other consortium members was a draw to expand the district's efforts, he said, especially because Cornell is a small district with limited resources.

“I think we can learn from each other in this as well,” Thomas said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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