With makerspaces, students can make everything from books and quilts to radios and robots

Schools and libraries aren't what they used to be
With makerspaces, students can make everything from books and quilts to radios and robots
Posted at 12:00 PM, Sep 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-21 12:00:50-04

CINCINNATI - As the media specialist at Sands Montessori in Mt. Washington, Robyn Appino's back-to-school shopping list included some unusual items this year: green screen, digital photo printer, sewing machine, and an electronic die cutter, all of which are available for teachers and students to use at Sands' new mini makerspace.

"It's project-based, 21st-century learning," Appino said.

Across the country, makerspaces -- public areas that support do-it-yourself creativity and invention -- are fast becoming popular features in public libraries, but they're less common in public schools, especially at the elementary level. Sands' makerspace is one of only two in the Cincinnati Public School district. Hays-Porter Elementary School in the West End also has a makerspace as part of its Innovation Lab.

Thanks to a $1,500 grant from Sands' parent organization, Appino purchased the equipment she needed to transform an underutilized storage room in the media center into a makerspace. "I had read a lot of articles about makerspaces and it seemed like it fit really well with the Montessori philosophy," Appino said.

The students in Danielle Presley's sixth-grade class at Sands got their first exposure to the makerspace materials earlier this month with some students learning to use the die cutter, some collaborating on projects using Snap Circuit electric-circuitry kits, and others who acted as a documentary film crew, videoing and interviewing students while they worked.

"I pulled all the books we have in the collection on circuitry and electricity, the idea being they would explore the non-fiction and take it further," said Appino, who was inspired, in part, by the makerspaces she saw at the St. Bernard and Downtown branches of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. "When I set up the (activity) stations, they just ran with it and were so excited."

The main branch of the library unveiled its own expansive new makerspace in 2015. It features a 3D printer, sound-recording booth and an Espresso book-publishing machine, laser cutter and button maker.

"Libraries have gotten into different kinds of literacy including digital literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) work," said Paula Brehm-Heeger, strategic initiatives director at the Cincinnati library. According to Brehm-Heeger, the makerspace at the main branch downtown hosts about five school groups a month.

"Westwood schools were here Tuesday with about 100 kids," she said, noting the library's makerspace gets a lot of repeat student visitors who were first introduced to the space during a school trip.

Traci Cummings, another sixth-grade teacher at Sands, brought her students to the Public Library's makerspace over three consecutive days last spring. She wanted her math students to see geometry at work.

"I'm always looking for real-world math applications," Cummings said. "We had just finished a unit on plotting points on the coordinate plane and learning about surface area, nets and 3D figures. The public library has a 3D printer, which brought to life everything we were learning."

Next month, McGraw-Hill Education will publish "The Big Book of Makerspace Projects: Inspiring Makers to Experiment, Create, and Learn," written by the husband-and-wife team of Colleen and Aaron Graves, school librarians in Texas.

Part of the book's mission is to help other school librarians create makerspaces and projects for their students.

"Making allows students to pursue their passions," Colleen Graves said in an email. "A makerspace also teaches students to work collaboratively in ways that our curriculum often doesn't. Many times, our students leave our schools lacking the ability to problem solve, work in a group, act as a leader, and deal with failure because it isn't in the curriculum. These are all skills students can build through making."

The maker movement -- a nationwide diaspora of amateur designers, tinkerers, inventors and other creative types, heavily influenced by the tech industry -- has been gaining steam since the early 2000s. In 2006, Make: magazine, a San Francisco-based publication devoted to do-it-yourself tech projects, established the first Maker Faire in San Mateo, California.

Parents wondering what role sewing machines and circuitry kits play in their child's education should check out the Cincinnati Museum Center's fourth annual Cincinnati Mini Maker Faire at the Hamilton Country Fairgrounds Oct. 8-9. That's when makers of all ages from around the Tri-State will gather to show off what they've made and share what they've learned.

Kristen Woods, Cincinnati Mini Maker Faire manager for the Cincinnati Museum Center, expects about 4,000 visitors to this year's event. Traditional makers like sculptors, carpenters and quilters are joined by tech-inspired competitive hobbyists like the Lakota High School robotics team.

"Not only do the robotics teams have to build a robot, they have to program it to do things," says Woods. "Robotics teams like this can be stepping stones, possibly to a college scholarship."

Going to the school library isn't just for checking out books anymore; it's about literacy in all media, from using databases to evaluating online resources to safe web practices.

For Appino, giving students space to imagine, explore, create and build is another opportunity to collaborate with teachers and a way for students to demonstrate learning.

"I would like to make it more structured in the future," she said, "where we do a little bit of research, go online, look at some databases, pick a topic hot in the news, maybe dealing with electricity or alternative energies, and then after that they do something on their own with the circuitry. We're starting small and hoping to build."