SAN FRANCISCO — In a different era, schools had woodshop and sewing classes. Now, there are makerspaces.
These creative, collaborative spaces where kids can build or create their own designs, patterns and machines using an assortment of tools — hammers, circuits, video — are being replicated across the country thanks to a $750,000 grant from the Education Department and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The grants have propelled institutions like the Tinkering Studio, a makerspace in San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum, to spread new models of learning and professional development across the country. Kids from K-12 schools can do anything, from creating stop-motion animation to wiring robots.
“The idea is in the thought and curiosity they have through making,” said Meg Escudé, director of community youth programs for the studio. Learning how circuits work, for example, “is a really open-ended way for kids to follow their interest and get deep into something,” she added. “But it’s also a quick and easy way to get started. They get to connect wires and see what happens.”
This idea that students should experiment with unconventional, self-directed projects is at the core of the maker movement, which has been highlighted by the White House with events like Demo Day and a newly created position in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But as places like the Tinkering Studio start to do more professional development for teachers around making, it becomes clear that the philosophy runs counter to traditional school instruction.
Different styles of teaching
In March, the Tinkering Studio brought about 40 school and museum educators from Queens, New York; Houston; Miami; Philadelphia; and Fresno, California, to the Bay Area to teach them how to run after-school maker programs as part of a pilot funded by the federal government.
“They started thinking about some of the strategies to help kids see the value of experimentation,” Escudé said of the teachers who came for the three-day workshop. “Which can be a hard shift, especially with all the testing.”
Escudé and other experts say they are trying to shift the focus from end-of-year assessments, which “teachers are sick of,” to more alternative modes of evaluating problem-solving skills.
Testing “doesn’t allow them to teach,” she said. “It’s a system that doesn’t respect their own ability to be pedagogues and come up with things they know would be good for their students.”
Angelique Moulton, a technology teacher at Westwood Elementary School in Houston, is trying singlehandedly to change the culture at her school.
The 47-year-old educator enrolled herself in a massive open online course, also called a MOOC, through a partnership the Tinkering Studio has with Coursera, and started to explore how she could teach making to her students.
Luckily, the Children’s Museum of Houston — one of the shops that benefited from the grant — also ran a summer session for students at Moulton’s school, which is a Title I school that receives extra funding from the feds.
“It allowed them to talk amongst themselves and think critically and problem solve and come up with a design and product,” she said in an interview with FedScoop. “Because you gave them a small amount of rules, they have the audacity to use all the knowledge they have in the classroom and create something more grand. It’s amazing to see kids learn that way.”
She said students created miniature satellite dishes, journals made of fabric, and robots with Scribble Bots, which is a motorized object with markers that can draw different patterns on paper.
How does she get teachers on board with these unconventional activities?
“I go to teachers who might have the mindset to try it and then share it,” she said. “And sometimes I follow the rules and go through the principal.”
But, she added, “I’m a rule-breaker. I think it’s beneficial for the kids.”
‘Cabinet of curiosities’
The Tinkering Studio, a circular workshop on the first floor of the Exploratorium that opened around 2007, allows students to create in a contained space. It has scribbling machines, animation stations, circuits, robots and dozens of other oddities.
Behind glass walls, employees of the studio work on projects and develop programming surrounded by hundreds of gadgets, computers and books.
Luigi Anzivino, content developer, calls the area a “cabinet of curiosities,” after relics and antiquities that were difficult to categorize in Victorian England.
“We don’t consider ourselves ‘teachers’ or ‘experts,’” he said. “But we take this quite seriously as an art form and practice.”
The studio often gets families with children, student groups on field trips and occasionally adults. Projects can range from about 20 minutes to nearly two hours.
The studio differs aesthetically from the rest of the museum. The floors are wood, to resemble a woodshop.
“We have rounded shapes that envelop you and make you feel protected,” Anzivino said. “We put the entrance intentionally off to the side, not where the main drag is. If you want to get in, you have to backtrack and find your way in, because we want people to make a conscious decision to come.”
Studio officials hope to expand the education programs developed with the grant so more students and teachers — especially those in poor neighborhoods — can be exposed to the idea of making.
“The next round [of funding], we want to see more sites reached, so we have to figure out what that means,” Escudé said. “The focus is on low-income communities.”
And Moulton said she is working on raising money for a makerspace in the library of Westwood Elementary School. She is primarily looking to the school donation website, donorschoose.org, for additional cash.
“Of course, the district is not on board,” she said. “But I’m thinking by Christmas, we will have a ‘busyspace’ with kids. I’d rather that than not have anything at all.”
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