Before I joined the Hillbrook school community to help them build out their maker education program, a long standing history of learning about materials and real world building skills existed within our strong arts program. As a veteran middle school science teacher, I explored merging the hands on work kids were already doing in art, with topics in STEM. This exploration took two significant strands for me as an educator and for the school. The first strand involved the design of a physical space, which we called the iLab. This formerly obsolete computer room, was converted into a makerspace to promote engineering in the sciences. The second strand emphasized the use of constructionist learning theory and student choice within the curriculum. This new style of curriculum was named Problem based Science.
During year one, the makerspace essentially lived in a closet in the iLab. We had hand tools, a few power tools, and an Epilog mini laser cutter. We already had lots of NTX robotics kits for kids to experiment with and more e-waste than we knew how to store.
Year two of our makerspace, we added electronics, including microprocessors, a Type A 3D printer and a textiles/sewing section. These past three years as the Hillbrook makerspace coordinator, have taught me so much about learning and teaching. From observing and learning from our students in this space, I have become a true believer in the power of a Maker Education. This 2015-16 school year marks our fourth iteration of the Hillbrook Makerspace. Here are a few aspects about this room that make it such a magical, and powerful, learning space.
Trusting kids to check out their own tools and materials, set their daily agendas, and to store and protect their own prototypes, is at the core of any day in the iLab. Tools and materials are rated on a scale of one to three. Level one tools are open for all, including teachers in adjacent rooms to check out and use, no training is necessary. Level two access simply requires an introduction on how use the tool, or material, because they are expensive or a little tricky. Level three tools and materials require a certification from an adult to use, either because misuse would result in permanent or serious physical harm or their inherent intellectual difficulty. For instance, an Arduino would be a level three tool for a middle schooler. Access to level three tools is contingent on a student’s willingness to take the certification seriously, apply the tool to a real problem they are experiencing (context) and a willingness to mentor others once certified.
If we want our students to be successful in a democratic society, we must teach them what it feels like to have a voice in school first. Students have a voice in the iLab. The use of prompts, versus set labs that everyone performs and the teacher already knows the answer to, allows for an infinite array of solutions. We all learn more from this diverse array of solutions and from sharing our unique learning paths. Students own their learning while in the iLab and begin to form positive self-images around new competencies. Many students become mentors, teaching their peers skills they have become an expert in. By the end of 5th grade, students understand that teachers and learners can be of any age or make in the real world and everyone has an important role. In the iLab, we listen to each other, then decide together what we want to make and learn.
Environment can make or break a subject for a learner. Studies show that having access to fresh air, standing versus sitting, or choice in what your body is doing at all, can give students ownership of their learning space and increase learning outcomes. That is why we take the interior design and feel of the iLab seriously. Inspired by Reggio Emilia and modern art museums, the iLab features artwork on the walls made by students. Art brings life and color to the room and says, “Hey science, math and engineering can be about sharing, caring and beauty.” At Hillbrook we also recognize the unnecessary deficit in female and minority representation in the STEM fields. Making sure our makerspace feels welcoming to all, is one of our primary missions. In the iLab we look at every child as a maker, and value the creativity put into every creation, regardless of the material or level of technology used to make it.
When working in the iLab, kids know, not everyday will be a successful day. Failure is part of learning that we do not protect ourselves from. We relish our mistakes and lack of successes as part of our path to better understanding. The harder the fun, the bigger the bragging rights. When in the iLab, many students chose to work on projects that will introduce them to subjects that are “above their grade level.” When asked to write or verbalize an argument for passing or failing a challenge in the iLab, no student has felt badly about arguing for a grade of failing with honors. The focus is on the journey, never the product.
Using topics that interest kids, turns out to be a great way to learn about science and history. Inspired by the book Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction, several 5th graders (see below image) built a full size trebuchet in our outside building space. Having access to the outdoors from the iLab has been a huge benefit for supporting the range of interests students have, such as working on smoke signals, flame testing and ballistics. To learn more about the importance of engaging with dangerous thing for kids, watch this TED talk by Gever Tully, creator of the Tinkering School and San Francisco Brightworks, and author of 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let your Kid Do.
To ensure that Hillbrook students know that the iLab is a safe space for ideas, I began posting this Bill of Rights on the door. I think these rights speak for themselves.