Ever heard the term “Makerspace?” If you are an educator, you probably already know all about it. For the rest of us, it’s a word we should keep in mind. We will be hearing about it in the future.
According to Campbell University, the word, simply defined, is “a place where students –sometimes alongside staff, parents, and mentors — can create, problem solve, and develop skills, talents, thinking, and mental rigor.”
But what does that mean, and why are so many schools so enthusiastic about establishing this non-traditional classroom space? That’s because at its core are elements of experiential learning, collaboration, and teamwork with an emphasis on offering a variety of tools, technology, and workspace not available in the traditional classroom.
One local school that has embraced this model is Easton’s The Country School, an independent private, coeducational school for pre-K through 8. The program, designed to enhance and provide additional enrichment to the current curriculum, was started this past fall and has been met with enthusiasm from students, teachers, and parents. Makerspace is STEAM-based, an acronym that means it’s reinforcing concepts of science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
The Country School has divided Makerspace into six zones: The Tech Den (featuring 3D printers, iPads, a green screen, computer programming station), Robotics Lab (Mbot, Lego Mindstorms, Dot-Dash Robots), Electronics/Circuits Workshop (Snap Circuits, Arduino), The Wood Shop (hammers, nails, screws, screwdrivers, saws, etc.), Manipulatives and Simple Machines Center (Legos, Marble Run, K’Nex, etc.), and Arts and Design Lab (craft supplies, recyclables, and building materials).
The Makerspace approach is promoted by presenting students with authentic challenges with undefined solutions. Teachers are present as facilitators of the process and provide students with the tools and flexibility to devise their own design plans, allowing them to learn the value of persistence and realize that real-world problems rarely have known solutions.
Annie Hasselgren, Director of Admissions, reports that the students get weekly exposure and hands-on experience that supplement their standard classroom curriculum. Hasselgren explains how it covers all components of the STEAM acronym, “The technology part in this is self-explanatory, as students interact with each of the zones,” she said, “In terms of engineering, they’re learning creative ways to build something, for instance, a bridge, making sure to plan a design that will actually work and will stay upright. Obviously, there’s a lot of math in engineering and science and just ensuring that things will work the way you plan them. This also requires artistic creativity because if you’re doing anything, from building a bridge to designing a basic video game, you want it to be visually attractive to users.”
All of these new study concepts have generated more engagement and interest from the students. “Even though it’s structured,” Hasselgren said, “instead of sitting at desks, they’re able to do more group work with their peers. They’re having conversations about their projects and have a slightly different level of freedom and purpose.” The process allows students to make and learn from mistakes and, once they succeed, to retain the knowledge for future endeavors. The program also addresses the diverse learning needs of students by promoting various styles of acquiring information, whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.
Makerspace is available to all students at The Country School, but eighth graders were the first to use the designated area for an experiment. They were challenged to design a package to “Ship a Chip” (a Pringle potato chip) across the country using only a flat sheet of cardboard and a few basic supplies, such as a cotton ball, string, tape, and a plastic bag. It was sent to various locations around the U.S., where recipients were asked to unwrap and reveal the effectiveness of the packaging. But regardless of the outcome, students learned the value of research.
Currently, seventh graders are programming robots, and kindergarteners will be working with 8th graders on a stEMPATHY project: creating a model city that embraces diversity and meets the needs of people of all abilities. All of these projects have been designed to encourage 21st-century skills that go beyond critical thinking and problem-solving. Flexibility, teamwork, adaptation, technology literacy, productivity, social skills, leadership, and other soft skills can be learned through tinkering and creation.
If there have been any challenges while implementing the program, The Country School sees it as a teachable moment rather than an obstacle. “Sometimes it gets a little noisy when students are doing group work,” Hasselgren said, “and sometimes they don’t agree on how to move forward with a certain stage of the process. But that’s how you learn life skills of cooperation and understanding the perspectives of others. And if you’re in a group, you’ll have to figure out a way to work together, even if that seems difficult at the time.”
The actual space for Makerspace was part of a resourceful effort on the part of the school when it turned a former teacher’s lounge into a place that would be used for the program. The funding came next. “We had a major donor who wanted to ensure that Makerspace was created and gave us the funds to make it happen. But it’s not just a one-and-done expense. Since it’s now a part of school life here, it will need to be accounted for in future budgets.”
Volunteers have also stepped up in other ways. Hasselgren said, “we have a parent who is a professor of robotics at Salisbury University, who will be holding after-school camps for kids. Other parents with expertise in some of these STEAM-related areas have volunteered their time to offer after-school opportunities for the kids.”
Of course, the support of teachers is a primary reason this has been such a success. According to Hasselgren, the two science teachers who were enthusiastic about it ‘took the baton and ran with it.’
“Guiding students through the engineering and design process, then witnessing their projects come to fruition is an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Melissa Grant, Lower School science teacher. “From 3D printing to robotics to woodworking, our students are gaining invaluable skills that prepare them for careers in our modern world and help them learn how to work through challenges with resilience.”
Upper School Science teacher, Kylie Schappeler, sums it up best. “It’s exciting to teach at a school that is so supportive of advancing its science and STEAM programs. We’re also extremely fortunate to have received donations of supplies such as science kits and robots, as well as time and talents from various families in our community as we build our Makerspace together. The absolute best part of the space, though, is the joy happening there when kids create, build, experiment, and ultimately grow through their experiences. It’s a happy place.”
Val Cavalheri is a writer and photographer. She has written for various publications, including The Washington Post. Previously she served as the editor of several magazines, including Bliss and Virginia Woman. Although her camera is never far from her reach, Val retired her photography studio when she moved from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore a few years ago.. She and her husband, Wayne Gaiteri, have two children and one grandchild.