Learning curve

Joining the ‘maker movement’

Makerspaces let students build their dreams

Teacher Amy Sacks assists a student making a prop drum for a music video in the Jonathan FickiesTeacher Amy Sacks assists a student making a prop drum for a music video in the East Village.

There’s a section in the library at PS 15, a UFT community learning school in the East Village in Manhattan, that appears to be an amalgam of an art studio, an engineering workshop and a mad scientist’s lair. Jars tacked to pegboards along the wall hold an eclectic assortment of materials, from spools of sewing thread to googly eyes. One shelf is dedicated to a miniature museum of LEGO structures, another to a collection of cardboard. Robots take up residence in the corner. And evidence of experimentation and creation is everywhere.

The area is a “makerspace,” and PS 15 is one of a growing number of schools that are dedicating spaces for students to design, build, experiment and explore.

A student uses the makerspace to put the finishing touches on a prop keyboard.Jonathan FickiesA student uses the makerspace to put the finishing touches on a prop keyboard.

“I see it as a place where kids can get excited, be engaged and build a love for learning,” says Amy Sacks, PS 15’s coordinator of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) programs.

What defines a makerspace? It’s tempting to think of makerspaces as a high-tech, newfangled fad. And the Department of Education, which distributes grants to school libraries for mobile makerspace kits, does provide robotics, coding and circuitry equipment.

But the fundamental idea behind a makerspace is something decidedly more low-tech.

“There is something unique about making physical things,” says Mark Hatch, one of the founders of the “maker movement.” “Making is fundamental to what it means to be human.”

Students work together to paint a prop instrument.Jonathan FickiesStudents work together to paint a prop instrument.

For students, this means experimenting with a unique blend of old-fashioned materials and cutting-edge technology. At PS 452 on the Upper West Side, for instance, 3rd-graders researching Egypt were inspired to construct pyramids made from strawbees — straws that can be connected to each other and partnered with coding platforms like Little Bits so that the structures can be engineered to move.

“Kids were not only learning about construction and building and architecture, they were pulling out books to research designs, working together, discussing and learning from each other,” says Michele Kirschenbaum, the librarian at PS 452, who was awarded a makerspace kit from the DOE’s Office of Library Services. “Our library has really transformed from a quiet zone into a vibrant, creative center.”

At Staten Island Technical HS, teachers can reserve time in the school’s basement makerspace for projects that are integrated into their curriculum. A history class, for example, used the makerspace to build clay models on historical themes.

But for students, says Everton Henriques, a teacher in the high school’s engineering and technology department, “the draw is mostly personal projects outside of class.” One student used the space to build a birdhouse, while others built a table engineered to light up like the arcade game Tetris.

“The biggest thing you need is a desire and willingness to explore the unknown,” Henriques says. “The more ideas you have, the more equipment you can bring in, the more you can do.”

Sacks at PS 15 says although students may start out by tinkering with materials, her goal is to get students to “make with a purpose” — come up with a plan for a project and execute it.

Her ultimate goal is to connect students’ making to a broader social purpose. “I want to get to the point where making is giving back to make the world a better place,” she says.

Some students at PS 15 use the makerspace’s sewing machine to sew blankets to donate to line the cages of animals in shelters.

“I love sewing,” says Thomas, a 4th-grader, his eyes lighting up. “And I feel proud of myself because I get to help animals.”

PS 15 is fortunate enough to have a dedicated space that Sacks transformed into a makerspace over the course of a year. But Sacks also works closely with teachers to ensure students are “making” in classrooms throughout the school.

In one 1st-grade class, for instance, students were struggling to write personal narratives. By translating their stories into stop-motion animations using LEGOs, they were able to see details they had left out and add more to their stories.

“The making component allowed them to become engaged and excited about the core subject,” Sacks says.

In a social studies class, 2nd-graders who learned about types of communities in New York wrote a song about what they’d learned. They teamed up with 4th-graders to use the programs GarageBand and Scratch in the makerspace to record their song and create a music video.

“I like working in the makerspace because it helps us with projects,” said 4th-grader Hayden as she methodically wrapped duct tape around a Home Depot bucket to transform it into a drum set. “You can have a dream, and then you make it come true.”

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