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Draper Journal

Beyond textbooks: How the maker movement is changing education, fostering creativity and accessibility

Jan 05, 2024 08:57AM ● By Julie Slama

Seen here in 2019, Channing Hall students in Draper explore and created in the charter school’s Think Lab. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

In Midvale, a sixth-grade girl curiously was examining the workings of Spheros, small, wheeled robots. In Murray, a junior high boy used wood, glue and string to craft a catapult. In South Jordan, an elementary-aged girl was looking forward to creating a 3D butterfly using Tinkercad.

Makerspaces allow opportunities for hands-on making, creating, designing and innovating that bring individuals together in a variety of mediums, including robotics, textile crafts, woodcrafts and electronics. Commonly found at some libraries, museums, colleges and at the Utah STEM Action Center, the number of these spaces for open exploration have increased, especially in schools, which has given students equal access as well as gain skills in STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

“Makerspaces need to be available and accessible,” said teacher Beth McKinney, who helped open the makerspace in Murray’s Hillcrest Junior High in an existing classroom this fall. “It’s important for kids to have a place where they can explore their own interests, talents, curiosities and have that experience on their own with the freedom to do it in a safe, controlled setting. Many students might not have the tools, the confidence or the opportunity to do so, so it’s important we have a safe space where any student can create and many learn best by doing, with their own hands.”

Makerspaces are known as places where people, or “makers,” create, or “make,” projects using a variety of hands-on and digital tools. 

The junior high’s makerspace offers art supplies, robotics, a LEGO wall, 3D printing, K’NEX, speed and logic puzzles and more. Students opt to come to the space during an enrichment class period once per week as well as during the after-school program. 

Ninth-grader Allie Lobach likes coming to the makerspace.

“It’s comfortable here; I’m free to make my own choices, but there’s help if I need it,” she said.

The concept of makerspace is not new, according to Utah STEM Action Center’s director Tamara Goetz.

“Makerspaces have been around a long time,” she said. “They were a place for people with common interests to tinker and build and that purpose still exists. What we’re seeing now is not a resuscitation of an old trend or fad of having a neighborhood tinkering spot in somebody’s garage. It’s become a way of learning and a way of thinking that is beginning to integrate how we teach kids and how we inspire kids. It’s the new way to do project-based learning; it’s maker learning, the idea of learning how to do a design process of iteration to create something to solve a problem that is important to you.”

Goetz said there is an increased momentum around makerspaces.

“Our future as a global economic leader depends on students having the ability to be innovative with technology,” she said. “Maker learning helps to build 21st century skills and helps students not just consume technology but develop it.”

At Hawthorn Academy, a charter school in South Jordan, teacher Stephen Mesker said it’s those 21st century skills of identifying problems and finding solutions that is being taught in the school’s 3D Design Club, a precursor to what he hopes will evolve into a makerspace for its studentbody.

“We teach them the skills, but the hope is to get everybody involved in STEM and get them prepared for future jobs,” he said. “Many manufacturing jobs now use 3D design and 3D printing and other makerspace skills that we need to provide that education and opportunity to our students.”

That is key Goetz said.

“Makerspaces are more than just a bunch of equipment with no real intent. What’s important, particularly in schools, is to address how can the makerspace aligns and integrates into the mission of the school, more than just a place to tinker,” she said. “It also needs to adapt with the growth of the school.”

Such was the case with the STEM Action Center, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. After moving out of an office downtown to its South Salt Lake location where space was provided as a solution to the many FIRST LEGO teams that needed a location to practice and build, the staff realized its potential when “a couple little girls would come by and knock on the window and ask what we were doing. That led us to realize there was a much greater potential space in our community, so we established an open tinker time.”

They also adapted during Covid-19, to check out activity kits to teachers, which helped them reach many more kids, Goetz said. That led to creating Pop-Up Maker Faires, which are brought into schools to provide free, hands-on STEM activities that students can bring home. The Center also awards grants, which help establish programming, innovation and makerspaces in schools.

While Hawthorn, which purchased a dozen 3D printers from such a grant, began its club last year, others, like Channing Hall, a charter school in Draper, have been operating a makerspace for years and have incorporated lessons into the classroom. It was designated as a state platinum STEM school last spring.

Goetz said that not all school makerspaces are the same.

“Some schools have maker carts, some set up in a library; it can take on different formats and versions, depending upon what schools want. Some schools have a designated makerspace. What we’re seeing is the number of schools are trying to figure out what to do with the library (with the pivot to more online materials) and makerspace is coming into the conversation more and more for those schools,” she said.

In Canyon School District, some schools, such as Midvalley Elementary and the recently rebuilt Union Middle, have designated rooms as makerspaces, while Midvale Middle’s library is used as a makerspace during lunchtimes, at a time when it’s accessible to all students.

“It started here because I like kids to be kids; I want them to know how to play with their hands, how to create and how to solve problems on their own,” teacher librarian/media specialist Judy Rembacz said. “Makerspace teaches kids how to think. They are in the driving seat, being empowered and passionate about their own learning. They figure out how to create and if something goes wrong, how to make it work. They learn from failure and that’s a good thing. I also like how this connects them with their peers and with the school and that we’re giving this opportunity to all our students.”

That is what teacher Wendie Nielson, at Bella Vista Elementary in Cottonwood Heights, wants students to discover.

“They’re learning cooperation, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving,” she said. “When something doesn’t work, they got to change their thought process to hopefully make it work the next time.”

Fifth-grader Anna Armstrong was learning about coding using an Intelino smart train.

“It’s going to help with my future; I’m seeing all the things I can do with coding,” she said. “I want to be an astronaut, so I’ll need to know a lot about computers and coding. In makerspace, there’s science and math and communication as we work on things together, but a lot of it is trying to figure it out on my own.”

Bella Vista’s first-year principal Angi Holden already has seen an increase of STEAM learning at her school.

“We offer STEAM enrichment with after-school programming, and we have our STEAM Fridays where students rotate every five weeks through lessons around engaging topics created by our teachers,” she said. “Our goal is to expand to become a STEM-designated school, so students are prepared for the workforce, beyond academics.” 

Preparing all students in STEAM education is the goal behind the grants received by Canyons School District’s Digital Teaching and Learning Specialist Chandra Martz, who was overseeing a family STEAM night at Midvale Elementary.

When Martz was in high school, she remembers being the only female in a STEM class of 25 students.

“It always bothered me, so I want to get more girls into STEM. Canyons’ goal is to get every student college and career ready, so we’re trying to do that through STEAM,” she said. “I want as many kids as possible to be able to see STEAM in their future. I want girls to be able to see that they can be engineers. I want children of color to see that they can get a job in the field that pays well. I feel a lot of people in some of our Canyons communities are working three jobs just to try to make ends meet. There are careers that their children can enter, and they can make $100,000 out of high school. I just want them to be able to see that this could be their future; this opportunity is for everyone.” 

Martz, and others, are rolling out family STEAM nights in elementary schools, where they bring in kits of 12 activities with challenges that tie into curriculum standards. 

“I love that they went through all the activities to align it in math and science standards,” Goetz said. “They have signs at each station so teachers know this challenge aligns to certain standards and they can take that back to the classroom to build off of it; and parents are given open-ended questions to ask to foster exploration with daily activities at home.”

Those kits, which were first originated by Utah Valley University, then expanded on and provided by Utah STEM Action Center, are available statewide through its network that includes several state higher education institutions, independent makerspaces and the Utah State Library Division. Jordan School District already has STEM activity tubs available for check-out to schools and Granite School District is creating its own set for more accessibility, Goetz said.

At the recent Midvalley Elementary family STEM night, parent Brady Smith brought his first-grade daughter, Amelia.

“I want her to stretch her mind in different ways in science and math and find the joy in learning and exploring through these cool activities,” he said. “I want her to have a mindset and a skill set that solves problems and thinks through things; I want her to be able to create and decipher.”

Another part of Canyons’ program is establishing makerspaces with supplies in every middle school. Five of the eight schools already are in the process or have implemented makerspaces. STEAM squads are being introduced to elementaries and coding clubs will extend to middle schools next year.

“The whole purpose of this grant is to give to students that may not have opportunity,” Martz said. “Some kids aren’t able to go to after-school programs, so we want to give opportunity.”

That opportunity is extending to teacher training as well as Canyons’ teachers becoming STEM-endorsed, she said. 

In addition, the STEM Action Center offers workshops weekly for teacher professional development in technical expertise. 

“Teachers walk out with lesson plans that have been facilitated in the workshops and can incorporate what they’ve learned into their classrooms,” Goetz said.

Canyons District Elementary STEM Specialist Cynthia Lloyd hopes that makes a difference.

“With these resources, we’re hoping teachers use them with their curriculum,” she said. “We are noticing that kids are needing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It’s not just STEAM. It’s also sitting down and reading informational text. They’re not getting what they need out of it. One of the best ways to get kids to learn is through these STEAM activities because they’re highly engaging; we can teach those literacy skills along with these problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”

Goetz agrees.

“Makerspaces nurture curiosity,” she said. “It’s a place to create, a place to learn to invent and design, and a place to fail and repeat. We learn from failures. We learn to work as teams, alongside other fellow makers, because we’re trying to solve problems together. Communication and organization are a big deal as is resilience. These skills can be incorporated into academic learning. This aligns to the standards and it’s cross-disciplinary. Makerspaces are a welcoming place for everyone to create and solve what is important to them. It’s what’s called ‘a low floor and a high ceiling’ so it provides a huge potential for growth in learning.” λ