With Makerspaces, Reimagine School Libraries and Student Learning
By Michelle Murray, Mt. Lebanon School District
What began as a challenge to reimagine our elementary school libraries has evolved into the establishment of a collaborative, creative makerspace in each of our seven elementary schools. This initiative was a natural response to the changes in how libraries are used and how research is done. School libraries are no longer quiet places to warehouse print materials or an area where students read articles and books. Libraries are lively hubs of activity where students meet to collaborate on many interdisciplinary projects and to use the amazing resources and technology available there to create and innovate.
Specifically, the new role of the library includes:
- Hub for technology and internet access
- Media center
- Center for changing research methodology
- Collaborative space for homework and school projects
How Our Journey into Making Began
The makerspace initiative was spurred by an act of philanthropy by the Conover family (all Mt. Lebanon School District alumni) in memory of their son Matthew, who they lost in 2002 just before his thirteenth birthday. Theirs is a story of community support during their time of heartbreak. Turning a tragedy into an opportunity to give back to their community, the Conovers have provided the means to create Matt’s Maker Spaces in each of the seven elementary schools in our district. Matt was a boy who loved to tinker and play with Legos. His legacy lives on in these unique spaces where children in grades K-5 can collaborate, create, imagine and play. The fact that they learn a great deal in these spaces is an added bonus.
Recognizing that the Conover’s generous gift to Mt. Lebanon presented an amazing opportunity, we embarked on a year-long quest to explore the latest trends in libraries and how they can be transformed into makerspaces. We knew we needed to see existing makerspaces in other elementary schools to wrap our brains around what making entails for children aged 5 – 11.
We reached out to our colleagues in neighboring school districts who had already embraced the maker movement. These colleagues were wonderfully gracious about sharing their experience and inviting us to visit their makerspaces. We owe a special thank you to the Quaker Valley School District for sharing time and resources with us and recommending we reach out to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. This connection to the Children’s Museum proved to be integral to the process of designing our makerspaces and in providing much needed professional development for our faculty.
What is a Makerspace?
In A Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces: 16 Resources, Ellysa Kroski explains that, “Makerspaces, sometimes also referred to as hackerspaces, hackspaces, and fablabs are creative, DIY spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn. In libraries they often have 3D printers, software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies and tools, and more.”
By now, most educators and school districts understand the philosophy and value of STEAM curriculum, which combines content and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. Makerspaces can take STEAM to the next level, providing the space and tools to expand the depth and breadth of projects.
All makerspace activities encourage development of 21st Century Learner Skills:
- Creativity & Innovation
- Problem Solving
- Critical Thinking
- Adaptability & Flexibility
In addition to learning curricular content – like learning about tendons and ligaments in the human hand by making a mechanical model with string and straw – students who are engaged in the making methodology develop dispositions and skills like perseverance and grit, and are constantly practicing the engineering and design process.
Another important part of maker-centered learning is “open tinker time.” In other words, to truly foster creativity and innovation, children need some time to experiment with materials and design projects of their own imagination. There should be no set objective or “rules” other than to create something of their own choosing with the materials available. To facilitate this “open tinker time,” we have offered students the opportunity to sign up to use the makerspace during recess. If we can enlist more volunteers, we would ideally like to open the space after school one day a week.
“Dare to Dream: Reimagining Libraries Initiative”
To begin their process, partner with the experts, for example Children’s Museums; seek out other school districts who have established makerspaces to visit; and establish your understanding of what maker-centered learning is and develop a mission statement to guide your process.
Mt. Lebanon The mission of the Mt. Lebanon School District’s “Reimagining Libraries Initiative” is to facilitate maker-centered learning through the establishment of Matt’s Maker Spaces in each of the elementary buildings. The goal of maker-centered learning is to encourage exploration of the design and engineering process, computer science, and creative tinkering to foster critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and persistence in problem solving. In addition, we hope to foster a sense of personal agency, creativity, and joy in learning through making.
First Steps in Establishing a Makerspace
- Identify interested staff members in your building and develop a core maker team. We have a district level Matt’s Maker Space Council with representation from each of the seven elementary buildings. Each building also has a core maker team (includes building principal, librarian and at least 2-3 teachers who have had the maker training at Children’s Museum, or who have embraced making and have expressed interest in pursuing professional development.
- Identify viable space in your building.
- Seek out funding. (There are grants available. Check out Remake Learning Days sponsored by the Grable Foundation as a place to make contact with other makers.)
- Focus on flexible furniture and storage initially.
- Provide professional development to a core team of teachers. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers a 4-day intensive maker Boot Camp in the summer that was amazing and invaluable to create teacher “buy-in.” It was well worth the expense.
- Use a “train teachers to be the trainers” model. At our Initial in-service in August, we spent a half day in our respective makerspaces and engaged all the teachers in a maker activity. It was a fun, engaging way to de-mystify what making is and to familiarize them with their own makerspace.
Developing Maker Curriculum
We chose to use this maker initiative to step up our computer science curriculum for elementary children. The librarians sought PD through Code.org and now teach Intro to Coding at each level using age appropriate devices like Blue Bots, Puzzlets, and Spheros.
We also developed maker curriculum. To avoid giving teachers another “add-on,” we started by identifying units in our curriculum that already incorporate STEAM projects and activities. We set a goal of creating two maker activities per grade level for the first year of implementation. We paid a small stipend to the teachers who participated in the Boot Camp to work in “grade level teams” to write these maker activities. The idea is that the maker activities were meant to supplement not supplant existing curriculum. We recognized that if we wanted teachers to accept and embrace this initiative, we would need to start small, and take the path of least resistance.
We have since encouraged teachers to create their own maker activities that align with the curriculum they are teaching. So, for example, the second-grade studies “communities.” They take a field trip to our local town and visit places like the post office, or police station. They also read literature and non-fiction texts about communities and the places and people who comprise them. As a culminating project, the students worked in teams and created their own 3-D community, complete with roads and “people”, and mounted it on the wall. Their excitement to talk about their project was palpable. See photos of this project.
Next Steps in Developing a Makerspace
How to foster community involvement – Local PTAs can be huge supporters. Ask them to create a “line item” in their budget for the makerspace to replenish consumable materials like glue sticks, duct tape, etc. Recruit parent volunteers to supervise “open tinker time” or “lunch clubs” to open the makerspace during recess or after school, and provide these volunteers some training and support. We hosted a Parent Maker Night and actually facilitated a fairly easy maker activity that involved simple circuits and a group project that had to meet certain criteria: the creation had to either move or light up or make a sound. The rich debriefing conversation was invaluable and really demonstrated the kinds of skills these activities develop in children. Parents were highly engaged.
So far, year one has been a wonderful success, We are excited to see so many teachers embrace the makerspace and create their own projects that are aligned to the standards.
Michelle is a fun-loving elementary principal, passionate advocate for children, mentor and champion of teachers. She is also a devoted mom and “Mimi,” who is an avid reader, Downton Abbey fan, and aspiring golfer.