September 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Makerspaces Help Kids Tap Potential, Find Confidence, Success, and Friendships

A “cardboard challenge” at Riverside Middle School in Greer, SC.
Photos courtesy of Gaelyn Jenkins

Finn McLaren was a shy teen who never showed an interest in sports or school clubs. He hadn’t quite found his place or an activity that sparked his interest. But when a group from the University of Michigan conducted a maker workshop at his local library in the summer of 2016, his mother saw “a total transformation.”

“It lit something up in him,” says Amanda McLaren, Finn’s mom and the director of the Benzonia (MI) Public Library that hosted the workshop.

Now 15 and a high school sophomore, Finn runs the Benzie Guild of Makers, a club he created consisting of mostly fourth to sixth graders. He is also thinking about his future.

“Because of the maker program and working with the younger kids, I have thought of a career teaching math and science, so I could incorporate making,” he says.

Makerspaces and the maker-centered educational philosophy of open-ended, student-driven learning through discovery and experimentation can change kids’ lives. Like Finn did, many children build confidence in a makerspace. They find a place where they belong. Children who are without many friends can develop a social circle of those with like-minded interests. Students who struggle in a traditional academic setting experience success. Those who are afraid to try and fail discover how much can be learned when things go wrong. They feel the satisfaction of perseverance and problem solving.

“Everybody’s trying something new, everybody’s trying something they might not be best at,” says Samantha Edwards, a former media specialist who’s now one of the district’s technology integration specialist in Parkland School District in Pennsylvania. “It creates a low level of risk environment, which is something all students need to experience.”

Makerspaces help kids discover subjects, materials, and possibilities they didn’t know existed. They develop previously hidden talents and, possibly, find themselves on a path to a future career.

“The makerspace really inspired me,” says Alisa Kuchmak, a senior at New Milford (NJ) High School, who homed in on pursuing a mechanical engineering major in college because of her school’s makerspace. “It has helped me grow in my own way. It’s nice to have a place to go to and be yourself and learn on your own terms. I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t have it. … It’s shown me that I am not limited in my capabilities.”

Adults who work with kids exposed to maker education see the positive effects every day at schools, public libraries, and community organizations.

Jose Sandoval is a program specialist with Community Science Workshop Network and SAM Academy, community initiatives in Sanger, CA. The 31-year-old says a big part of his job is showing kids their potential and broadening their horizons.

“A lot of the students that we’re working with could never imagine themselves as an engineer or a scientist,” says Sandoval.

Jose Sandoval helps kids see their potential through makerspaces.
Photos courtesy of Community Science Workshop Network

Expanding the world

Angela Rosheim, library media specialist at Lewis and Clark Elementary in Liberty, MO, loves to introduce her students to different materials.

They use Tinker Toys and LEGOs. They sew, knit, crochet, and build things with cardboard and recycled materials. They also work with robotics, programming, and a 3-D printer. “At an early age they may not know that they love to work with circuits,” she says. “They may not know that they love to work with their hands and put things together.”

For Kuchmak, going into the high school makerspace every day and seeing a new material, challenge, or possible project has taught her she is capable of more than she thought, and “there’s so much more to learn.”

As children find these new interests and abilities, they are also learning life skills they can carry into adulthood.

“They’re going to be able to work in a lot of different jobs,” says Rosheim. “They’re going to be able to think for themselves and not require someone to always tell them what to do.

“[Employers] want collaborators. They want problem solvers. They want people that are okay to try something new and fail rather than not taking risks.”

The knowledge gained from trial and error and hands-on experience has stayed with Kuchmak and, she says, been more applicable in daily life than the facts she memorized for tests during her high school career.

“I feel like a lot of the lessons I learned in the makerspace can apply in life in general.”

Reaching “bubble kids”

Many librarians say makerspaces help them to connect with kids who might not normally wander into the library. Now they feel at home and love to go. “We’re a hopping place to be,” says Gaelyn Jenkins, the library media specialist at Riverside Middle School in Greer, SC.

Every morning, students stream into the library to do a little making before the first bell rings. Sometimes there are more than 40 kids working on projects. Jenkins sees kids come in for the activities and to make friends.

While she stresses that making appeals to nearly everyone, it seems particularly attractive to students she’s dubbed “bubble kids,” those who “feel like they don’t belong in school, because they’re not successful in the classroom.”

At her suburban school with a large population of international students, the makerspace is a place where English learners don’t have to worry about their language struggles. They can just create.

“I had one kid tell me, ‘It’s the only place where I feel smart,’” says Jenkins.

They also quickly feel in charge and take responsibility for the space.

“It’s not my library, it’s theirs,” says Jenkins. “They feel like this is their space, and they’ll self-police each other if somebody is making a mess or treating things in a way that’s dangerous.”

Sandoval sees that self-direction and ownership, too.

“It’s led by the children,” says Sandoval. “The atmosphere feels chaotic. It’s noisy. But it’s positive. It’s reinforcing.”

Rosheim encourages her students to take ownership of not only the space but their learning.

“For the most part, kids were able to take their learning and run with it,” she says.

They don’t look to her for direction or validation. If they run into a problem, they solve it themselves.

“They realize that the first way may not do it,” says Rosheim. “The second way may not do it. They may need to try three or four times.”

Shifting school culture

The philosophy of allowing students to fail without judgment and find their own solutions to problems has permeated the entire school and changed the culture, Rosheim says. Rather than telling students how to correct mistakes, teachers help them to find the answer themselves.

“The kids are able to guide their learning and do it in the way that works best for them, not the way that works best for the teacher,” she says.

Jenkins, too, has noticed more teachers bringing a maker mentality to their classrooms. It is much different than when she started the makerspace.

“We got comments like, ‘Oh, it looks like it’s arts and crafts time in the library,’ and ‘Wow, the library is really turning into the art room,’ when we first started this,” she says. “It’s taken four years, but I think people are starting to understand the vision and the value behind the makerspace.”

From maker to mentor

Sandoval was in school before the maker movement. When his friends didn’t think a local community science program he attended was cool, he never returned.

But he was fascinated with how things worked and fed that curiosity at home instead. He repeatedly took apart his grandmother’s alarm clock and put it back together. He deconstructed his toys and remade them into better ones. Looking back at his time as a young maker, even if he didn’t know that’s what he was, Sandoval says those childhood experiences boosted his self-esteem.

“As a kid, I thought I was just messing around,” says Sandoval. “Now that I reflect on those experiences, what was satisfying, what continued to motivate me was the fact that I could create something of value. I had something to offer.”

After completing an associate’s degree program in fabrication, he noticed the old community science program had moved. He called the director and started working at the Community Science Workshop Network part-time.

About a month later, he was offered a full-time manufacturing job that paid four times as much. Just a week into the new job, however, he couldn’t stop thinking about the kids he left behind. He called his old boss and got his job back.

The Community Science Workshop Network offers several different programs, but the drop-in initiative is especially close to his heart. Kids can come without registering and work on whatever interests them. They may weld together a go-kart, sew or knit, build furniture, plant flowers, or repair bikes.

“It’s a place where you can test your limits and explore your potential in the safety of a Community Science Workshop where you’re surrounded by mentors and adults who truly want the best for you,” says Sandoval.

Thousands of miles away, Finn McLaren is the mentor. His group meets at the library twice a month and, like Sandoval when he was younger, one of their favorite things to do is deconstruct mechanical toys.

“They learn how things work,” Finn says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Finn’s mom finds joy in seeing his confidence and emerging personality.

“The kids are so drawn to him, and he is so patient and lovely with them, that I could not be more proud,” she says. “He’s just completely come out of his shell.”

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. T.Hildebrand says:

    I was looking for specifics. What exactly do high school students do in makerspaces? I’ve tried several different ideas like sticker posters, coloring, games, origami but don’t really know what to do that is STEM related. Could someone give me some examples?

    • Gaelyn Jenkins says:

      I’m in a middle school, and we use Sphero robots, LittleBits, and 3D printers, all of which can be incorporated into STEM curriculum – so do some low-tech things like magnet tiles. There’s lots students can do on their own with these items (you can share/create challenges or just see what they invent), but you can also work with teachers to incorporate them into the curriculum. We did a project-based lesson on force and motion with the Spheros. We’re doing some fun review work on energy with the LittleBits, and earlier in the year we did scale factor/dilation with a math teacher using the 3D printer, too. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on robotics to do STEM-related challenges – maybe try looking for some design challenges to promote the innovative thinking that STEM strives for.

    • Angela Rosheim says:

      Check out the library website at Liberty High School in Liberty, Missouri. [ https://www.lps53.org/lhs ] The library media specialists have developed AMAZING studios to meet the needs of high school students and staff. They have developed a group of digital media managers that help students and staff. Reach out to Lori and Chris, they are happy to help others.

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