Six junior high boys crowded around four bananas connected by wires to a laptop. The bananas, when touched, played notes like piano keys. It was a lesson in basic circuitry that quickly captured the boys’ attention. Soon they were connecting the wires to other materials – like keys and chocolate bars – to see if they could be turned into piano keys and conduct electricity too.
At the table next to the bananas, two girls worked on collages, while across the room two other students tried out virtual reality through a LEAP Motion device. And nearby, a 3D printer hummed as it churned out a plastic piece destined to become part of a musical instrument.
This is the library at Shackelford Junior High in the morning – before school even starts. The room still has a great selection of books, but librarian Alicia Vandenbroek has also turned it into a large makerspace.
“Makerspace is an area where students explore anything they’re interested in,” she explained.
Vandenbroek has been opening the library for students at 8 a.m. (school starts at 8:55) for five or six years and has officially had the makerspace for three. It started as once a week but is now everyday. About 40 students typically come in the morning before school, and another 30 participate in Vandenbroek’s weekly makerspace club.
The library makerspace offers students a place where they can engage technology, play games, read, work on art projects or pursue whatever interests them. Students have access to technology tools and toys, computers, art supplies, board games, sewing machines and more. Once a week, Vandenbroek offers a structured STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math – activity that combines technology and science with art. The point of it all is to give students the opportunity to explore and be creative. And thanks to two Transformation Through Innovation grants, Shackelford’s makerspace has reached a whole new level.
The Transformation Through Innovation grant is funded by the 2014 Bond package and includes $1 million in each of the bond’s five implementation years to be awarded to AISD teachers and schools who develop innovative learning environments for their students through technology. The grant money’s purpose is to facilitate innovative teaching methods that will truly transform the classroom and learning environment. It’s about using technology to teach in a new, more effective way. In 2013-2014, 12 grants were awarded to 13 campuses, and last year 28 grants were given to 30 campuses, impacting thousands of students. (Read about last year’s winners.)
At Shackelford, the two TI grants enabled the school to purchase a series of educational technology tools, toys and games. Through the first grant, the school acquired fun tools like Makey Makey, Snap Circuits, Arduino and Raspberry Pi that help teach topics like circuitry and computer programming. The grant also funded the purchase of iPad minis. The second grant added to the technology with a set of 3D pens and a 3D printer.
Vandenbroek explained that the 3D printer really helps students who learn visually. For example, she said, there was a student who had never seen a mountain, but when he printed a 3D map he was able to grasp the topographical terms he was learning in class. A blind student also benefited from the printer when it was used to print a 3D periodic table, based on density, that included braille. Currently the printer is being used to make a musical instrument, printing 29 separate pieces that, when assembled, will form a real trumpet. The Shackelford band will then test the instrument and compare its sound quality with a brass trumpet.
The new equipment is great, but, as Vandenbroek said, “it’s about the experience the kids get, not the stuff.” The “stuff” adds to the experience and has been seamlessly incorporated into the makerspace to enhance the educational value. The impact on the students is significant.
One of the best things the students are learning, Vandenbroek said, is problem solving. “They’re willing to investigate on a whole new level,” thanks to the ample opportunities to investigate challenges and explore. And the fear of failure has gone away. Vandenbroek recalled a student early on who cried when something she made didn’t work. But that doesn’t happen anymore as students are learning that it’s ok if something doesn’t work. They’re learning to investigate the problem and fix it. It’s ok to break things, to fail and try again.
These kinds of experiences are not just teaching students about technology, science and art. They’re teaching qualities that will enable the students to excel in all areas of life. The students may go to makerspace and learn about electricity or how to computer program, but they also develop creativity, curiosity, problem-solving skills, independent thinking and determination. Thanks to their dedicated librarian and the innovative tools she has incorporated into their makerspace, the students’ own personal interests are sparked and they receive inspiration they’ll carry with them well beyond junior high.