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MakerSpace grants aim for ‘aha’ moments

new_CSW01 1.26.17_CSW-MakerSpace EpiphanySchool of the Epiphany first graders used LittleBits circuits to make alarms for when animals tried to escape from their cages as part of a unit on animals. (Photo courtesy School of the Epiphany)

January 26, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

One of Nina Russo’s favorite books is “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom.”

“… children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn,” state authors Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager (Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013).

Thus, the Department of Catholic Schools’ initiative this year for the Alliance of Mission District Schools is a grants program to encourage development of MakerSpaces in the six schools.

Most independent and public schools have embraced the Maker concept of education and interim superintendent of archdiocesan Catholic schools Russo is intent on encouraging it particularly in the Mission District schools which serve primarily children from families with fewer economic and social advantages. A two-year grant totaling $120,000 has been set aside to encourage development or creation of MakerSpaces at the six schools: St. Anthony-Immaculate Conception, St. James, St. Finn Barr, School of the Epiphany, St. Charles Borromeo and School of the Good Shepherd in Pacifica.

MakerSpace “tends to be heavily technical, but it does not have to be,” said Russo. “A MakerSpace space can target one of many disciplines, inclusive of technology, science, technology, fine arts, or horticulture. Each school sets the course in its interest area.”

The thesis of the MakerSpace movement is that today’s technology affords teachers and students relatively inexpensive yet powerful tools for creating in ways that would have been out of reach two decades ago. But its foundation is epitomized by Renaissance artist, sculptor and inventor Leonardo da Vinci who used his powers of observation in his art but also in many scientific inventions, say Martinez and Stager, calling him “perhaps the greatest maker of all time.”

At School of the Epiphany, technology director Brian Louie has already established a computer room on the top floor of the school in San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon neighborhood, in what was formerly the convent. There is room for expansion and he would like to add hand tools, glue guns and other items.

The idea of “making” is “tinkering, problem solving, figuring out how things work,” said Louie.

Or as Martinez says in “Invent to Learn,” “Tinkering is the way real science happens in all its messy glory.”

“What I want to instill in our students with this whole making concept is that you can’t rely on a teacher to fix a problem. If kids aren’t problem solving, they aren’t learning,” said Louie who is in his 17th year as an educator. “When a kid gets an ‘aha’ moment, it’s like an epiphany—pun intended.”

“You see how it doesn’t work, you see how can we make it better,” said Louie. “The idea behind making is that failing is not failing, it is just the iteration of a generation” of a creation. For instance, Louie said, “The first iPhone was pretty bad.”

Albert Bricker is technology coordinator at both St. James and St. Anthony-Immaculate Conception schools. He has already submitted his request for the grant money and plans to use it to continue a successful Lego robotics and larger robot building program he has started at both schools. But MakerSpace is much more, he said.

“The point of the MakerSpace is changing the way we do education so it is more constructivist,” said Bricker. The school of educational thought says learners who are actively involved learn better. Bricker prefers the constructivist method to direct instruction. Direct instruction is “a teacher-directed method” where the teacher usually stands in front of the classroom and presents information.

“I use the example of a battery and a switch. You can either teach a kid how a circuit works or you can give them stuff and let them discover how it works and then you talk about the theory behind it,” Bricker said.

“We don’t know what the problems are going to be for these kids when they graduate from high school and college. They have to be able to solve the problems that we don’t even know are problems yet,” Bricker said.

“A MakerSpace can be anything. It’s the culture that you’re encouraging and allowing to happen,” said Bricker. “Just allowing the kids to think for themselves and engage with what they are doing instead of sitting there like a sponge.”

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