When you picture a normal middle school, you probably envision kids in rows of desks listening to a teacher drone on and on at the front of the room. But a makerspace is no typical classroom. The concept lets kids master concepts using whatever tools make the most sense for them. While some philosophies come and go, some educators say the makerspace trend is part of a culture – not a buzzword – and teachers say their students can prove it.
At the end of the school year, kids at South Middle School in Harrisburg attack a multi-colored roller coaster they fashioned out of K’Nex pieces. For those more versed in toys of past decade, K’Nex are something like Legos crossed with an erector set.
Sixth-grader Logan Hammer says he doesn't like dismantling the makerspace.
"It’s a place where kids can go and free their imagination. They can build whatever they want. They can have freedom in school, and it can tie into a whole bunch of classes such as science, Spanish, math, social studies. It can just bring students together," Hammer says.
The makerspace provides open-ended learning. No lesson exists – just a space with tools and machines and materials for students to use. Current technology integrationist Travis Lape has led this effort at South Middle School in Harrisburg. He says the makerspace provides access for learning, reading, research and collaboration.
"We haven’t put this in a classroom with a door locked and only teachers have access to it with their class when it works into their schedule. This is open 24/7 for our kids, and our kids know that and they come down and use it whenever they need," Lape says.
That means students use the assets of the makerspace to master concepts on their own. Lape points to one example as middle schoolers learned about the layers of the earth. He says some chose to use a 3D printer to create a model.
"I was like, 'Absolutely! You guys design it, let’s print it, and see what happens.' So they did all the work. They designed it; we 3D-printed it," Lape says. "Twenty-eight hours later we had a 3D-printed globe with the cutout, and they colored it, they put the continents on, the bodies of water on the globe, and then were able to walk through the layers of the earth."
Lape says other kids 3D-print plastic pieces for game boards for class, while others opt for low-tech methods that use blocks or raw spaghetti. Lape admits critiquing the success of a makerspace is complicated, because there’s no standard rubric or formal assessment. He says innovation that students spearhead demonstrates the potential of a makerspace.
"When you empower students to take ahold of their learning to drive what they do, you don’t have to motivate. They do the motivation themselves, because they’re so interested in wanting to know more," Lape says.
Jagger Gribble is passionate about his opportunities in the makerspace.
"If I have something to do with math, I’ll go to the makerspace and I’ll try to help myself figure it out but in a really fun way so I don’t get bored right away, so it helps me. I’ve noticed that my grades have went up ever since I went with the makerspace and just worked with different things," Gribble says.
The sixth-grader can evangelize about the makerspace with little prompting.
Gribble talks in-depth about jumping sumos. He explains that they have two side wheels, springs with a launcher, a camera and lights. Gribble says students can live stream video from these wheeled drones as they launch through the air. He says he uses them to better understand graphs. Gribble says the takeaway is this: graphs are boring, unless you can hurl stuff into the air.
"Then it’s like going to Thunder Road on a nice day riding go-kart," Gribble says. "That’s what it’s basically like is doing something fun.”
Even after Gribble has a hall pass in hand with instructions to scram, he can’t pull himself away.
Gribble says he and other students like to prove they can apply theories to the real world. He says they showed their science teacher they understood speed and acceleration by explaining their work with spheros – basically robots that move using a ball they can control from an app.
Fellow six-grader Trenton Lias says he revels in those moments when kids teach the teacher.
"Take, like, beating your sister in a conversation times ten," Lias says. "It’s amazing."
The middle schoolers say it’s pure fun to best adults in the makerspace, but they say they also learn from that work – and from collaborating with fellow students. Christian Heerde is a sixth-grader at South Middle School.
"I actually gain a lot of friends here just doing makerspace things because they’ve been helping me. Like, on some of my projects, I’m like, I need to get some motivation, so I’ll come here after DS or in the morning or sometimes after school if I get lucky," Heerde says.
Students validate that every day, according to integrationist Travis Lape. He says the recent addition of sewing machines shows a makerspace fosters teamwork and knowledge.
"Brianna is one of our students here, and she’s our mechanic for our sewing machines," Lape says. "I don’t know anything about the sewing machines. I couldn’t tell you how to do it, but I can tell you that when Brianna comes in, she has the attention of the whole room. Everybody comes around and learns from her, and this is a sixth-grader."
Lape says he sees the impact of collaboration as the makerspace pulls more students to work together, and that makes open access to its offerings essential.
"Especially in education, there’s the philosophy of, you know, ‘I’m going to have a theme and I’m going to have these stations and they’re going to do exactly these things: A, B, C, and D.’ The problem with that is that it’s no different than a classroom. We’ve kind of teacher-fied it; we’ve school-ified it, and now the kids are only doing what’s expected. And so they’re always asking the question, ‘Is this right? Is this right? Is this right?,’ instead of just pondering and wondering, and that’s what we love about our space. Our space is on the other side of that," Lape says.
Lape says a makerspace is not the best learning environment for every student, but he says it provides the opportunity for greater engagement in school. Students seem to agree.
BULTENA: What happens if, like, the makerspace suddenly evaporates into thin air?
KIDS: Awwww! Don’t even ask that question! I think the end of the world then!
These sixth-graders refuse to entertain the possibility. They’re quick to say they hope the makerspace in Harrisburg expands and to recommend the option to "every school everywhere."