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Oh, the Humanities: The Benefits of Makerspace Facilitation by a Non-STEM Teacher

7th Grade students work on virtual reality school tour in Lake Forest Country Day School’s Innovation Lab.

Greg McDonough | @mcdonough_greg
November 17,  2020
Perspectives

Robots slowly moving across tables. The strangely maple-scent of PLA plastic melting to form 3D prints. The loud hum over power tools and sewing machines. Laughter and voices from over 50 students. A thriving makerspace is like nothing else in education. As a former student described it, “as long as it’s safe, you can really create anything in here.” I’m fortunate to be the Coordinator of the Innovation Space at Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS), a Pre-k through eighth-grade school in a northern suburb of Chicago, Illinois. A frequent question posed to me from other educators is about my training and background. As little as five years ago, I believed my future in education would consist mostly of primary sources and Harkness Tables.

For aspiring social studies teachers, some advice: 1. There are a whole lot of us. 2. Do not get a Master’s degree before you’ve started teaching. 3. Being able to coach football is often central to the required skill set. My certification is in sixth through twelfth grade social studies with an endorsement in sixth through eighth grade English Language Arts (ELA). Post-graduation, I ended up bouncing around through various jobs in education. I was a library specialist teacher for lower elementary students, I worked in a special education resource room for third and fourth graders, and I was a science teacher for a fourth grade class. I also had a summer job working at a camp where I had the opportunity to run the camp’s makerspace for fourth through eighth graders.

Ultimately, my passion has always been education. Working with students in any capacity has always been my goal. While social studies was both my favorite subject growing up and my initial professional specialization, I was willing to pivot to be in the classroom. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my diversity of experiences at the start of my career were a great advantage. Working in a resource room made me distinctly aware of the importance of differentiating in an inclusive classroom. Teaching fourth grade science introduced me to setting up lab procedures and a more traditionally rigorous science curriculum. My time in the library introduced me to a wide variety of elementary-aged stories and the ease at which literacy learning can be blended with almost any other subject with only a small amount of curricular planning. My time in a makerspace at the summer camp was what showed me the incredible power of a dynamic, hands-on learning environment for engagement, higher order thinking, and leadership. This range of experiences caused me to look into a job opportunity that I probably would have never pursued had I followed a more traditional road.

My rather eclectic resume brought me to my interview at LFCDS for the position of Innovation Space Coordinator. They were looking for a facilitator for their year old Innovation Space, a 2,800 square foot makerspace consisting of a Think Tank (a room for ideating/brainstorming), Innovation Lab (the largest space with workbenches, work tables, and a 9 panel tv at the front of the room for presentations), and a Robotics Lab designed around Lego Robotics for their middle school students.

I am beyond fortunate that my school has an incredibly forward thinking administration. Our Head of Upper School, Andy Sperling, and our Science Department Chair, Mark Arthur, made a markedly unconventional hire to support a massive investment.

A makerspace is a significant investment for a school. Frequently, the capital campaign to build these spaces costs nine figures. The average supply investment alone at an independent school is $50,000. Although the upkeep, with upcycling materials and care for equipment, is cheaper than one expects, there are continuing costs once the space is created. Even spaces designed on a significant budget or with grants have a cost. Many take space in shared areas such as libraries. Schools and educators must grapple with the hidden costs of taking away resources from such key areas of the school.

Compared to other significant capital campaign additions, a makerspace is much harder to guarantee a return on investment. With additions such as gyms and theaters, there are core events already built into the school calendar that involve them. Plays, assemblies, games, and gym classes are all staples of a traditional educational experience. A makerspace is far less plug and play. Schools need to be thoughtful and deliberate with both their models and staffing choices. For a shared space that requires such a significant investment of assets and resources, it’s imperative that schools get it right.

5th Grade Students Build Mini-Models of Mesopotamian City States for Social Studies.
5th Grade Students Build Mini-Models of Mesopotamian City States for Social Studies.

Two Model Options

There are a couple successful models for school makerspaces that I’ve seen.

The first is hyperspecialization. In this model, the makerspace becomes a core special through which students have classes at least once per week. The space coordinators are most likely also going to be specialist teachers who teach classes based on design, coding, digital citizenship, or audiovisual work.

The upshot of this model is that it is, in many ways, foolproof. Students will always have the opportunity to be in the space, and instructors can elevate the equipment themselves. It also requires fewer teachers having expertise in maker technologies. There are a few challenges with this model. First, it encourages more siloed thinking. Interdisciplinary projects, which is where makerspaces really thrive, are far less likely with a model based on specials. I’ve also heard complaints from teachers that work in buildings that utilize this model that they feel they don’t have access to the space for their own classes.

The second model is making your makerspace a true shared resource. In this model, the space is available the same way a high school library functions. Faculty members can check the space out and push their class in for hands-on lessons or demos as well as larger, project-based, summative assessments.

When things are going right, this model is transformative. Teachers and students all feel ownership of the space. As faculty unit plan, they begin thinking about areas where design and technology can integrate into their curriculum. The makerspace becomes a central part of the school’s identity.

When things go wrong, this model can be a disaster. As a shared space, there is less accountability for students and faculty who use the space. This can break machines and run through materials quickly. There is also less expertise from teachers. It’s uncomfortable taking a risk, and, in a space that’s running suboptimally, it can be a miserable experience. Perhaps the biggest risk is accessibility. Especially in elementary school, one teacher being unwilling to utilize the space could potentially keep a student from significant amounts of access throughout the year.

Many schools, including LFCDS, run a hybrid model of scheduling that involves elements of both styles of spaces. LFCDS however leans much more into the second model, and that’s where I believe a more diverse, humanities-driven facilitator skillset really thrives.

Where the Humanities Shine

My school follows the interdisciplinary approach. It’s logical to assume that a science or tech expert would be the best person to facilitate the space. In an ideal world, the Innovation Space would be a place where a master teacher would come with a well-crafted, preplanned, Design Thinking-based unit, and the Space Facilitator would be able to gather and deploy the equipment in the best possible way to make that vision a reality.

In reality, it’s never quite that clear cut. Ironically, it’s the scientific design process, more specifically design thinking, that best explains why a humanities teacher might be the right choice for one of these spaces. Some teachers, especially our science teachers, do come in with a plan ready to go and only need space and supplies. What teachers and students need and want out of the space is radically different from user to user. A background outside of the sciences and technology can often help connect. With a diverse range of experiences and interests, it’s much easier to meet teachers where they are in regards to technology, and, perhaps more importantly speak to their contents’ standards and objectives.

One of my favorite moments was with our veteran first grade teachers. Although they were interested in our Innovation Space, they both struggled to see where it would fit directly into their curriculum. Rather than approaching through science, we looked at the language arts curriculum. Students were focused both on beginning reader picture books and social emotional learning (SEL) skills. We ended up designing a Novel Engineering Unit based around the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears: students created a solution to a problem students identified in the story. The first grade team ended up being the team that used our Innovation Space the most.

Training teachers to utilize the Innovation Space is approached from a wide variety of angles. The way the space is organized is a massive part of the approach. We aim to have the iLab consistently organized with materials (tools, materials, and furniture are always pretty consistent in location). This helps both teachers and students be prepared to start projects based on prior experiences in the lab. For larger initiatives, we have professional development events during faculty professional development days. When our school invested in virtual reality equipment, we had hour long training sessions for each of our three divisions. In addition, we have supported some of our whole faculty training with small, opt-in faculty PD cohorts. For our virtual reality programming, about 10% of our faculty opted into our learning cohort and all of them designed units that heavily involved AR and VR. We’ve also worked to empower our faculty members to lead professional development opportunities. We’ve been able to leverage some of our experts in various technologies from our faculty to lead trainings on Photoshop, recording tools, and documenting learning. The most important thing though, is learning where the individual tools can fit into an individual teacher’s curriculum.

Finding these intersections between classroom content and the Innovation Space is the core of facilitation work. There have certainly been several late nights on YouTube and Instructables attempting to solve technical issues a specialist could have resolved much faster. I don’t think a specialist necessarily could have built the quality of true partnerships I’ve been fortunate to build with colleagues throughout my years at LFCDS: light up animatronics in sixth grade music, a functioning carnival with games, tickets, and prizes in second grade, creating countries complete with flags in third grade French are just some of the annual capstone projects that stand out.

By design, we have a tendency to put teachers into boxes. By coming to the Innovation Space as equal collaborators versus two distinct experts it has opened transformative doors. Since I began at LFCDS, we have earned the distinction of being a Microsoft Showcase School, one of only 39 in the United States. Our faculty have embraced their role as edtech leaders, not only at our school, but in our region. Over twenty percent of LFCDS faculty and administrators have presented at professional edtech conferences. This inclusivity of expertise doesn’t stop at our teachers: 10% of our Upper School students have presented as well.

Students play games designed in our Innovation Lab for the LFCDS Second Grade Carnival.
Students play games designed in our Innovation Lab for the LFCDS Second Grade Carnival.

Pandemic Response

In many ways, the pandemic has offered the ultimate affirmation of our Innovation program. Based on our school’s Reopening Plan, we decided to close our large, shared spaces in a reasonably cautious move. Initially, we were concerned about what that meant for our program this year, especially the hands on portion. We had no need to fear. Each of our divisions have responded in ways that showed our commitment to innovation. Our Head of School, Joy Hurd, always mentions that design, and design thinking specifically, are not limited simply to science, technology, or even just projects. This year has been a testament both to that thinking and the buy-in from our faculty.

In our Early Childhood (ECC) program, faculty members have me push in for some hands on projects both outside and in the classroom. Some units have simply been moved. Each Halloween, our preschoolers learn the poem “Five Little Pumpkins”, and come to the Innovation Space to build a gate that can support a mini-pumpkin. This year, we simply moved this project outside with more distance. Some units had to be completely redeveloped. In a traditional year, our junior kindergarten students learn about simple machines by moving from station to station to utilize tools that demonstrate or make use of things like ramps and wedges. Stations aren’t as practical with blended, in-person, or remote learning. This year, we’ve created kits that use small or recycled materials and are having the students build small “Simple Machine Cities” with elements (such as a building with a ramp to support a visitor who might not be able to walk up stairs). This has allowed us to blend design thinking and the simple machine content. It also is content that can function in a blended, remote, or in-person environment.

In our Lower School, we’ve committed to a large degree of digital design and digital learning. We have a combination of iPads and Windows laptops amongst our lower school students. Traditionally, we’ve utilized these tools in a limited capacity for typing and some simple filming. This year, with a massive increase in screen time across our lower school, we’ve created a wide array of curriculum that really raises the ceiling on our students capabilities with technology, and also introduces digital citizenship concepts in a hands-on, creative way rather than a lecture. Our first grade students are creating comics in the BookCreator app that will eventually be added to our school’s library for checkout. Second grade students have done some simple animations in Keynote (where they recreated the ending to the Three Billy Goats Gruff) and are creating and editing “How-To” videos in iMovie. Fourth graders designed a “Story of My Life” film with pictures that they worked with family at home to curate into a film that shared their individual stories. Throughout the year, students will work on coding projects, stop motion animation, and we plan to do several units with Skype in the Classroom to develop global citizenship.

In our Upper School we have continued Innovative and design-based learning.  We’ve created an “Innovation Cart” that can be moved from pod classroom to pod classroom and be disinfected in between. Our fifth-graders utilized this cart to design a Mesopotamian City-State. In the spring, our Upper School students also ran several webinars that were open to the public on topics ranging from 3D printing and machine sewing masks to candlemaking. We’ve also taken advantage of several global contests. Some of our science students are creating films for the One Earth Film Festival. We’ve also had a class participate in an Instructables contest. In addition, we have been able to convert our weekly Upper School Community Meetings into an entirely virtual format, with both synchronous and asynchronous elements. Tracie Tatz, our school’s band director, and I also collaborated to turn much of her music curriculum virtual in the summer. This included lipsync battles and coding music with Python (using the free software EarSketch). Tracie, several upper school students, and I presented on this at the Virtually Makerfaire. This wouldn’t have been possible without our students and teachers having a universal tech-savviness.

A well-run makerspace is truly a spectacle: 3D prints, powertools, robots, sewing machines, and dozens of other consumables that often change day to day. We want our students to come in as problem solvers. We ask them to enter into a massive space with a 2800 square foot utility belt that would make even Batman jealous and create solutions. These solutions are not always just tech-y: we ask them to use a wide breadth of their knowledge developed through a whole child learning approach to make an interdisciplinary solution. If that’s what we want from our students, shouldn’t we expect the same from the space’s facilitators?

Greg McDonough is the Innovation Space Coordinator at Lake Forest Country Day School. His passion is making technology an empowering and inclusive tool for children. In his free time, Greg can be found running and camping.

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