Last fall, high school librarian IdaMae Craddock got an unusual call from someone at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA. The college was piecing together a human skeleton that had been found in the dorms during summer cleaning. Reportedly missing from the science department since the 1970s, the skeleton was being used as a mascot by a secret society on campus.
The Lynchburg official asked Craddock if her students would help them out by creating 3-D scans of the teeth, a task that built on some of the things they’d done in their school maker space the previous year. They had hacked an Xbox to generate 3-D images, usually scanning faces and heads—even Craddock’s.
“This year, [they did] some real work with it,” says Craddock, who works at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, VA. “And that’s nice.”
The maker zeitgeist has evolved far beyond the day when an educator might set objects—say, a box of robotic LEGOs—in a library corner and call it a “maker lab.” Educators are now focusing on how the maker movement can be truly meaningful: it’s not about where making is happening, but about how creating, experimenting, and collaborating impact education. In addition, some high schoolers tinkering their free periods away can discover a passion—sometimes leading to a future educational focus or even scholarship money.
“The maker movement…encourages a growth mind-set, which tolerates risk and failure and maybe even encourages it,” says Laura Fleming, library media specialist with the New Milford (NJ) High School. “It has been the great equalizer within, and in some ways against, our modern education system by allowing opportunities for creativity and innovation to take place through informal learning.”
Call it the second wave of making. From Texas to New York, students build their own stations, ideas come as often from mishaps as upcycled materials, and librarians see their labs as training wheels for students—a chance to play their way into real-world skills.
“It’s a secondary level of learning,” says Priscille Dando, coordinator of library information services with Fairfax (VA) County Public Schools. “They may understand discrete facts they can parrot, but making activates different parts of their brains….You’re getting more bang for buck, not just regurgitation.”
No space required
Where can kids explore these deeper learning opportunities? Many librarians fear that without a dedicated area, launching their own maker movement may be out of the question. A space can be anywhere you lay out a project—even for a day, says Shannon Hyman, the school librarian and information specialist at Kaechele Elementary School library in Glen Allen, VA (a second runner-up for SLJ’s 2014 Build Something Bold Award). Those worried that they lack the perfect lab are missing the point.
“Sometimes librarians say, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have a space,’” Hyman says. “I have maker spaces throughout the library, wherever there is an open spot. I also use trays that have been upcycled from crafting drawers, and those define an area. But you can take them and move them if you need the space for something else.”
Don’t wait for a perfect space—or frankly, any space, says Tim Carrigan, senior library program officer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which has supported learning labs since launching its first partnership with the MacArthur Foundation in 2010. Doing so could take valuable programming from students and patrons.
Melissa Techman originally thought that she would donate her office to create a maker lab at Broadus Wood Elementary School at Earlysville, VA. But the school librarian says her students asked her to keep her office as is. They liked having the quiet corner where they could record videos or work in small groups. So instead, making happens in spots around the library—and classrooms. “I’ve been wrestling with what a maker space has to look like,” Techman says. “If you want to say my whole library is a maker space, well, sometimes it looks like one.”
In Dando’s district, schools take whatever area they can get and adapt their tinkering to suit, she says. One has an outdoor courtyard, more optimal than a library for large, STEM-based projects. Another uses its cafeteria, while a third co-opted its gym when not in use, assigning each grade a time to come down and work, which resulted in the whole school building a Rube Goldberg–type machine last year. “You just have to be creative with what things can take place where,” says Dando.
Others librarians see an upside to not having a specific room—or tools. With a more fluid environment, projects can be flexible, says Cindy Wall, head of children’s services at the Southington (CT) Library and Museum and coauthor of The Maker Cookbook: Recipes for Children’s and ‘Tween Library Programming (Libraries Unlimited, 2014). “The positive of not having a maker space is that [you don’t] depend on what’s there,” she says. “If you have a space with a bunch of 3-D printers, then you’re going to do a lot of 3-D programming, because that’s what you have.”
A failed program can lead to insight—as Dianne Connery, library director at the Pottsboro (TX) Library, discovered. Her library spent $9,500, part of a grant, on SLR and GoPro cameras, touch-screen computers, and other tech tools to launch a class to attract local teens to the library. About 15 signed up for the six-week course in 2014. But since then, few have shown much interest. Connery now encourages local professional groups, including realtors, to use the equipment, and the local high school borrows the cameras. “I thought [teens] would be knocking down doors to get in, but they weren’t,” says Connery. “Here was my learning curve.”
Craddock is also learning that she needs to keep an eye on the number of boys and girls in her lab. “[The] ratio is off,” she says, with three girls and 12 boys. “But I’m working on it. And you have to start someplace.”
Her efforts are yielding results. A former student spent hours of his own time on the sewing machines inside the maker lab, designing and creating an eclectic collection of clothes that earned him a full scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University. Fleming mentions another student “who had no idea what she would do when she graduated.” She tinkered whenever she could in the maker lab’s Take Apart station, building computers. Today, she’s studying internet technology at college.
Scenarios like these prove that maker culture is vital to education today, says Techman. With standardized testing almost a linchpin in school districts, tinkering, making, and exploring opens up minds—and literally doors—to new ways of thinking. “Loosening things up,” she says, sparks opportunity. “There are no good grades or bad ones. You try, discover, take what you’ve learned, and you start again.”
Getting teacher and administrator support was important to Hyman, who focused on her school’s vision. She scheduled orientations with classes and teachers so “everyone [would] know this wasn’t going to be about making pretty art projects,” she says. Her effort paid off, with a $400 stipend from the PTA, bumped to $800 for 2015–16.
“I worked hard to see what the goals were at the school to make sure we were moving forward in terms of literacy,” Hyman says. “If you don’t, it’s hard to get buy-in from stakeholders.”
Many of the projects at Monticello High are teacher driven, Craddock says. Instructors reserve space and collaborate with her on how to weave their lesson into a making experience. One class researched how tennis shoes were put together. With Craddock, they built a sneaker, using cardboard, fabric, and hot glue. For a Spanish class, they produced workout lessons—in Spanish.
Teachers and librarians may have different objectives while working making into a curriculum. But Dando believes that librarians still should consider how to stretch learning around a specific assignment—and they don’t need the nod of approval from a principal, or even a teacher, to do so.
“It’s [about], ‘How can we elevate that content to be more engaging so that it becomes more relevant than words on a page or questions on a test?’” she says. Getting to the answer through collaboration is best, “but if not, that’s still your responsibility.”
Out-of-the box programming
With the right outlook, serendipity can lead to innovation. Over the holidays, Hyman asked parents to save leftover packing peanuts to use for crafting activities, and to send them in when the children returned to school. When some stored near the sink got wet and dissolved, Hyman discovered that a little water would make the peanuts stick together—not disappear. She set up a portable station with a cup of water, a bucket of peanuts, and displayed two stuck-together peanuts—with no explanation. “The next thing I knew, the students were building what looked like ice sculptures,” she says. Wall augments her library lab with ideas gleaned from BuzzFeed and TEDTalks, and The Maker Cookbook.
Shawn Hinger, teacher librarian at Clarke Middle School in Athens, GA, mines ideas from her college intern, Rachael Lehner, a math major from the University of Georgia who is pursuing an undergraduate certificate in learning, design, and technology. “She’s in a class they call Maker Dawgs,” says Hinger. “We put those elements into play at the library.”
Fleming notes that many librarians think maker labs need a STEM connection or that they require a STEM background. Fleming has “zero expertise” in STEM, she says—but that just gives the high schoolers more opportunities to figure things out on their own and explain them to her.
“Sometimes I see people are hesitant to have a maker space because they’re not experts, which holds them back,” she says. “People just have to put the learning into the hands of their students.”
Lauren Britton, a doctoral student at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, believes that type of engagement is optimal for transformative learning—the kind that encourages curiosity, allowing children (and adults) to figure things out by themselves—and from their peers. “You give them the tools and knowledge to discover on their own,” says Britton, a former librarian at the Fayetteville (NY) Free Library, who is credited by many for helping to bring the maker space movement at libraries into existence. “The magic of these spaces is about the informal aspect of learning, rather than sitting in a classroom and trying to be a recital of information.”
Tight budgets, like worries about adequate space, are top concerns to most school librarians. Hinger has about $7,000 in her annual budget to cover the library and lab for the 675 students at her school. So she gets creative. She proposed students build their own LEGO Mindstorms table with materials from plywood to light tubes, which they plan to do this year with a $50 donation from Home Depot (plus 10 percent off the rest of the $250 cost). She also posted on DonorsChoose.org, where she recently turned $1,000 in seed money into $3,000 for a 3-D printer.
With an annual budget of $10,000 for the 2014–15 school year, Craddock looks for donations wherever she can get them. A community member who couldn’t sew anymore recently gave 70 pounds of fabric—and a cancelled home economics program yielded sewing machines. A construction company offered a five-foot-wide plot printer‚ plus toner. MIT’s Edgerton Center, a maker space and community center for college and K–12 students, sent the school electrical components, LED lights, and other items. And when funding for the U.S. Air Force’s ROTC program was pulled at Craddock’s school, the organization left behind storage bins after they took the uniforms, insignia, and shoes.
“We raided those,” says Craddock, adding, “I’m surprised how much the students fund their own projects as well.”
Fleming takes things from wherever she can get them—including old computers from the school’s technology department that would normally get discarded. She puts those in her lab’s Take Apart station. “I would rather have a budget,” she says. “But it’s times like this when you are the most creative and find ways to make things happen.”
Making things happen is what matters most. “I think of maker culture as a renaissance for education,” Techman says. “Education wasn’t always ‘sit in a chair and suffer as you prepare for standardized testing.’ Once you bring real-life problems into the experience of students, it’s a better education.”