“It’s vital your Makerspace reflects the culture of your school.”

jeremywilburn-fi“It’s vital your Makerspace reflects the culture of your school.”

by Britten Follett

“What is the most unique item your students have created in their Makerspaces?” I asked our SXSWedu panel charged with sharing details about their Schools’ Vortex: Innovative Library Makerspaces.

A giggling Darcy Coffta, Upper School Librarian and Innovation Director at Berwick Academy in Maine, explained the most memorable creation she’s stumbled upon was a nuclear reactor.  We laughed too.  But she was serious! One of Coffta’s high school students literally built a nuclear reactor.

Much like that student’s creation, Makerspaces are sparking a transformation in the nuclei of a school—the library.  Librarians, like Coffta and our other SXSWedu Makerspace panelists, are tearing out their circulation desks; building work tables; designing Lego walls; and soliciting parents and visiting yard sales for treasures and donations like sewing machines, drills, and hot glue guns.

After 43 years as a librarian, Dottie Smay decided she wanted a space where her students could focus on innovation and creativity.  Smay, whose creativity and dedication to inspiring her students at Shorecrest Preparatory School in Florida is evident in everything she does, wasn’t going to wait around to make it happen.  She decided the Follett Challenge—a contest designed to reward innovation in schools—and the fact that her superintendent was on vacation, was the perfect excuse!  With a saw, a gallon of paint, and Dottie’s signature determination, she transformed her library into a vibrant Makerspace with minimal expense.

Smay used her 3D printer to make gingerbread men to introduce the new Makerspace to her elementary school students. And a giant pumpkin forced the little ones to “Make” ways to transport it from the school sidewalk to inside the library. The students’ initially thought they needed a dad or even Superman to move the pumpkin.  But through the process of research and design (and adorable collaboration and critical thinking among five-year-olds) they managed to move the pumpkin successfully! The learning didn’t stop once the pumpkin made it inside the library. Using cardboard and duct tape, the students made prototypes of their pumpkin-moving devices.

Smay says, “Even the tiny kids learn problem solving and critical thinking skills because the pumpkin seeds helped teach counting and basic science.” At SXSWedu, Smay challenged conference attendees to, “Just do it! One person’s trash is another’s Makerspace! Don’t wait for funding. You don’t need a 3D printer. Look around at what you already have for resources and space.”

One School’s Approach

The panelists’ libraries are proof: if you build it, resources follow. Follett Challenge Grand Prize-Winning Service Learning Teacher Patrice Bryan says the transformation at Maplewood Richmond Heights wouldn’t have been possible without the support and drive of her administration. Bryan says, “It’s vital your Makerspace reflects the culture of your school.”

Ten years ago, Bryan’s district was failing by all measures. Today, at the urban St. Louis school district, you’ll find engaged and productive students running a chicken farm, fish hatchery, garden, food pantry, and much more.  The Makerspace at Maplewood is weaved throughout the district, from Kindergarten through high school, in all aspects of the curriculum.  Math students study volume by calculating how far the compost pile will spread across the garden, while science students study biology in the kitchen while teaching nutrition to pregnant teens. But it all began in the library, which is truly the vortex and remains the center of district’s transformation. The hub of innovation. Bryan told SXSWedu session attendees, “The library is where everything happens.” And despite all of the other activities available to students, library circulation has gone up, because students rely on library resources to discover the next step in “Making.”

A true Makerspace is a marriage between imagination, discovery, creation, and education. It helps a student turn a thought into a learning experience, driven by curiosity and experimentation, failure and success. It requires research and exploration, and it gives students new drive to use the books and other resources in the library. When I look out into the endless sea of books in our warehouse at Follett, I can only imagine the next creation they will inspire in the minds of our country’s little “Makers”.

In coming years, I expect to see a lot more “Making” happening in our schools. At the SXSWedu conference, there were at least five sessions dedicated to the concept of Makerspaces. As the moderator of our Makerspace panel, my goal was to make sure all of the attendees left the session with something tangible they could take back to their school and begin implementing on Monday. But in a way, libraries have always been about “Making.” Now it just has a name.

As for that nuclear reactor, its “Maker” is using his creation in his application to M.I.T. One day all of us may benefit from his creations.

Visit www.makerspacesxsw.com for free resources to start creating your Makerspace.

“It’s vital your Makerspace reflects the culture of your school.”