Perry School to Create a Makerspace Workshop, the Future of Education

[Part 1 in a series of articles exploring the Ellwood City Area School District’s developing Makerspace program. Parts 2 and 3 can be read here and here.]

The Ellwood City School District is on its way to having a fully operational makerspace workshop serving the K-12 student population.

That’s fabulous, but what is a makerspace?

A makerspace is loosely defined as an area where people can make things. It is a workshop area with various high-tech and low-tech equipment where people work on projects, collaborate, and problem solve.

The endeavor is the collaborative vision of several of the school district’s administration, including Superintendent Joseph Mancini, Lincoln High School Assistant Principal John Sovich, and Perry Lower Intermediate School and Hartman Intermediate School Principal Frank Keally.

Perry Lower Intermediate School will be the first to have a makerspace, dubbed the Wolverine Workshop. For the 2015-16 school year, a room will be converted into a workshop with equipment including a 3D printer, robotics, sewing machine, and digital displays.

The Wolverine Workshop will not be an actual class, such as the way art and physical education are handled at the elementary level. Rather, teachers will schedule time in the workshop on an as needed basis. Keally’s goal is for teachers to incorporate the workshop into lesson plans for one to two hours a week. Also, and perhaps more importantly, students will be able to drop by to work on independent projects.

For the 2016-17 school year, Mancini and Sovich hope to have a makerspace workshop as an extension of the Lincoln High School’s library. At the high school level, the workshop will host a variety of electives.

In the long term, there will be one makerspace in each of the three elementary schools: North Side (K-2 grades), Perry (3-4), and Hartman (5-6). Lincoln will have not only one, but two, a workshop in the library and a much larger one in the basement.

Makerspaces are unique from most forms of primary and secondary education in that the students lead the learning. Rather than a teacher instructing students on exactly what to do, the teacher will guide the students on how to use the equipment. Students will be free to work on any project they desire, limited only by their imagination and the constrains of available materials.
Mancini has encouraged the administration and faculty to come up with new ways of making education engaging and interesting.

“I believe interesting equals effort,” Mancini said, adding that it is difficult to engage kids when teachers have to constantly prepare students for standardized tests.

The idea of a Makerspace had floated around the District for a few years but the administration had no means to start one until Perry School received the money.
Early in 2015, Perry Lower Intermediate School was eligible for a grant after being designated a Distinguished School in the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This distinction was earned by being one of the top five percent of Title I schools in the state.

As part of the distinction, Perry was eligible to apply for grants. The grant writing team consisted of Frank Keally, Ellen Ruckert, Lisa Ovial, Curt Agostinelli, Christine Costa, Leslie Milcic, Lisa Beatrice, Kayla Zion, and Joe Mancini.

The team was successful and Perry was awarded a $50,000 Innovation Grant. Perry was one of forty-two schools in the state to receive grant money. In order to receive the grant, the application team had to demonstrate how the money would be used in a creative way.

“Not many schools are getting an innovation grant,” Mancini said.

Perry, which Mancini previously described as “technology rich” with its abundance of Chrome Books and iPads, is an ideal starting location for the program.

With the grant, Perry is in the process of converting a room into the soon-to-be Wolverine Workshop. One half will be low-tech, with most of the materials coming from the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.

An entire was will be painted with dry erase paint. Along with several digital displays, this will allow students to collaborate on long term projects, share ideas, and solve problems together.

The high-tech half will have various electronic equipment and some nifty gadgets, such as a sphero- a robotic ball controlled by an iPad. What does one do with a robotic ball beyond making it go in circles? Students can design obstacle courses and write code for the ball to navigate it.

“We could even have academic competitions, like a robotics day,” Keally said.

The fanciest prize among the equipment will be the 3D printer, which uses polymer plastics and will be able to print just about anything a student can design.

Don’t be expecting an aircraft carrier to burst out of Perry however, as it’s limited by size.

Other equipment will be a Makerspace Cabinet, which is essentially a Maker 101 tool kit, a video production station, a circuit machine, and two televisions with

Apple TV and Chrome Cast (which allow televisions to be connected to computers wireless).

“Our goal is to augment the learning experience with hand’s on,” Keally said. “It should be fun, meaningful, and students should be motivated to do it. Additionally, it will get kids to think logically and problem solve.”

Unlike a technical school, such as the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center, which teaches specific trade skills, the makerspace is for advanced and versatile skills. Sovich explained that students will focus on skills for high level careers and learn skills such as fabrication, planning, team work, problem solving, and problem testing.

“Students won’t just be finding an answer to a problem,” Sovich said, “but identifying the problem.”

The final piece to Perry’s makerspace is the staff member. The position is not being advertised as a teacher, but a facilitator, in order to have the vocabulary match the concept of the position.

“We need to find the right facilitator for the teachers, staff, and students,” Keally said.

Since there aren’t an abundance of people already qualified to use so many different pieces of technology, prospective candidates don’t need to be an expert in everything, but they need to have a desire to learn.

“The biggest cost for the project is the personnel,” Mancini said. “Some of the equipment may be expensive, but it’s a one time cost.”

The District is currently waiting for the school board to hire the facilitator. Mancini said he believes the school board understands the importance of the project.

“I think the board and the kids are excited,” Sovich agreed.

When the other workshops open, facilitators may have to rotate between them until the District has the budget to hire more personnel.

As Lincoln should have a makerspace implemented by 2016-17, there arises one problem: Hartman will not have a workshop yet, meaning the current fourth and fifth graders at Perry would have a gap in their maker education. The solution is simply that Hartman students will walk across the lane to use Lincoln’s new workshop.

Thus, the program can operate with just two workshops. The other four planned makerspaces will wait until resources are available.

“The workshops are not necessarily to teach specific things,” Keally said. “Technology is always going out of date. Instead, we’ll be teaching them how to navigate in this world.”

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