George Lucas Educational Foundation
Maker Education

How to Kickstart Maker Education

Learn how one Pittsburgh elementary school is collaborating with a local children's museum and other partners to create an innovative makerspace.
Shaun Tomaszewski
Lincoln Elementary students are working with a Carnegie Mellon University student on designing her space.
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While school is out for the summer, part of Lincoln Elementary's campus, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will be transformed into an outdoor makerspace. When students return in the fall, they will get to see how their own design concepts have turned into an engaging environment for learning by making.

Lincoln Elementary is just one of seven schools across the Pittsburgh region where new makerspaces are emerging through a collaboration with the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Kickstarter, and a host of community partners. Their approach offers a sustainable model for funding and professional development that other schools and communities might want to borrow to kick start their own maker efforts.

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Maker Hubs

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh was a natural convener for the Kickstarting Making initiative. "We've been doing making at the museum since 2010," says Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research. "Our goal is to get making into schools in ways that are organic, attuned to each school, and sustainable."

Seven of the ten schools that were part of this first crowdfunding effort met their goals, raising more than $107,000 in all. Part of the funding will go toward professional development provided by museum staff. "To integrate making successfully in schools," Brahms says, "we've learned that the most important thing is professional development for educators." It's a mistake, she cautions, for schools to think they can "just raise some money, buy a 3D printer, and have a makerspace."

Before schools jump into the #makered movement, Brahms recommends considering three big questions:

  1. What's your purpose? What are your goals for integrating making in your school? Does it really fit with your mission? Each of the new makerspaces across the Pittsburgh region will be unique, reflecting local context and learning goals.

  2. Who are your champions? The most successful school makerspaces, Brahms says, "have a champion teacher and a champion administrator who take this on as their passion. They see it as integral for learning."

  3. What stuff will you need? Make sure your wish list for "stuff" to equip your makerspace aligns with your learning goals. Some schools strategically focus on digital making while others stick with low-tech materials and tools.

Full STEAM Ahead

At Lincoln Elementary, the new makerspace aligns with a larger STEAM education strategy. Shaun Tomaszewski, coordinator of STEAM education for Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), says the essence of STEAM "is cross-curricular instructional design. STEAM is not 3D printers or laser cutters. It's powerful teaching and learning that enables students to engage with their communities."

The STEAM model adopted by Pittsburgh Public Schools puts equal emphasis on strong curriculum, innovative teaching, and community collaboration. STEAM learning experiences may look different from one campus to the next, Tomaszewski says, but they all engage students in the engineering and design process to solve interdisciplinary problems. Teachers use the same process of problem solving, analysis, and iteration to design curriculum and improve instruction. "That process is at the core of STEAM," he says.

Planning for the makerspace at Lincoln Elementary is a good example of STEAM education in action. As a whole-school project, students were invited to share their design ideas for the new space. Kids from preK-5 were asked, "If you could learn outside, what would you want that space to look like?"

It seemed like a good question to provoke creativity. But students' ideas quickly stalled. Without much prior experience with outdoor learning spaces, they had trouble imagining their urban blacktop as something different. Teachers realized that kids might need inspiration to dream bigger. They took another run at the question, this time using a charrette process to seed students' thinking with visual examples.

That got the ideas flowing. Eventually, students settled on two concepts that they wanted in their makerspace: a treehouse and a water feature. They also imagined an unused plot of land adjacent to the campus as a space for community gardening, a butterfly habitat, and public art projects.

Turning students' wish lists into a design that would meet building codes and safety regulations posed a new challenge. Tomaszewski turned to a community partner for help. "I asked the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, 'Could you help us realize this dream that our kids have for their outdoor learning space?'" Architecture professors turned that question into a design challenge for their students. The winner of the Carnegie Mellon makerspace design competition will spend the summer interning with Pittsburgh Public Schools to put the final plan into action.

More Strategies to Borrow

If your school or district is moving in the direction of STEAM education with makerspaces, here are three strategies to borrow from Pittsburgh's example:

1. Invite Students to Be Change Agents

When STEAM education focuses on real-world problem solving, students gain opportunities to be agents of change in their communities. For example, in another interdisciplinary project at Lincoln Elementary this year, students tackled the issue of community violence. "Teachers may wonder, where's the STEAM in that?" Tomaszewski acknowledges.

Among the STEAM activities embedded in the project: demographic surveys designed and conducted in the community by students; data analysis; cross-disciplinary writing in language arts; design and screen printing of tee-shirts in art; and mapping the logistics of a community march and peace rally attended by the mayor, superintendent, and other dignitaries. Students treated their first rally as a prototype and went on to plan a second, even larger event with other schools in the community. "I'd argue that it was a transformative manifestation of STEAM," Tomaszewski says.

2. Support Teachers as Designers

Teachers need time and professional development to tackle the cross-curricular instructional design that STEAM and maker education demand. In many schools, that means making space for teachers to brainstorm across disciplines. "You need to get the English teacher talking with the math teacher," Tomaszewski says. "They need a safe space to think together about: What do our students need to learn? Where are they now? How will we get them where they need to be?"

Just as important as collaborative planning is making time to debrief STEAM projects. "We use PBL modules as problems of practice," Tomaszewski says. "At the end of the project we'll discuss: What went well? Where were the failure points? What can we do better?" Through group critique, reflection, and iterative design, projects get better and teachers gain more confidence in the STEAM arena.

3. Engage Community Partners

Tomaszewski didn't think twice about reaching out to the architecture department at Carnegie Mellon for help with the Lincoln makerspace. Community partners who share a commitment to education are connected across the region in a robust network called Remake Learning. "Collaboration is the zeitgeist here," Tomaszewski says. "That creates a willingness to work together. It's special."

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh hopes to scale the lessons learned regionally to reach a national audience. Stay tuned for updates, and find more resources about maker education at Makeshop, found on the museum website.