Avonworth 'Maker Space' Encourages Innovation And Creativity

May 10, 2016

It’s remake learning week in in Pittsburgh and one of the ways learning is being “remade” is through a national effort known as the Digital Promise, which aims to put more technology into schools.  The White House-supported program has launched an additional effort it is calling the Maker Promise. Karen Cator, CEO, Digital Promise, said the maker concept incorporates several skills that are important into the workplace. 

“Skill like creativity, collaboration, design thinking, the building of persistence, the idea that you can advance your own learning.  Those things are kind of first and foremost,” said Cator.  “The second thing is that we know that making is intrinsically motivating.  People like to do this… so it’s a motivating, engaging way of helping students advance their own learning.”

The Avonworth School District in the North Hills is one of 11 districts and six individual schools in the Pittsburgh region that have signed on to the maker promise. 

To be part of the maker promise a school district must dedicate at least one space to making, identify a maker champion who will promote the concept to teachers and administrators and, then promise to display some of the student’s work.

The maker promise is part of the Avonworth School district from the superintendent to the youngest kindergartener.  Teachers at the district’s primary center which houses K-2 students are encouraged to include maker concepts in their lessons and a classroom is set aside just for making.  

Students at Avonworth School District’s Primary Center had a chance every week to gather in an empty classroom to create anything from battery-powered cars to catapults. Then, one day, a few students came to kindergarten teacher Maureen Frew with a request. 

“They said, ‘Mrs. Frew we should open a business.’ And I said to them, ‘Why not?’”

The program grew from two girls to 13 kindergartners, first- and second-graders. Their first sale of homemade book covers and craft kits netted $269, which was invested back into the school’s maker space.

“(We're) thinking this might get so big we might have to buy another building somewhere, but you never know where it will to take us,” Frew said.

“Like maybe in a couple of years or something because it’s kind of real small right now,” first-grader Amelia Lucas said.

One level up in the Avonworth elementary school Third grade language arts teacher Becky Colesar has bought in to the concept and brings her student’s to the building’s maker space as often as possible.

“The children perceive this as they are working with their friends and it’s all about fun.  But they are learning,” Colesar said. “They’re learning, ‘I can’t always have my ideas be the best idea in the group, I have to recognize that others have valuable opinions and I might have to listen and change my way of approaching this because my partner sees it or perceives it this way.’”

Fifth grade math teacher Amy Besterman said devoting a physical space to creativity and invention encourages students' innate sense of perseverance.

“I could give a math problem on a piece of paper and they’ll give up in, you know ... 30 seconds. In here, they could work for hours trying to get something to work,” Besterman said. “Nobody gives up in this room.”

At the high school level the district is transforming its library to be a project-based space with white boards, flexible seating, a distance learning center and more computers.  A storeroom was emptied out to make way for a dedicated maker space complete with 3-D printers, laser cutter and a slew of electronic components including the 35-dollar programmable computers know as raspberry pi.  High School sophomore Jake Gillett said he stops by the maker space during his study hall and whenever else he can to work on a robot he is making with a few of his friends.

If he were not coming to the maker space during his study hall, Gillet said he would be working on his homework.

“In my opinion this is something I would rather do.  I mean, that’s for home. This is fun, I get a lot of joy out of it,” Gillett said.

Not everything that happens in the Avonworth High School maker space is so free form.  Superintendent Thomas Ralston likes to talk about a class that combined the consumer science, tech ed and graphic design classes into something they called innovation and design lab, which Ralston says highlights the maker space concepts of brain storming, prototyping, design, and problem solving.  Students had to create a signature chocolate cover pretzel, create packaging that would protect the product in shipping, and then work up a marketing plan. 

Avonworth recently had an adult maker night where parents who have been hearing about the maker spaces and seeing items built in them come home, were able to get their hands on some of the equipment.  Some of the student’s work will also be on display tonight at a school maker faire, which is part of the district-wide art show.

The Remake Learning series is a collaboration of 90.5 WESA, WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.