Western PA School Districts Promise To Support Maker Movement

May 3, 2016

Four of the 13 girls from Avonworth Schools district's JAM Enterprises gather in their school's maker space. The groups first sale of book covers and craft kits netted $269.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

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 teeny 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.

Avonworth is one of 11 school districts in the region signed on to the “Maker Promise,” a collaborative campaign led by the White House-sponsored Digital Promise and Maker Ed. Six single schools are also participating.

Maker oaths are simple; add more activities to the school day where students are engaged in creating objects in real and virtual worlds with the goal of building skills that are important in the workplace.

“Skills like creativity, collaboration, design thinking, the building of persistence, the idea that you can advance your own learning. Those things are first and foremost,” said Karen Cator, president and CEO of the Digital Promise.

Districts or individual schools that want to be part of the Maker Promise must commit to creating a space dedicated to making; identify a champion that will promote the maker concept to teachers and administrators; and promise to display student work created through the maker effort. In return, districts get educational support from the Digital Promise pipeline, including guidance and resources from fellow participants.

The Pittsburgh region is leading the way when it comes to schools and districts taking the plunge, according to Cantor, who calls making “intrinsically motivating.”

“People like to do this," she said. "They like to design. They like to get their hands on things. They like to build and construct, so it’s a motivating, engaging way of helping students advance their own learning.”

Avonworth Elementary School student Noah Quinn has taken on several projects in his school’s maker space as part of his classes. He said kids learn better in the space.

Jake Gillett sits next to the robot he and his friends are building in the maker space at Avonworth High School. The district is part of the Maker Promise.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

“It gives us more time with our friends to hang out with them and have fun," he said, "then just really let our creativity fly with this stuff.”

Third grade language arts teacher Becky Colesar bought in, too.

“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.”

Educators at Fort Cherry School District, which straddles Washington and Allegheny counties, also signed up. High school science teacher Jeremy Dawson incorporated the educational version of the popular online game Minecraft to task students with creating scale models of their classroom in a virtual world.

“Everyone I know, professionals out there, use terms like ‘this is my team’ and ‘this is my project’, ‘these are our deadlines.’ So I’m trying to incorporate that idea,” Dawson said.

Adults might struggle with playing a video game and learning from it, he said, but his students don't.

In a darkened Fort Cherry High School classroom students are using Mine Craft to build a scale virtual replica of their classroom. The goal is to get the students to understand the math and science behind modeling while also learning team project skills used in the work world.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Across the hall, students like senior Taylor Petricca are building their own puzzles and board games. Petricca, who opted for a few regular dice and a standard deck of playing cards, said peer testing is tough.

“People will point out the smallest mistake and they’ll exploit that in your game so you need to make everything super concise,” Patricca said. 

Fort Cherry Elementary Center art teachers are working with social studies teachers to bring a unit on Maya and Inca culture to life, transforming a hallway into an interactive art installation with sixth graders acting as docents.

Tinkering and collaborative learning are at the heart of the Maker Promise, Frew said.

“These children, their world is not going to be our world... It should be an interconnected day, just as yours and mine is,” she said. “I think we fail when we don’t help them put the pieces together and help them grow up into one total human being.”

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