Making space for making

How educators are bringing maker education into schools across the nation (including right here in the Pittsburgh region) with the help of The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, MakerEd, and Google.

As more educators come to understand the powerful educational potential of making and makerspaces, national demand for maker education has grown.

To help meet that growing demand, Google, Maker Ed, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh have formed a partnership with the goal of fostering maker education nationwide. Making Spaces: Expanding Education Across the Nation uses an innovative “hub” model to help schools across the country design and create makerspaces, meaningfully and sustainably integrating making into a wide range of different types of classrooms.

With funding for the two-year grant from Google, the Children’s Museum is one of 10 national hubs that serve as resources for regional schools. Hubs work directly with local school districts to help raise funds to build makerspaces, as well as providing tools for educators to conceptualize and plan out those spaces and the ways in which they will integrate making into their curricula. As the hub for schools in Western Pennsylvania, the Children’s Museum is supporting 11 schools in the greater Pittsburgh region.

The Children’s Museum will serve as a hub for Buffalo Elementary and South Buffalo Elementary Schools; Central Elementary and William Penn Elementary Schools; Founders’ Hall Middle School; Greensburg Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School; Provident Charter School; Northgate Middle/High Schools; Pittsburgh Langley K-8; Watson Institute Friendship Academy; and the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

Making at Provident Charter School, one of the Making Spaces schools in Pittsburgh / Photo: Ben Filio

In choosing the schools the Museum would work with as a hub, Children’s Museum Project Manager Katie Koffler said, “My goal was to have no two schools alike. I wanted us to work with a variety of age groups and demographics.”

Making space at PPS Langley

Pittsburgh Langley K–8, in the city’s West End neighborhood of Sheraden, drew Koffler’s attention because she wanted to include a school from the Pittsburgh Public School system in the program. When she asked colleagues for recommendations, Langley and its then-principal, Rodney Necciai, kept coming up.

“One of the few stipulations I had for including schools was to be excited,” Koffler said. “Langley was super excited. Rodney Necciai has been a big champion of this effort.”

Necciai, who was recently promoted to the role of Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Leadership, believes that Langley’s makerspace will be valuable to students in fostering a sense of ownership over their education and a sense of possibility toward their future options.

“We want them to explore things they have an interest in and to make good choices about where they go,” Necciai said.

By gaining exposure to maker tools like vinyl cutters, 3-D printers, and laser cutters, Necciai hopes students will be exposed to more options heading into high school, making more informed decisions about the school they attend and what areas of interest they may explore beyond high school.

“If any kids have that,” asked Necciai, “why not our kids?”

The school has hired a full-time technology education teacher, Trent Errett, who attended the Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute at Elizabeth Forward High School and interned with the school district over the summer. Attending the Children’s Museum’s programming from Langley were science teachers Katie Spalla and Leah Ward.

To prepare the space, teachers at Langley have been working hard to clean up and renovate an old metal shop in the school, which was previously a high school. Necciai also credited staff members Michele Masdea, and Jo Ann Olszewski with helping to prepare the makerspace. Langley was aided in this effort by having surpassed its $4,000 fundraising goal through its GoFundMe campaign.

Necciai envisions the room being divided into “high-tech” and “low-tech” sides, with a barrier modeled on the Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP to keep younger students safe from activities like laser cutting that require training, supervision, and protective gear.

Necciai sees potential for the makerspace to reach beyond Langley’s students and benefit the Sheraden community in general.

“Langley is a hub of the community,” Necciai said. “We want the school to be accessible to the neighborhood in general, and possibly provide some making experiences for folks to come in and have the room and the equipment accessible outside of school time.”

Sharing Resources and Sustaining Making

In its role as a hub, the Children’s Museum has provided teams from Langley and other schools with maker education expertise and has supported the schools’ crowdfunding campaigns, which go toward establishing dedicated makerspaces in each school. Since Making Spaces officially began in October 2016, the Children’s Museum has hosted a summer boot camp for maker educators, and workshop sessions leading a team from each school through exercises designed to create a vision of what their makerspaces and lesson plans might look like.

To help educators clarify and refine their goals for makerspaces, Koffler utilized tools created by the Children’s Museum for “Making + Learning in Museums & Libraries: A Practitioner’s Guide & Framework”.

“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Koffler. “Your makerspace is absolutely going to depend on the audience for it.”

She added, “The coolest thing about working with schools was seeing them using the tool kit to do vision and goal alignment exercises and seeing a group of people from a school agreeing on what their makerspace will look like.”

Koffler has also drawn on another Children’s Museum–authored report, “Crowdfunding to Support Making in Schools,” to guide participating schools as they carried out their fundraising campaigns.

The participating schools are using the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, which fits the program’s goals nicely. Campaigns aren’t “all or nothing”—if a funding drive falls short of its stated goal, the school will still receive all the funds pledged to it—and the platform allows schools to withdraw funds at any time. That has allowed a number of the schools in the Pittsburgh region plenty of time to build their makerspaces before the school year begins.

Crowdfunding was an integral part of the program’s predecessor, Kickstarting Making, a 2015–2016 pilot program led by the Children’s Museum in partnership with crowdfunding website Kickstarter. That program helped 10 Pittsburgh-area schools run crowdfunding campaigns to support creating makerspaces, raising more than $100,000. The current two-year program scales up from that pilot program considerably, serving 60 schools nationwide.

Along with Oakland, California–based Maker Ed, the Children’s Museum is also operating as a national partner, essentially a “hub of hubs” for the eastern United States, available to work with hubs in that region to solve problems and acting as a clearinghouse for best practices and other information to be shared among the hubs through regular conference calls.

In addition to the other eastern hubs, Koffler will remain in contact with all 11 of the Museum’s hub schools throughout the school year through calls and site visits.

“One thing we’ve learned is that making doesn’t stand still,” she said. “The things you do in your makerspace, and the things that artists and teachers learn, are changing all the time.”


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