The making of a makerspace

A new makerspace at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies opens doors to students

The start of the school year at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies 6-12, in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, marked the opening of a new, state-of-the-art makerspace in the school’s basement.

Funded by a $75,000 grant from Google, the makerspace named “MPowerStudio” contains a range of cutting-edge maker equipment, from seven 3D printers to vinyl cutters, a silk screen press, and two laser cutters. The grant also went to supporting Obama’s science programming, with 20 digital microscopes purchased with the funds, which was matched with 20 laptops by Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Inside the MPowerStudio Makerspace at PPS Obama, photo: Ben Filio for Remake Learning

The grant proposal was written by the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), which spearheaded the project.

Obama Academy PTSA’s Vice President Ashish Badjatia and Treasurer Jana Vogt said parents had been assembling a “wish list” for the school for a few years. Near the the top of the list was a makerspace that would give Obama students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, access to state-of-the-art maker technologies.

Google invited Badjatia and Vogt to apply for an internal grant opportunity, and the PTSA had about one week to put together a grant proposal to Google for up to $75,000. Their application told Obama’s story, emphasizing its mostly minority and female student population and its phenomenal success rate sending students to elite universities. The grant goes beyond maker education, significantly strengthening Obama’s science and digital education capabilities.

Ever conscious of the competitive nature of college admission, “our students are now seeing state-of-the-art equipment that is as good as or better than what they’d see in private schools or if they attended school in the suburbs,” said Vogt.

Located in a 2,200-square-foot room in the school’s basement, the new makerspace bustles with close to 20 students. Against one wall, a digitally connected sewing machine works slowly, embroidering a line of Obama eagle logo designs in three colors. A few feet away, six FlashForge 3D printers sit alongside another 3D printer from MakerGear capable of dual-extrusion (two-color) printing.

Embroidery at the MPowerStudio Makerspace at PPS Obama, photo: Ben Filio for Remake Learning

Across the room, student Cecil Price III shows off a woodcut logo of his initials that he made using the Glowforge laser cutter. Although Price acquired some design experience from workshops at the nearby Carnegie Library branch in East Liberty, he credits his teacher, Patrick Williams, for helping him learn InkScape, the application he used to create the file printing on the laser cutter, and providing inspiration.

Williams, in his first year at Obama, was hired as a technology teacher for eighth through tenth grades just as the makerspace got underway. He has been instrumental in introducing students to the space (including administering a safety test, required before using the equipment) and guiding a wide range of projects.

Williams has integrated the space into his lesson plans: in one project, he challenged students to develop a product that solves a problem. Notable solutions, he says, included a prosthetic flipper to help someone with an amputated foot swim, and a hand rail that helps the elderly climb stairs more easily.

The makerspace is open to any student who has passed the safety test. In addition to dropping into the space after school, students are working with school administrators to create a maker club that will run during Obama’s Quality Resource Time (akin to a study hall) to allow students to use the space’s equipment.

Students using the 3D printers in the MPowerStudio Makerspace at PPS Obama, photo: Ben Filio for Remake Learning

“They want more time,” said Williams. “It’s hard to do making in small implements when you need bigger chunks of time to design things and run the 3-D printer.”

The school’s new makerspace has increased Obama’s visibility in the community, said Badjatia, leading to a number of talks with local organizations interested in forming partnerships. These might include striking deals with outside companies to use the space for commercial purposes, giving students an opportunity to make money making items for local companies.

The makerspace’s visibility underscores the tireless work being done by the PTSA, which strives to provide opportunities and funding for the school, from locating student-enrichment classes and activities throughout the city to organizing ice skating and skiing trips.

“We are trying to make sure that no one is denied these opportunities because of a lack of resources,” said Badjatia.


photos: Ben Filio Photography

Published February 01, 2018

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