The three people have their heads together over an incomprehensible – to the layperson – tabletop of wiring, circuits and other equally mysterious pieces, discussing a problem with their work. After a brief, aha! moment, they are back at it.
They are not NASA scientists or Toyota engineers, but high school students absorbed in what amounts to an engineering and technology jam session at NKY MakerSpace. It’s a place where students, teachers and others from Boone County and elsewhere in northern Kentucky can explore science, math, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) with the help of equipment from robots and 3-D printers to virtual reality headsets and microcomputers.
“We’re an anti-lecture facility,” said Ryan Kellinghaus, Boone County Schools’ expanded learning opportunities coordinator. “Everything the students are doing here, they’re making things; they are the makers.”
The building hosts students throughout the region for field trips, along with after-school programs, special workshops and Super Saturdays, which offer multiple workshops every six weeks. Workshops range from robotics to art and from 3-D printing and engineering to puppetmaking.
But the key, Kellinghaus said, is “take back:” for students to take back what they experience at the MakerSpace to their home schools. That’s why the district views the field trips to MakerSpace as an extension of the classroom, Kellinghaus explained.
“What we really want is a MakerSpace in every school,” he said.
It’s not only ideas and knowledge that they’re taking back, but confidence, said Boone County Schools Deputy Superintendent Dr. Karen Cheser. “The teachers are reporting that kids want to continue to explore, and they feel like they’re good at it. They think, ‘Wow, if I can do this, then maybe I can do other things that pertain to science.’”
NKY MakerSpace interns, from left, Kian Quinn, Austin Bragg
and Andrew French collaborate on a project in the design room.
“It gives us access to a lot of stuff we probably otherwise would not have access to,” said Ryle High School senior Austin Bragg, one of six interns who spend part of the day at NKY MakerSpace on project-based and service learning.
NKY MakerSpace also offers exploration days for teachers, helping them get familiar with its contents and connect field trips with learning targets. Kellinghaus said lesson plans and similar resources are being developed.
By now, the “origin” story is almost legendary in Boone County Schools: the MakerSpace was conceived by students on robotics teams at two schools, who successfully pitched their detailed plan to the school district and Leadership Northern Kentucky’s 2015 class. The result was a home for NKY MakerSpace in an unused building being rented by the school system, funding from the leadership group to the tune of $120,000, and more donations and sponsorships from area businesses and industries, including Toyota.
“I think it’s the perfect example of an education partnership,” Cheser said. “Business saw a need, we saw a need. Business is saying, ‘We don’t have enough workers to fill our regional needs – those are in the areas of STEAM.’”
The school district, meanwhile, wanted to get all students excited about STEAM. “Because we know these are specifically where the high-paying, high-growth careers are, and too many times we have so few students who are entering those fields – and definitely those kids who are in underrepresented groups,” Cheser said.
Present and future
Since it opened toward the end of last school year through early November, 321 students from 21 northern Kentucky schools had participated in various workshops at MakerSpace, and Kellinghaus said it looks like it will meet his goal of serving 1,000 students on field trips by Christmas. Another 380 teachers, staff and community members have attended a tour or teacher exploration. Several students with disabilities also visit the MakerSpace weekly.
The program already is benefiting the area, said Larry Luebbers, a banker who co-chaired the project for Leadership Northern Kentucky. He said he believes there’s going to be “an entrepreneurial side of this that nobody really expected.”
“There’s a lot of people who are interested in seeing what these kids come up with, these ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised over the next few years if there were some patents and new ideas and businesses that are formed just from MakerSpace and the kids that have come through there,” Luebbers said.
Toyota engineer Blake Gittings’ two daughters are “artsy,” he said, and have enjoyed that aspect of the facility. “I believe it will be a big tool in getting students interested in arts and design as well as manufacturing and engineering disciplines,” he said.
The Boone County Education Foundation continues to raise funds for the NKY MakerSpace, and the district pays rent on the building, along with operational costs, utilities and security, and provides a bus driver for field trips, Cheser said.
MakerSpace also dovetails well with other district initiatives, she said, including its early college, career pathways, School of Design, Project Lead the Way, and its hoped-for District of Innovation status.
Kellinghaus said he’ll continue recruiting community experts, volunteer or fee for service, for more workshops. And he said he hopes to add more internships in the future.
Future events include an inventor expo in the spring, a drone competition and summer camps.
Five mind-blowing rooms
The NKY MakerSpace building encompasses these five specialty rooms. Descriptions represent just a partial listing of the contents.
• Make your own – hand tools, electric tools, sewing machine, and a machine (built by students from a kit) that allows a computer to control tools.
• Toyota engineering room – laptops, an open-source electronics platform for building digital devices, electronic circuit makers, Google virtual reality platform, and MaKey MaKey, an invention kit that turns objects into computer touchpads.
• Design/thinking room – four small and one large 3-D printer with desktop computers, two design tables.
• Robotics and coding room – Lego and other types of robotics kits, including tiny robots that can be used to learn beginning programming concepts.
• Audio and video studios – iMac workstations, green screen, mixers, video editing software.
Making dreams a reality
The new NKY MakerSpace did not just fulfill the goal of students who led the charge to get support and funding for the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) center, but it fulfilled a dream for Boone County school board member Karen Byrd.
“This is something that is the kind of innovation in public education that I’ve been dreaming of for 21 years of being on the board,” she said. “And to see something like this come to fruition for our kids and kids across the region is just a dream come true for me.”
MakerSpace is special in that it addresses the needs of many groups of students, Byrd said. “Because it’s an opportunity to give kids who don’t respond in a traditional way, might not have done too well on a test, but if you put them in a room with a MaKey MaKey (an electronic invention kit) and let them create something, you have a totally different student. Or the students who are into music and performing arts, but might not sing in a group at school can go into the recording studio and record their own music.”
She pointed to a Saturday MakerSpace workshop designed to get girls interested in STEM and STEAM “in a way that we’ve never been able to reach them before because it’s more personalized, it’s more on a hands-on, one-on-one basis, so they don’t have to worry about whether this is cool or not – they can just go and be and enjoy and create.”
Bryd, who is a regional chairperson on KSBA’s board of directors, said Boone County Schools leaders began thinking about the project in terms of the district alone. But when Leadership Northern Kentucky’s class of 2015 took it on, “that created the opportunity for us to make it not just a Boone County thing, but a northern Kentucky regional thing.”
Byrd said the board has been excited with the response across the region to the NKY MakerSpace and said she thinks the district eventually will probably have to start looking for more space for the program.