In Conversation With ...

In Conversation With ...

In Conversation With ... Dr. Angie White and Alicia Sells

on makerspace programs in Kentucky schools
Kentucky School Advocate
December 2016
In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

This issue’s conversation is with Dr. Angie White (top photo) and Alicia Sells (bottom photo), who work for the Shelbyville-based Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, which serves 13 Kentucky school districts. White is director of technology and Sells is director of innovation. Both have worked closely with makerspace programs in Kentucky schools.
Q: Could you define makerspaces? 
A: White – The Makerspace Playbook describes a makerspace as a gathering point for tools, projects, mentors and people with expertise. Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to create one. People often think of it as a collection of tools. But while there might be tools there, that does not define the makerspace. I like the way they put it in the Playbook – we define it by what it enables.

Q: And that enabling aspect would be?

White – A place to create and make.

Q: Which is a broad description.

White – Right, and that’s because no two makerspaces are alike or should be alike. Especially in schools, a makerspace needs to be unique to the interests of the school’s students. It should be determined by what they and the school community want and need.

Q: Are makerspaces focused on STEM subjects or can they be used as a learning tool across all disciplines?

Sells – Science is where making started, but I do see art as a whole new addition. Ultimately, what you want to do is be creative and have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to a hands-on project, which makes makerspaces applicable to every area. Any teacher could find a creative way to use it.

Q: Are there basic resources required as a school or district creates a makerspace?

White – I like to think the answer is “no.” Often, when people start talking about creating a makerspace, they focus on purchasing tools and materials. That is a resource-driven approach, and it creates a lot of buzz and excitement, but it eventually fades away. I like the way that Laura Fleming approaches makerspace design in her book Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School.

Q: Do you see issues when people jump on websites for makerspace supplies and buy a lot of equipment?

Sells – Yes, we sometimes find that people have a lot of equipment but don’t know how to use it and it can be intimidating.

A: White – That is what spawned an event that we called Maker Mania last spring. Many librarians who were creating makerspaces were fine with putting out construction paper and googly eyes, but when we started talking about Lego robotics, they got uneasy because that was outside of their knowledge base. Some had already purchased tools and materials recommended for makerspaces and they said, “We don’t know what to do with this.” So we set up stations at Maker Mania, and they came and worked with the different equipment. It helped them overcome the fear. At end of the day they said, “Oh, I can do this.”

Q: Could you describe Fleming’s approach?

White – She uses a process where you first determine who is going to use the makerspace and what its purpose will be. Then you create a theme around your curriculum, identify gaps in resources and design the makerspace based on that. Each space will be different in part because of physical space available.

Q: How might the physical spaces for a makerspace differ?

White – In your school, you might not have room for a permanent space so instead there would be flex stations where the makerspace can be put out for a class and then put it away or kept on a cart. Others might be a fixed station where you have equipment like a laser cutter or a robot that sits out. As far as the physical space needs, you also have to consider whether you will need things like electricity and Wi-Fi, whether there is enough table space and accessible storage. After you have determined the design, then you have to think about how to create excitement about the space. Fleming talks about “digital breadcrumbs”– using something to entice students and pique their curiosity, like a digital musical instrument in your makerspace. Her final part of the process is buying materials and equipment. Often, that is what people jump to first.

Q: But some materials will be required to make things. Does that mean a makerspace will be an expensive undertaking?

White – It all depends on your plan, purpose and design. Heidi Neltner, the librarian at Johnson Elementary in Fort Thomas, created an outstanding makerspace. She started with some Legos a parent donated and a donated coffee table to make her Lego station. Students had read the same book, and they could go to the Lego table and create a scene from the book using materials like construction paper and crayons.

So I can’t say you will need $10,000 to start a makerspace because you can, based on what your students need, start out small and move from there.

Q: Describe some ways community partners are supporting makerspaces.

White – Most of the makerspaces I am hearing about are in libraries and because the librarians often don’t have all the levels of expertise they need for the makerspace, they depend on community partners for their expertise and as mentors. Part of what these makerspaces are doing as they are getting started is having exhibition nights so that parents and board members can come in and see the things they are doing.

A: Sells – There are a lot of ways to tap into the community. Community partners can come to the makerspace, see students work and have students present what they are doing. Then the partners might offer advice or ideas like, “Hey, you might want to try it this way,” or, “Here’s a different way to look at this.”

Financial support is also important. We’ve received grants for equipment. Financial support can also be used to take students to events like the World Maker Faire in New York. And there are opportunities to help with safety training. There is a lot of learning to be done on how to use a circular saw or how to work with electricity. A low-cost way to involve the community is to ask people from local community colleges or local industries to come in and teach safety training.

Q: Is it better to set up a makerspace within a school or at a central location where different schools can share it?

White – I don’t think a makerspace can be done incorrectly. Having it at individual schools provides easy access, whereas if you have it at a central location, that means working there requires a field trip. So, to me, on-site is better for access, but if you have super-expensive equipment it might not be something every school can have. Making the expensive equipment mobile and taking it to the students would be more advantageous than making a field trip.

Q: Is a lot of staffing needed for a makerspace?

White – That depends on how it is set up. Where are they going to use it, who is going to use it and what is the purpose? I have seen makerspaces set up as an area of the library. A teacher can sign up for students to work there during a particular time. I have also seen it set up as drop-in space. The librarian might have a different class at that time so those who are working in the makerspace will be working independently. I haven’t seen any schools increase supervision in the library because of a makerspace. What they might do is have a video tutorial to explain how to use equipment or a QR code to scan that brings up a video on how to use a machine. With these virtual tutors a teacher doesn’t have to stop what they are doing to show someone how to use the equipment. I have also seen makerspaces where students are assigned to man the area – they get to tinker but if a student has a question, they are there to help.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge to the makerspace movement in Kentucky?

Sells – Schools that buy equipment and then don’t know what to do with it.

A: White – Getting the librarians, who are typically in charge of makerspaces, past the fear. I love something that Heidi Neltner told us. Her students decided that they wanted to make stuffed animals as part of their project tied to a book they read. She doesn’t sew and began worrying about handing needles to elementary students. Then she asked the students, “How would you make those animals?” It turns out they wanted to use glue. They weren’t even thinking about needles. Sometimes we needlessly put up barriers. By just letting the students go with their creativity, they will surprise us every time.
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