Makerspaces’ school role picks up STEAM
by Dallas Heltzell on March 6, 2015
In Fort Collins, a robotic turtle draws fancy designs on paper and communicates wirelessly to a laptop in hopes of coming up with a logo. In Broomfield, young builders convert some pieces of wood and a bag of parts into a miniature catapult. In Boulder, budding hackers share their coding secrets in search of the latest app. In Longmont, tinkerers sculpt elegant pieces of pottery. In Loveland, middle-school-age “Foam Fighters” prepare sophisticated model airplane kits for sale, then move on to high school where they build surveillance aircraft for law enforcement.
Makerspaces have come a long way.
They started simply as places where budding entrepreneurs and inventors could socialize as they prototyped and tested their wares. But in a few short years, their value as hands-on crucibles for the STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics – education so much in demand globally has led school districts to invest in time and talent to turn garage hobbies into learning experiences. The educational value has become so institutionalized that in Lafayette, the private Alexander Dawson School and the architect designing its master plan are exploring the idea of incorporating a specially built makerspace into its new construction.
“We’ve intentionally tried to make space for creativity, for hands-on, project-based learning,” said Adele Willson, principal architect at Denver-based Slaterpaull | Hord Coplan Macht. “We’d need to build in space for such things as 3-D printers and milling machines” – as well as the electrical and fiberoptic capacity to support them.
“We’d also have interior glass so kids walking by can look in and see what’s going on,” Willson said. “Maybe that would encourage more of them to consider engineering and other fields.”
Dawson already has an after-school robotics program that uses the school’s physics lab, she said, “But it’s not really suited for what they’re doing.”
A final decision will be made this spring about whether a makerspace will be added to the master plan, Willson said, adding that Dawson’s educators have “a very expeditionary focus for their learning.”
In Loveland, the expedition is well under way.
Jacob Marshall was a wood shop teacher eight years ago who built hobbyist projects in his garage that attracted curious neighborhood kids. Now he’s teaching design as part of the International Baccalaureate program at Lucille Erwin Middle School in Loveland – but after school he mentors his MESA (Math, Education and Science Achievement) “Foam Fighters” in a makerspace at the school as they turn what he called “standard Dollar Tree foam board” into model aircraft – then package them into kits and fill a mounting number of orders for them, in the process learning not only aeronautics and manufacturing but entrepreneurship as well.
“We have a full-on company,” Marshall said. “We have three departments: the engineering department, where the kids are actually researching, designing and producing the product; the product-fulfillment department, where they keep track of materials and inventory; and the video prediction department, where they shoot videos of the Foam Fighters’ work as well as how-to segments and post them on a YouTube channel.
It costs $4 to build each kit, which the kids sell to Garrett Hultgren for his Altitude Hobbies store in Fort Collins, and then he retails them for $35 – and orders more from the Foam Fighters. The students use the money they make to buy things such as building materials, video enhancement and packaging.
His “company” has had to keep success in perspective, though, Marshall said.
“Even though we’ve generated over $1,000 in revenue, we’ve had to keep true to what we are – a makerspace,” he said. “We’ve had to tell people, ‘We’re not a sweatshop. Remember, we’re just a school. We can’t just make kits!’ ”
It’s not just kits at the next level. Every Wednesday after classes, Marshall’s “elite” makers at Loveland High School have been building four-rotor, battery-powered reconnaissance aircraft that can be mounted with cameras and used by the Northern Colorado Bomb Squad. One student even built an aircraft shaped like the Batman symbol.
“We’ve gotten a $10,000 grant from OtterCares” – the charitable arm of Fort Collins-based Otter Products Inc. – “just for the entrepreneurial piece,” Marshall said. “We’ve had students graduate and go on to college and major in aeronautical or mechanical engineering.”
Similar ventures are being launched in other school systems, such as the St. Vrain Valley district’s Innovation Center and Weld County’s Summit after-school program, as well as through the Poudre Valley Library District. Schools also are making use of existing makerspaces.
Students haven’t yet crowded adult entrepreneurs out, however. For them, membership in a makerspace means not having to invest in tools, machinery or manufacturing space. As Jamie Leben, director of CreatorSpace in Loveland, said, “It makes so much sense instead of spending money on a tool you might not use that much.”
CreatorSpace and most others, such as TinkerMill in Longmont, the Solid State Depot hackerspace in Boulder and The Gizmo Dojo in Broomfield, are nonprofit, member-driven spaces equipped with various loaned or donated tools and machinery where creative people can gather to explore and create art and technology together. Or as Ron Thomas, executive director of TinkerMill, put it, “It’s part office space, part communal space.”
TinkerMill, which Thomas said is the largest makerspace in Colorado and surrounding states at 8,500 square feet, is the perfect fit for Longmont because, he said, “it’s a moderately sized, technologically interested city.” It has 170 paying members and 800 people active in its meetup group – people Thomas described as “artists, scientists, engineers and others working on any project you can think of.
“We have lawyers, Ph.D.s, materials scientists – and even third-graders,” he said. “A pretty broad spectrum of folks working together.” View article.