Career Exploration in the Middle Grades Case Study: STEM Programming through a Dedicated Makerspace

STEM Programming through a Dedicated Makerspace

Miscoe Hill Middle School, Mendon, Massachusetts

The Miscoe Hill Middle School (MA) Inspired Innovation Center (IIC) opened in 2019. The IIC’s purpose is to offer career-exploration learning via a school-wide maker program. The IIC is a makerspace where students engage in hands-on, curriculum- or interest-oriented learning that yields meaningful products.

We developed the vision IIC in consultation with national experts in maker education, including Sylvia Martinez, Mike Stone, Pam Moran, and Ira Socol. We then sought input from students, faculty, and families. Our vision evolves with the emerging interests and needs of our school community.

We have learned a great deal since opening, but our most significant learning concerns the usage of space. Initially, the IIC was the home for our grade 5 technology courses. The makerspace was an ideal location to launch our new Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Design & Modeling course. Design & Modeling fostered hands-on, real-world, problem-oriented learning through prototyping. Students had an outstanding experience and the course is a mainstay in our technology curriculum.

However, we found that running a class in the makerspace presented additional challenges. Given our schedule, IIC was being used as a technology classroom for four of the six blocks. As a result, general curriculum teachers had a hard time envisioning rotating their own four classes through the IIC for projects when the technology course would also be in the room for two overlapping sessions. Even though the room could accommodate multiple classes, teachers expressed concern about “encroaching” on a colleague’s classroom. So, while the IIC was actively used in year one, the impact was limited to just the technology course.

To expand access to the IIC, we shifted the technology course to a new location and reframed the Innovation Center as an “open lab.” Teachers schedule time to bring their classes, and students are able to use the space on an ad hoc basis for video recording or 3D printing projects for classes. As we expand our PLTW programming, we will use the Innovation Center for specific projects or lessons, but the space will not be assigned to a particular course or teacher.

The open lab is not without its challenges. We are still working on revising our curricular units to leverage Innovation Center resources, so the IIC is not used as frequently. Additionally, an open lab structure benefits from having a dedicated staff member who would manage the facility, provide access and training to students, and reach out to colleagues to initiate projects. Currently we have distributed these responsibilities across different staff members, which is suboptimal given the other demands on their time. Despite these limitations, we are making excellent progress.

In the big picture, we believe that the open lab provides the largest possibility for impact as compared to a single course. However, we continue to reflect on our decisions, analyze the outcomes, and adjust course where necessary so we may further revise our structure. And the vision evolves with time and experience. As we have worked to increase access to and use of the Inspired Innovation Center, we have found several approaches that have served us well:

  1. Set a Trap: Feed ’em: While some colleagues will naturally gravitate to your new makerspace, many may not due to a lack of knowledge. When we opened the IIC in the fall of 2019, we held a breakfast for all staff members and had the new resources out and available for people to see and touch. We had our 3D printer running so staff could see it in action. And we also posted two questions on the white boards and asked staff for feedback to help our planning. We asked:
  2. How might you use some of these resources in your curriculum?
  3. What’s missing that we can add to the IIC?
  4. Focus on the End User: Your colleagues may be slow to jump on board, but many students will be itching to “make.” Ask them about the resources they need and provide them with dedicated time to access the space. At Miscoe Hill we are working on developing training modules for the different tools we have in the Innovation Center. We believe that the modules will both build student capacity while also sparking ideas for products they can make in future curricular projects. Additionally, teacher apprehension to maker-oriented learning may be reduced when trained students can serve as “peer experts” on how to use the 3D printer or laser cutter, etc.
  5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: Industry professionals are surprisingly eager to “give back” to schools. Given the propensity of video conferencing, it’s easier than ever to bring the community to your classroom. External partners are great at consulting on your project’s design, giving an opening “kick-off” presentation, or providing authentic feedback on student work. We use industry connector tools such as ASA Engage/Nepris to connect our students with experts across the country.
  6. Invite Families to Become Co-Makers: Offering maker events for families is a fantastic way to build student capacity and family support for your program. Prior to the pandemic, we offered monthly in-person workshops on 3D printing and robotics. This year we’ve continued the workshops virtually. We’ve focused on the micro:bit “do your :bit” challenge because of the small size and low cost of the materials yielded. Be sure to emphasize the collaborative nature of the events and the importance of adult participation.
  7. Provide Updates at Faculty Meetings: Ask your building principal for two minutes (brevity is essential) at the faculty meeting’s beginning, while attention is still fresh. Use your time to showcase a new product that students can create in the makerspace and invite colleagues to collaborate.
  8. Find the Others: Innovation is a team sport. While this work can feel lonely, others across the country and globe are engaged in this work. Twitter is an excellent platform for Finding the Others.

These are just a few of the many strategies that can help build a deeply engaged culture. Not all of them will apply to your context. Regardless of your method, we would encourage you to “play the long game” and adopt a persistence and reflection mindset. Your program’s vision will evolve as you learn from mistakes and encounter opportunities that only present themselves in time. Patience is a virtue and is also the key to flourishing career exploration programming.

Visit the AMLE/ASA Career Exploration Resource Center for additional case studies, templates, research, and more.