Finding creative new ways to engage kids in learning is one of teaching's toughest challenges. Making it work for multiple classrooms across an entire school is tougher still. But that's just what Katie Waddell, a second-grade teacher in the General McLane School District, Erie County, has accomplished with her Schoolwide Mobile Makerspace program.
Spurred on by a schoolwide "creativity initiative," and with a boost from PSEA's Innovative Teaching Grant, Waddell devised a deceptively simple project plan that fosters students' imaginations, is easily modified for different lessons, and flat out makes learning fun. Not surprisingly, the program was a hit with Waddell's students when she introduced it last year. And it's quickly caught on with her fellow teachers.
The Mobile Makerspace consists of three main toolkits, stored centrally in the library, that any teacher in the building is free to check out. Together, the kits cover a range of learning modalities.
There is the Lego brick toolkit, which holds enough Legos for two different classroom teachers to use at once. There's Powerful Presenters, which has various items – blowup microphones, dress-up clothing, craft supplies – to help students present what they learned at the end of a unit. And there's Garden Growers, which has everything needed to grow, nurture, and study plant life.
Waddell sees the STEM fields as the most obvious fit for the Lego and Garden Growers kits, but Powerful Presenters has obvious applications for the humanities as well.
"I think the idea of the makerspace is that teachers can use it in any way that they can fit it into their classroom," she said.
In addition to the three toolkits, Waddell, with the help of librarian and gifted teacher Michelle Androstic, erected a Lego wall in the library that gives students another venue for creative exploration.
"It's sort of making this community around giving students an opportunity to be creative and to be makers," Waddell said
As excited as Waddell said her fellow teachers have been about the idea of the mobile makerspace, her students have been positively ecstatic about it from the start.
"At the end of the school year I found out that I received the grant and all the boxes were coming to my classroom," Waddell said. "So, I was getting boxes of Legos, and boxes of seeds. And it's kind of like Christmas for me as a teacher, too. So, I'm opening them and we're talking about it as a class and I said, 'Next year your teachers will be able to get these Legos out. You'll be able to use these things.'
"And the joy that you could sense – the kids are really excited to get the opportunity to keep building and keep doing."
That excitement is obvious on a recent Wednesday when Waddell announces to her second-grade STEM Lab that it's time to begin building. As she unloads boxes of craft materials, the kids divide into groups and eagerly get to work bringing their visions of urban, suburban, and rural architecture to life.
"For the project we're doing I said, 'You can use makerspace materials, or you can use Lego bricks.' And they said, 'Can we combine the two?' And I didn't even think of that. Of course you can! That's fantastic.
"So, I think the best thing about students and their buy-in to the project is that they look at the materials differently than I look at the materials. I see this vision. But then when you put the students into it, the vision just expands."
Low effort, high yield
Waddell started this project with the intent to increase schoolwide creativity while avoiding extra work for the teachers. But she's realistic that every new project requires at least some heavy lifting to get it off the ground.
"I know for me, personally, I've taken this on, and I'm really excited about it, but I'm also mentally prepared to consider that I will be spending some of my personal time making sure that it stays organized and that all the materials stay where they are," she said. "Things will get broken, and things will get lost. And that's OK because kids are learning, and kids are having fun."
It's all worth it, she said, when you see a kid who wasn't crazy about school suddenly eager to get back to the classroom to continue working on his Lego project. Or, as happened last winter during indoor recess, when the students spontaneously decide to create a mock jewelry business to pass the time, complete with a window shop, currency, and bead jewelry.
"The kids today were like, 'It's Wednesday! It's STEM Lab day! What are we doing today?' And they were just so excited," Waddell said. "And I think, for me as a teacher, that is what we're looking for. We're looking for kids to be excited to learn, to be excited to be creative and curious."