Learning comes alive in Gearity Maker Space

A welcome sign made out of corrugated cardboard on the laser cutter.

Picture a group of young scientists collaborating on a high-tech design challenge: they huddle around computer screens, discussing and designing scientific tools that will be printed out on 3D printers and then tested for accuracy and reliability.

Sounds like something going on in a prestigious high school lab, or maybe at an engineering college, right?

Wrong. This is the Maker Space at Gearity Professional Development School, where children as young as five are mastering technology and manipulating equipment that many adults have never seen.

Maker spaces are part of a growing movement to support innovation, creation and invention. According to EduCause, a maker space "is a physical location where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build."

That is exactly how Gearity—a STEM school that infuses science, technology, engineering and math into all of its instruction—is using its maker space. According to the Gearity Web page, “Students are asked to design solutions to real-world problems that are relevant to them. This form of instruction is both engaging and exciting for students. They are learning by doing.”

Gearity’s Maker Space, which opened in the fall of 2015, features eight 3D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, a T-shirt press, and numerous computers as well as low-tech design materials, such as art supplies, recyclables and Legos.

The equipment was purchased using funds from an Ohio Department of Education Straight A grant, awarded to Gearity last fall. Straight A grants use Ohio Lottery dollars “to support innovative and sustainable education projects,” with a focus on STEM education. Gearity was one of only 37 grant recipients across the state.

Students visit the Gearity Maker Space with their classroom teachers, supported by STEM coordinator Jackie Taylor, who received special training in how to use the equipment as an instructional tool. They work alone or in teams on monthly design challenges for each grade level, established by their teachers. Challenges include first-graders designing and creating sundials for use in the school garden, and fifth-graders designing and creating a scaled model of the solar system to hang in the library.

Each design challenge aligns to the Common Core State Standards and reinforces classroom lessons. Gearity has utilized design challenges for the past four years. “But now,” said Taylor, “instead of students making a windmill out of a cereal box, they can print one on the 3D printer and know that it will actually work.”

Maker space activities aren’t limited to science education. Art teacher Brian Stern introduced his fourth-grade students to sculptor Alexander Calder, famous for making mobiles as works of art. Students used special software to design their own collection of shapes, laser cut out of donated corrugated cardboard, and created mobiles which now spin from the maker space ceiling.

A social studies class created a 3D map showing the topography of the United States. “You should have seen the kids when they touched the steep Rocky Mountains after running their hands over the Great Plains,” said Taylor. “This taught them so much more than a two-dimensional map ever could.”

Students also use the space for fun projects, such as designing and printing their own T-shirts using the vinyl cutter and T-shirt press, which the third- through fifth-grade autistic students created to wear on their community field trips.

Sue Pardee, coordinator of special improvement/federal programs for CH-UH schools, hopes this space will become available to other students in the district as well, perhaps through building-to-building field trips or special community maker space nights.

While grant funds covered the equipment and initial set-up costs, some of the materials and upkeep can be expensive. The Maker Team of Gearity teachers is hoping to hold a Maker Faire later this year, where community members can visit the space and purchase items created by students and staff.

While CH-UH schools are moving more in the direction of International Baccalaureate (IB) schools as opposed to STEM schools, the idea of a maker space still holds value. According to EduCause, the maker space "is being embraced by the arts as well as the sciences, and a new energy is building around multidisciplinary collaborative efforts." IB schools in the Heights vicinity, such as the Montessori High School at University Circle, are raising funds for their own maker spaces.

According to EduCause, maker spaces "allow students to take control of their own learning as they take ownership of projects they have not just designed but defined.”

Gearity first-grade teacher Sherri Malek agrees. “This space allows our students to take what was previously only in their imaginations and make it real.”

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, a graduate of the Heights schools and a former Coventry School teacher. She is active in the Fairfax PTA, and is proud to raise her two sons in this community. She blogs at http://krissygallagher.wordpress.com.

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Volume 9, Issue 2, Posted 9:37 AM, 01.31.2016