Portsmouth schools make room for Makerspace

New program celebrates kids’ creativity, natural design process

EastBayRI.com ·

PORTSMOUTH — Erin Escher once asked his daughter, who attends Melrose School in Jamestown, if she liked the school’s Makerspace, where elementary students gather to problem-solve through fun, hands-on challenges.

“She said ‘No,’” recalled Mr. Escher, who was dumbfounded by the response since his daughter was always building things at home. 

“I told her, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Why don’t you like it?’ She said, ‘Because we only get to go once a month.’ She wants to go every day; she wants to live in there.”

It’s a dilemma teachers at Hathaway and Melville elementary schools expect to face once they open their own Makerspaces this month.

“The teachers were saying, ‘The problem is going to be that they’re going to want to come here all the time,’” said Hathaway Principal Lisa Little.

Mr. Escher, the recipient of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, formerly taught science at Portsmouth Middle School before starting his new role last year as K-8 instructional science coach for the entire district. 

“I work with teachers to facilitate the science program,” said Mr. Escher, whom Ms. Little credited for bringing Makerspace to the two schools.

“Having three coaches in the district at our level — ELA, math and science — this is how things like this can happen,” said Ms. Little. “We have him to drive it and put in countless hours putting it together, but also to really get behind the teachers and show them their connections. They’re really excited to get in here and we’re excited to see it grow.”

So what exactly is a Makerspace?

“A Makerspace is a place to celebrate the creativity and natural design process that people are inherently born with; we ask questions, we want to know the answers to the questions. So, a Makerspace provides a place to allow kids the freedom to grow with that and go with the challenge and be driven by their own motivations,” Mr. Escher said.

The philosophy behind Makerspace is nothing new, he said, noting that people starting shaping tools out of stone thousands of years ago. However, it’s taken hold in public and private sectors only in the past 10 years, he said. There’s already a “maker media space” at the local library, and a “FabLab” in Newport, Mr. Escher said.

“But now that it’s supported with our science standards, it has a place in the schools,” he said.

Each Makerspace will take up one classroom at Hathaway and Melville, which is possible since declining enrollment has freed up space, Ms. Little said. Mr. Escher is still putting the rooms together, but they’ll be filled with creative tools and technology that students will use to solve a variety of challenges. It will also incorporate and enhance what students are learning in the regular school curriculum.

Enhances STEAM programming

“Makerspace goes beyond just building and creating and designing and incorporating art. It’s also the design process through engineering and technology,” said Mr. Escher. “Part of the district’s vision is to really enhance STEAM programing, K through 12, and so the challenge is getting those lower levels on board but with things like Dash and Dot robots, iPads that are user friendly for ages 5 and up. It makes it accessible.”

When Mr. Escher visited a Makerspace in Jamestown, he was impressed by how it allowed teachers to take a hands-off approach. “It’s not necessarily a teacher-directed process. You present a challenge and restraints, which is part of the engineering process. So the students have certain materials to work with and an end goal,” he said.

Ms. Little agreed, pointing to one corner of the room which contained a Rigamajig building kit made up of wooden planks, wheels, pulleys, nuts, bolts and rope.

“They used the Rigamajig and all they said to that group was, ‘Make something that will get this book from here to there,’” she said, motioning to two different desks. “What impressed me the most was that the kids worked together so cooperatively. They all sort of took their own little roles in what they were doing.”

Controlling robots and coding

One of the most popular features of Makerspace for students will no doubt be the two small robots known as Dash and Dot.

“A kindergartner can use them to follow commands through an app so they can develop an awareness that every time they move their finger a certain way on the app, that means a certain function for the robot to do something,” said Mr. Escher. 

Second- and third-graders, meanwhile, may use a program called Blockly. “They’re actually coding; it’s simple block code in which they create a sequence. Then you can go even one step further and join a league, where we could have third-graders competing nationally using their robots,” he said.

The desks in the Makerspace have been painted with white board paint, so students can jot down their ideas. “Kids communicate in different ways,” Mr. Escher said. “Some can communicate verbally and very well with each others. Others have this idea, but the best way to share it with somebody is to draw a big picture of it.”

Kids as reporters

A large green screen in one corner of the Makerspace could be used as an extension of a social studies or ELA project, he said. Through a user-friendly app called Green Screen, students will not only learn about the world, but share their knowledge with others, said Mr. Escher, who saw that happen in Jamestown. 

“They happened to be studying the polar bears and while they were reading their report — they were acting as reporters — the green screen became the polar arctic with a polar bear walking behind it,” he said.

The final phase, he said, is sharing their learning with an audience. “The kids are sort of driven and the accountability is on themselves; they want to come up with something to share out,” said Mr. Escher, noting that students’ video stories can be shared instantly with parents in variety of ways. 

Parents will also get to see Makerspace in action shortly after it gets rolling, probably late this month. “Once we get kids in here and get some work happening, we’ll hold an open house and have some parents come out,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe the Makerspaces at Hathaway and Melville will be identical after six months. “I think they’re going to take different avenues.”

One of the biggest things he hopes kids learn in Makerspace, Mr. Escher said, is that failure is an option.

“We’re trying to instill in the kids that you can fail forward,” he said. “Rather than saying, ‘What worked well?’ we can ask the student, ‘Tell me where you got stuck. How’d you get out of that?’”


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