Michigan Makers (Winter 2013)

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by Rachel Goldberg, Media Specialist, East Middle School (Plymouth MI)

Note from YALS: The winter 2013 issue of YALS focuses on technology and teens. Read this article to learn about more ways that libraries are integrating technology in programs and services for adolescents.

Michigan Makers is a collaboration between several graduate students at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, a faculty member at that school (Kristin Fontichiaro), and me (a School of Information somewhat-recent alum). During the 2011-2012 school year, I started an after-school computer club at the request of several students who enjoyed coming to the library to play on computers. These students had once taken an ed tech class with me in which I introduced them to Alice. From Alice, I showed them Scratch, and from there, I started teaching them Python. That year, I also taught them about computing basics, like binary code and what it means to “debug.” In order to plan for each week’s computer club, I relied on books and online tutorials (thanks to Dr. Chuck Severance, who made his Python course freely available).

But my students wanted to program and I am not a programmer. I am, however, approximately twenty miles away from the School of Information. I reached out to graduate students interested in community informatics and eventually found a core group of future librarians who were curious about new, inexpensive technologies designed with budding computer programmers in mind. The graduate students and I began to talk about the possibilities that tools like the Raspberry Pi or the Arduino had the potential to afford my curious middle school students and, in short, Michigan Makers was born.

Now, almost one year later, we’re at a place where we can look back, thoughtfully, and see what worked, what didn’t work, and what we can do differently as we move forward.

First of all, in order to run a successful middle school makerspace in a school library with 40 students, you need mentors. One teacher/librarian can facilitate a computer club in which all members of the club work on computers together, but if you really want to turn your library into a makerspace in which participants’ interests drive their activities, then you need mentors to lead these activities. In my case, these are enthusiastic, brilliant, committed graduate students who are all on their way to being outstanding librarians. However, you do not need to have a partnership with your local ALA-accredited information school in order to start a makerspace. Instead, take advantage of existing groups and spaces, such as high school robotics teams or crafting guilds. Partnering with enthusiasts and giving them a space to share their craft with young people is an excellent way to build community relationships and develop lasting partnerships.

When it comes to working within the confines of a library in a public school, we are fortunate to run this program in a district that supports the kinds of hands-on learning opportunities that we aim to create. For example, when I asked our building technician if he would help make it possible for us to program Arduinos, he immediately downloaded the necessary software and stored it in a place where students could access it. Of course, we’ve run into some small obstacles with filters and software that prevents downloads, but all of these experiences have provided us with opportunities to have meaningful conversations with students about Internet filters, responsible online behavior, and, in some cases, the mechanics of hardware, software, and the way that downloads or websites are actually blocked.

That being said, this kind of on-your-feet teaching and learning does not come without its share of challenges, too. We have approximately forty middle school students and ten adults. All of us come to the program with unique skills, needs, strengths, and visions for our makerspace. Compromise, frequent dialogue, and immense trust in one another are all essential if you are going to run a makerspace collaboratively.

You must also have a budget. It can be a small budget, but you must have some money to spend on equipment because makerspaces must have “stuff” from which makers can make. For us, this budget came in the form of a grant we received from the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL). Financial support from outside organizations also helps to build your maker community and gives you a forum in which to share what you learn.

In short, for Michigan Makers, community, support, and tools are the essential elements of our middle school library makerspace. If would like more information about supplies, specific lessons, or other ideas, please contact me or visit the Michigan Makers website.

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