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School Librarians Push for More ‘Maker Spaces’

By Jacob Bell — May 12, 2015 5 min read
Sarah Cramer, a librarian in training, consults with Jay Wambere, a 5th grade student, about his LittleBits electronic music composition at Mitchell Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich. The schools i participating in the Michigan Makers program, a University of Michigan initiative that supports the use of maker spaces in schools.

Angela Rosheim, a library media specialist, faced a problem: Her elementary school students were requesting materials during genius hour—a time in which teachers provide resources for students to study topics of personal interest—that the school didn’t have.

“They wanted to learn robotics, they wanted to learn to create apps,” said Ms. Rosheim, who has worked at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Liberty, Mo., for more than 20 years.

In response to her students’ needs, she applied for and received an $8,000 grant from the Liberty school district to create a “maker space” in the school’s library. The grant, along with donations and her budget, allowed Ms. Rosheim to stock the space with craft supplies, sewing machines, snap circuits, Lego sets, and a 3-D printer.

Ms. Rosheim’s move in that direction over the past year and a half reflects an increasing push by school librarians to incorporate maker spaces in their libraries. It is part of a larger trend, called the “maker movement,” which promotes education through tinkering and creating.

“When I go to speak to a group of librarians at a conference, it’s standing-room-only to talk about maker spaces,” said Kristin Fontichiaro, a clinical assistant professor in the school of information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a faculty coordinator for the Michigan Makers maker-space project, an after-school program that helps students develop technology skills by tinkering with and creating things. “There is a real hunger; there is a sense that there’s something about this that’s powerful for them.”

An Evolution

The term “maker space,” Ms. Fontichiaro said, has no single definition. The spaces can be high-tech, low-tech, part of the school curriculum, or part of an after-school program. Some aren’t even called maker spaces. The only central theme is that of creation and innovation.

Facilitating student creation has been a largely overlooked but increasingly important role for school librarians, according to Leslie Preddy, the president-elect of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians. Along with new STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—and inquiry-based movements in education, this role has prompted more school librarians to push for maker spaces.

While the number of makerspaces popping up in schools is difficult to estimate, a three-part study from the Maker Education Initiative, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy and research organization, has identified at least 50 maker spaces in the United States, with 20 of them located in schools. The organization also found one in South Korea. The maker spaces reported a combined 1.8 million participants in the past year.

Librarian-in-training Alex Quay helps 4th grade student Kandyce Barnes work on a hand-sewing project at Mitchell Elementary.

“It’s the next evolutionary step in school libraries,” said Ms. Preddy, who also serves as a library media specialist at Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis. “We couldn’t be the school library you grew up in and meet the needs of the kids today.”

Evaluating Impact

Those modern needs revolve, at least partly, around newly adopted state tests and standards such as the Common Core State Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards.

Some researchers are conducting large-scale studies that examine the academic benefits of maker spaces. Overall, however, the scientific community hasn’t come to a consensus about how maker spaces serve as effective learning environments, according to Lee Martin, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, whose research deals with how youths learn from making experiences.

“In terms of outcomes, I haven’t seen a study that’s really looking at those kinds of specific, quantitative, measurable outcomes … that you really generalize and say, ‘Look, making is effective for x, y, and z,’ ” Mr. Martin said.

The lack of data around maker spaces can present problems for administrators and librarians when justifying the need for the spaces in their schools or when determining the scope of their maker-space projects.

“Formal schools—public schools specifically—have a little bit less flexibility, because they still need to make sure students are prepared to take standardized tests and meet the goals and the standards related to a specific subject area,” said Stephanie Chang, the director of programs at the Maker Education Initiative.

More commonly, researchers are gathering data on individual or anecdotal levels. At those levels, researchers, librarians, and other maker-space coordinators have found students developing the skills that newly adopted standards require, such as problem-solving and critical thinking.

In the Maker Education Initiative survey, for example, about half the surveyed representatives of maker spaces reported alignment with Next Generation Science Standards, and about 40 percent reported alignment with the common standards. What’s more, about 50 percent reported fostering skills such as problem identification, effective communication of ideas, and evaluation and refinement of creative ideas.

“For a lot of them to report back that they felt they were developing these sorts of skills in kids, despite their specific equipment or the specific activities that they do, was really, really nice to see,” said Ms. Chang, who also worked on the survey.

In addition to concerns about alignment to state standards and tests, Ms. Chang and others have said that the perception that maker spaces must be expensive is another obstacle facing their implementation in schools.

“People think, ‘Oh, I need a 3-D printer that’s $2,300. I can’t afford that,’ ” said Ms. Fontichiaro of the University of Michigan. “You can afford a junk box. You can afford a ream of paper. You can afford a white board that you can make out of [materials] from the home-improvement store."For Ms. Rosheim, the bulk of her $8,000 grant was spent on storage needs, high-tech materials ranging from $50 to $400, and organization of those materials. The space’s most expensive item—the 3-D printer—came as a donation from the school’s PTA.

Rather than money, time limits are the biggest challenge affecting Ms. Rosheim’s maker space, she said, as students have just one or two times a week to work on projects that can take more than four weeks to complete.

Student-Centered Shift

The changes Ms. Rosheim made to her curriculum and school, while a part of the Maker Movement, are also part of another trend: a nearly 30-year shift from libraries being more facility- and collection-centered to being primarily student-centered.

That shift, according to Deb Levitov, the managing editor of School Libraries Monthly, culminated in 2009 with the release of guidelines from the AASL stating that being a teacher is the primary role of a school librarian.

The focus, then, of school librarians is to meet the instructional, emotional, and cultural needs of faculty and students, according to Ms. Preddy.

“The maker space is important in a sense that it helps kids try things out, try things on … maybe not even for a career, but just for a personal interest or a hobby or a talent or a strength they had that, without the tools and resources in the maker space, they would have never been able to sample,” Ms. Preddy said.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is ported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as School Librarians Push To Create ‘Maker Spaces’

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