ELEVATE: New school labs give children freedom to tinker with STEM

makerCLINTON  (Sept. 21, 2016) – First-grader Alexander Amaya rotated colorful, chunky vowels made of flexible silicone in his hands as he watched an animated pig trot across an electronic tablet. When he placed the “i” between the “p” and the “g” on the screen, the pig gave a delightful oink, and Alexander smiled. The boy has been waiting all week to visit his school’s new learning lab. “It’s better than recess,” he said. “It’s better than lunch – even if it’s pizza.”

Clinton Public Schools is one of the first districts in Oklahoma to equip its sites with maker spaces – and in the process, redefine how children approach learning. Alexander’s educational app, called Tiggly, is one of more than a dozen activity stations at the maker space at Nance Elementary School. Tiggly acts as a modern-day Speak & Spell that upgrades digitized letters and a synthesized robotic voice with fluid animation, music and sounds designed to grab the attention of 4- to 8-year-olds.

To see a video, click here.

Maker spaces are creative laboratories that stress the value of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), where children are encouraged to build, tinker and explore. Teachers are available to guide them, but the climate is one of discovery and collaboration. If there is a problem, students are expected to find their own solutions, even if it means trying multiple approaches before finding the correct answer.

Christy Stephens, a third-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School in Clinton, said her students are achieving more by developing their own goals and procedures though the use of the maker space inside the school’s library.

“They’re learning a lot about creating, innovating and using those higher-level thinking skills without any kind of direction. They’re having to think on their own,” she said. “In the classroom, you have your basic standards of math and reading, but this gives them a little bit of freedom to create.”


makerBecoming problem-solvers

Amid of the hum of excited chatter, keyboard strokes and snapping building blocks, Vinay Modi, a third-grader at Southwest Elementary School, sat down at a new station in the school’s maker space, an extension of the school library. With a motor attached to a laptop, he worked on coding an alligator made of LEGOs to open and close its mouth.

“I like how you create stuff. I was confused when I started doing it, but then it got fun for me. Then I started doing it more,” he said.

Kevin Hime, Clinton’s superintendent, said creation is only one dimension to the learning of the “makers” that occurs in these labs.

“When students go back to the classroom, they can start writing reflections on what they did, how they learned and what they got from it. What could they have done differently? Just like the boy who built the alligator – he couldn’t get its mouth to open. We hope that when he gets back to class, he starts documenting why it didn’t open and what he could have done differently,” the superintendent said.


makerTeachers learning too

Last year, 2015-2016, was the inaugural year for Clinton’s maker spaces. In many ways, the challenge of developing them was a “maker” activity for the teachers themselves. Maker spaces by design are open-ended, and teachers are still experimenting with the best way to help students get the most out of their time in the labs. The district’s maker spaces are still evolving as Hime and his staff search for the right balance of meeting learning objectives and stimulating intellectual play.

Hime’s wife, Stephanie, is the instructional technology integration specialist at Southwest Elementary. She expects maker spaces to have a stronger tie to classroom instruction now that students have returned to school this fall.

“This has been a learning process for us,” she said. “What I envision is going to the next step and saying, ‘How can we expand it more in our classrooms?’”

She suggested a flipped approach of requiring students to craft something in the maker space that complements curriculum, such as building a castle out of giant foam blocks after studying a fairy tale in class.



A growing movement


The maker movement is sweeping the country. According to Atmel, a major manufacturer of semiconductors, approximately 135 million adults in the United States identify themselves as makers. Large show-and-tell conventions highlighting do-it-yourself inventions are popping up all over the world. In 2015, more than 145,000 people attended a Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay area. Even the White House sponsors an annual Maker Faire.

Maker spaces are increasingly popular, and research confirms that they contribute to both cognitive and character development. Preliminary findings of a Harvard study called the Project Zero initiative reveal testimony from educators that maker spaces help children become confident, self-directed learners who are less likely to give up before finding solutions. This empowerment leads them to believe in themselves and their power to change their world.

The staff at Clinton’s Nance Elementary School has seen problem-solving in action in its maker space. A first-grader working with LittleBits, colorful electronic building blocks that work like circuit switches, became frustrated when he could not establish a connection between two blocks. However, by collaborating with a classmate, he came up with an idea he was proud of.

“My problem was when I pulled the ‘on’ switch, my battery wasn’t working,” Rigoberto Rodriguez said. “But my friend had a battery that would work, so I took his battery and put it on to test it, and then it worked!”

To see a video, click here.

Art meets technology

At Clinton High School, students have an open invitation to visit its maker space. A peg board of hardware tools hangs on the back wall near a set of computers, a 3-D printer and an audio mixing station. Students can study the electronic guts of computers and projectors at the deconstruction station. Craft supplies – such as spray adhesive, feathers and a paint cart – are popular features in the maker space. One teacher brought her students to the maker space to create masks to complement a unit on Romeo and Juliet that were later used in a time-period dance demonstration. To see a video, click here.

makerMany of Clinton’s elementary maker space activities interact with iPads, such as an Osmo base that can sense physical shape and letter tiles. Students can pair a green screen with an iPad camera to film newscasts, video messages and LEGO movies. Robots named Dash and Bee-Bot can be programmed through tablets.

To see a video, click here.

Computers power other activities, such as Math Magician, software that challenges children to solve addition problems in a race against the clock. Makey Makey is a system that uses alligator clips to transform paper, bananas or even buckets of water into keyboards. One Clinton High School student used a Makey Makey to create a fully operational guitar out of cardboard.

To see a video, click here.

Maker space activities do not necessarily involve technology. Giant foam blocks from Imagination Playground allow children to build houses or cars on a small scale, then replicate them into structures they can climb into. Clinton’s speedometry station allows children to build race tracks for Hot Wheels cars to measure speed and test propulsion.

The LEGO challenge dares children to draw a card out of a bucket and complete a task, such as building an igloo or creating a structure using only four bricks on a custom-built LEGO table or a child-size LEGO wall.

Affordable solutions

Clinton spent about $13,000 on its maker space at Southwest Elementary, but Hime said a school could create a similar lab for much less by dedicating equipment it may already have, including iPads, Chromebooks, and art supplies. He recommended looking for LEGO bricks at garage sales or painting a wall to create an instant green screen. Schools can also start with fewer stations and build up their maker spaces over time.

Clinton’s teachers aren’t the only ones to see the potential of schools’ maker spaces. In addition to grant money, the district has gained the support of the community to fund the maker spaces. Children do not sell candy bars or tote bags to raise money. They simply go door-to-door with manila envelopes to collect cash.

“Parents and community members understand that money raised goes to the physical playgrounds outside and the academic playgrounds inside,” said Nathan Meget, principal at Southwest Elementary. The school hosts Maker Mondays, when students lead their families on tours of the maker spaces. Attendance averages 100 people per night. In addition, the school holds an annual Innovation Week, a technology petting zoo in which the entire community is invited to see how its donations are being used by the children.

Hime said children are learning more because of this dynamic district addition.

“You can tell the kids are very excited about them. They disperse to their stations and boom, they’re engaged very quickly,” he said.

Kurt Bernhardt, executive director of education technology for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, has seen a dramatic rise in maker space interest throughout the state and has been helping schools understand the benefits, most recently traveling to Woodward to provide maker space professional development for teachers.

“These spaces are so valuable in fulfilling the four C’s of 21st-century learning: critical thinking, communicating, collaborating and creating,” Bernhardt said. “We expect a lot of Oklahoma schools to begin adopting these types of experiences into their curriculum.”

Annette Price is communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.



  • Jaidyn Curtis, a first-grader at Nance Elementary School in Clinton, programs a robot to bark, moo and play sirens as it moves across the floor. The activity station is part of Nance’s maker space lab.
  • Third-grader Vinay Modi animates a LEGO sculpture at the maker space lab at Southwest Elementary School in Clinton.
  • A third-grader at Southwest Elementary School in Clinton explores a structure he built out of giant blocks in the school’s maker space lab.
  • First-graders at Nance Elementary School in Clinton collaborate to build LEGO structures at the Clinton school’s maker space lab.
  • Adrian Martinez builds circuits with blocks called LittleBits in the maker space lab at Nance Elementary School.
  • Alexander Amaya practices his spelling with an app on a tablet. The activity station is part of the maker space lab at Nance Elementary School in Clinton.


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Last updated on September 22, 2016