Berkeley Heights Educators Give Creativity, Imaginations Early Boost with Makerspaces at Mary Kay McMillin Center


BERKELEY HEIGHTS,NJ—Preparing young minds for a future where creativity and technology will drive accomplishments is becoming “Job 1” early in the township’s Mary Kay McMillin Early Childhood Center.

A taste of this.concept was presented by Mary Kay McMillin principal Annie Corley-Hand and teachers Rachel Hopkins and Emily Retsis at Thursday’s Berkeley Heights Board of Education meeting.

Reaching back into the memories of older audience members at the meeting, the educators asked them to again experience the joys of making a Soapbox Derby-type car or setting up a backyard tent or flying a paper airplane.

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The rudimentary skills developed as children tinker while taking things apart, putting things together, figuring out how things work and attempting to build and create using tools, the teachers said, will help them develop thought processes which will help them succeed in an increasingly more technical world while still enjoying childhood fun, the educators said.

Lessons learned in the maker spaces drive students in early childhood to ask questions, make plans, collaborate, test their ideas, solve problems, improve their ideas and share their ideas and creations with others.

Even though they are experiencing what appear to be play activities, the teachers said, the students are using the design process, mathematics, science, technology and language arts. At the same time, they used problem solving and critical thinking to refine and improve their products.

According to the teachers, “creativity drives perseverance” and “social skills are honed as they seek out help from peers and adults to overcome obstacles.”

At the same time, a new type of recycling is encouraged, with parents and other community members urged to find new uses for what they would otherwise throw away and contribute them to these students to combine and build into new tools and other instruments.

When the students themselves were asked to define makerspaces they said they were places to “make stuff,” “create new things” and “create things with tape and glue.”

When developing the maker spaces, the teachers said they wanted to “create environments that invite exploration and allow for creativity to flourish.”

They reviewed best practices to make the space appropriate to the Early Childhood Center, shared the concept with the Parent-Teacher Organization and requested funding, spent the summer ordering, collecting and organizing material for classrooms while “creating design challenges and establishing prompts and guidelines for students.”

The students were asked to develop makerspace rules that were broken down into sharing tools, materials and idea, being helpful to their fellow students, keeping their areas client and practicing care and safety while “having fun” and “keep trying”

Students used literature as a jumping off point, in building a bridge to help three billy goats get to grass they wanted to eat while avoiding a troll and using materials available to design instruments that make sounds.

Teachers also prepared to stimulate their students’ creativity with an in-service day during which they were asked to work on projects using techniques similar to those in which they were instructing their students.

Responding to questions from board member Chris Reilly and a parent in the audience, assistant superintendent of schools Scott McKinney said application of the next generation science standards would mean that many of the techniques being used at Mary Kay McMillin would be and already are being used at the higher levels of district schools, such as in development and refinement of robotics classes.

Superintendent of schools Judith Rattner also praised the introduction of another “innovation” in the district—having Corley-Hand bring her newly-adopted Australian Labradoodle Timber “join” the staff to help children relax, feel more at ease and learn to enjoy their studies more.

Board member Helen Kirsch said her grandson, who had not been too fond of reading, looked forward to it with the presence of Timber, and a parent said the pooch helped her son overcome his fears of the first day of school.

Speaking of learning innovations in the district, McKinney also reviewed new courses such as “App Design”, “Business Marketing and Product Development,” “Design Challenge” and “Digital Creation” at Columbia Middle School that were approved at the meeting.

Also approved were revised 2017-2018 curriculum guides that include “K-5 Computers” and instrumental music for the fourth to eighth grades; “Top Chef” and “Video Game Design” at the middle school and “Math for Living” and “Music and Lyrics: Societal Reflections and Influence” at Governor Livingston High School.

The school body also gave its support to the application by Berkeley Heights Township to the state department of transportation Safe Routes to School Program.

Board members also accepted a $30,336 donation from the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation for a host of programs and equipment for township schools during the 2016-2017 school year.

On another matter, board members and Rattner said they had reported to Facebook a page on the social media site that, they said, was incorrectly giving the impression that it represented the Berkeley Heights schools.

They said some comments inappropriate to the school district had been posted on the site and it had inferred that the district was endorsing political candidates, which it does not do.

The officials said only the district’s official website represents its policies and views and correct information on school matters and the result of any Facebook investigation would be posted on the official website. 

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