LIVINGSTON, NJ – Hillside Elementary School Principal Carlos Gramata teamed up with Media Specialist Colleen Donnelly and fourth-grade teachers Amy Vitale and Jade George on Monday night to share with the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) a presentation on how their students are giving a 21st-century voice to their creative spirits using the school’s newly installed Makerspace. 

The facelift given to Hillside’s computer lab over the summer in anticipation of the 2017-18 school year marks the first of its kind in the district. 

With the enhancements to the lab, Hillside joins “The Maker Movement” that is beginning to sweep the country. These spaces, dedicated to helping students connect curriculum to creativity, are stocked with both traditional and technology driven supplies that help bring ideas to life using a wide breadth of mediums and media. 

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Supplies include such items as 3D printers, Little Bits, squishy circuits, magnetic building blocks, craft sticks, glue guns, duck tape, straws and connectors, origami paper, Brackitz, old boxes, paper, crayons, colored markers, toothpicks, computers and more.

“It’s just a place for kids to explore whatever they’re drawn to,” said Vitale.

As many notions do, the idea started as a simple one. Inspired by the idea of bringing a 3D printer to Hillside, Gramata took a workshop on the device last year to explore the possibility of adding one to the school.

At the same time he was considering the purchase, a Hillside parent working in Millburn’s South Mountain School suggested that Gramata, Donnelly and one of the PTA Presidents take a field trip to see the impact their Makerspace was having on students and experience first-hand how it operated in practice.  Impressed by what they saw, the team members began educating themselves by taking workshops at The Maker Depot and Rutgers’ Maker Academy, and participating in Makerspace innovator, Laura Fleming’s, online courses and podcasts.

As the idea continued to gain momentum, the Hillside Makerspace team conducted internal qualitative research in which students were asked directly what they would like to make or build if such a space were made available to them.

Supervisors of curriculum were consulted in the spring to discuss how they could tie what they would do in the space to curriculum across the various disciplines and incorporate standards such as New Jersey Learning Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, ISTE Standards and Standards for 21st Century Learners. 

A committee of teachers began meeting after school to discuss how to make the space a working and functional one for kids. Gramata and Donnelley devised a prototype template for connecting reading and writing using the capabilities of the Makerspace. Donnelly then used that template to create a general template that could be applied to additional disciplines of learning.

Today, with the Makerspace fully functioning, teachers use online learning to access resources appropriate for various grade levels and attend workshops to learn how to get the most out of the space. This learning gives them insight into how students can solve different problems in the Makerspace. 

“This week, our fifth graders made models of molecules and atoms,” Donnelly said as an example. “We went from low-tech using cotton balls, Playdough, and toothpicks, to high-tech where students had the opportunity to get on Tinkercad [a 3D digital design tool] and create. They had to show what they learned in science class via their creations.”

In one of the more creative applications of the space, on their first trip to the Makerspace, kindergarteners were tasked with constructing “Three Little Pigs” houses using dot candy and toothpicks as well as a hairdryer disguised as the wolf that tried to blow the houses down. During their second visit, the students used more durable materials such as Legos and wooden blocks to create the houses so they could see how one material was stronger than another.

“Every child is engaged in the activity and excited about what they’re doing,” said Donnelly.

In pre-Makerspace days, fourth graders used the library to create posters or websites when focusing on a Colonial Times unit. Today, with the enhanced resources offered in the Makerspace, they now have the flexibility to create a prototype for something that would help someone in Colonial Times.

Donnelly concluded by summing up the goal of the Makerspace experience.

“We’re combining lessons in the classroom with research in the media center and output in the Makerspace,” she said.