Education

Somers Middle School Carves Out Space for Student Inventors

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Tech teacher Matt Lugo holds a prosthetic hand that was created by his students. The mechanisms of this larger, cardboard model were translated to a life-size, plastic model. Credits: Brian Marschhauser
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SOMERS, N.Y. – The next great American inventor might be testing her or his early ideas in the MakerSpace at Somers Middle School.

That’s what tech teacher Matt Lugo was hoping for when he and colleague Rich DeVito created the innovative learning space, which encourages students to bring their ideas to life—no matter how farfetched they may sound.

“We want to be that place for them, where they really go for it when they have that idea,” Lugo told a group of educators on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

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About a dozen tech teachers and administrators from neighboring districts came by Somers Middle School last week to learn about MakerSpace and how they might be able to create a similar room in their schools.

Lugo said he came up with the idea for a “STEM lab” (science, technology, engineering and math) several years ago while working for another school district, where he helped create three such rooms. He long wanted to bring the idea to Somers, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015-16 school year that real estate opened up. A downstairs computer lab closed because, as Lugo said, tablets that all middle school students carry with them are making the need for such labs obsolete.

Once he had the space, it was time to design the room. He created a Maker Club in October 2015 and together, using a Google application, they sketched up their dream scenario, one complete with 3-D printers, a laser cutting machine, a green screen and more. While some items remain out of their budget, Lugo said, he and DeVito are constantly applying for grants and seeking out innovative fundraising avenues.

“We want this to be the center of innovation and creativity for the whole school,” Lugo said.

It took almost the entire school year for the teachers and students to renovate the room, which included cleaning out of all the old computers and furniture. The students helped build new furniture and paint the room. They also created an energy bike (a bike that generates electricity), a wind tube (used to test how certain objects can float) and a shake table (used to test responses of structures during seismic activity).

In addition to his clubs and tech classes, Lugo said, he has opened the space up to the entire school and wants to encourage as much creativity as possible. Math and science teachers, for instance, are able to use the room with Lugo and DeVito’s approval, though they cannot use power tools without a certified tech teacher.

The students are held to high standards while using the room, too. In fact, they require all students to sign a “MakerSpace contract” in order to encourage students to see their project through.

“Anything they can dream up, we support that,” Lugo said.

Lugo and DeVito hope MakerSpace will encourage more students to pursue courses and, ultimately, careers in STEM fields. The STEM programs at the high school have already seen a bump in enrollment, which Lugo credits to the middle school lab.

“We want to inspire kids to be engineers,” Lugo said. “Through our efforts here, we have seen our numbers rise at the high school.”

He has also witnessed a rise in the number of female students enrolling in STEM courses or clubs. A reason for this, he surmises, is that female students enjoy the feeling of helping people, which so many inventions do.

For example, a group of students recently created a prosthetic hand using a 3-D printer. Once complete, the prosthetic hand is sent to an organization for review and, if deemed functional, will be donated to a person for who needs it.

“We’re trying to make a difference, and we found that female students like helping with this,” Lugo said.

Keeping a lab like this up and running is no easy task: Lugo and DeVito, as the only two tech teachers in the school, are tasked with its management, which means they must meet with all teachers and clubs who wish to use the room. But there’s a reason why, with so little free time, the two teachers gladly keep the lab going.

“Why do we do it? It could be one of our amazing kids that comes up something that changes the world,” Lugo said.

Visit SomersSchools.org and search for the MakerSpace page to learn more about the lab and to see a list of completed projects.

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