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New Milford High School Pushes the Envelope on 21st Century Education

School transforms library into 'Makerspace,' a controlled chaos of ideas, innovation, intuition -- and a 3-D printer

new milford makerspace
Student working at the aptly named "take-apart" station at the Makerspace at New Milford High School.

During a recent lunch period at New Milford High School, the small rectangular library was buzzing with excited students. Some clicked Lego pieces together to model a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Others were dismantling a motherboard from an outdated computer, while fellow classmates monitored the whirring 3-D printer as it produced Shakespeare’s Globe Theater from their design.

“Its more informal and relaxed, you are not getting a grade on this,” said senior Chris Learn, “You can just print whatever you want and have a good time doing it.”

“It can be educational if you want it to be,” Learn finally conceded, “You can use it for a class or project.”

Under the guidance of Library Media Specialist Laura Fleming and media-savvy principal Eric Sheninger, the underused library was transformed into a valuable educational tool known as a Makerspace -- a community lab where individuals can come together to share resources, ideas, and create projects.

A Makerspace (a.k.a. "Hackerspace") enables students to be in charge of making, designing, tinkering, innovating, and learning in a supervised school setting. Machinery and toolkits let students conceptualize and create.

The concept has been gaining traction in education circles, and New Milford is leading the way for New Jersey public schools.

“There is no one-size fits all model, no two Makerspaces should be the same. It should reflect the needs, wants, and ability of the students,” explained Fleming.

Fleming stresses the importance of creating a Makerspace that fits the environment. The students must be an integral part of the process so they can take ownership of the space and want to be a part of it.

"They are all here because they want to be here," Sheninger said of the students around him. "That's where you know it is being sustained, where you can walk in here anytime and see this."

In the past decade, most school districts in the state have moved toward more testing and greater austerity. Fleming worries about the lack of creativity and liberalism under the aegis of the Common Core, so she has used the schools Makerspace to collaborate with teachers. The technology can supplement a lesson or introduce a new idea.

The New Milford Makerspace is located in the middle of the library and consists of fixed stations that remain available year-round and flexible stations that come and go, reflecting student demand and desire.

The fixed stations include a Lego set for challenges, a Makey-Makey kit for redesigning technology, a Little Bits bar for robotics, a 3-D printer for designing and creating, and a take-apart station for dismantling outdated computers. Flexible stations include a molecular gastronomy kit used to make outlandish flavor combinations like chocolate caviar and a toothbrush robotics kit.

"We don't let the technology drive instruction, it's a tool used to support learning," Sheninger said.

The space was mostly funded by donations and many of the structural pieces are made of appropriated items. The reading room floor was tiled in old dictionary pages by the environmental club and a parent’s old workbench now serves as the Little Bits bar.

Fleming, who is out to fight what she sees as the current climate of curtailing creativity, explains the key factors necessary to maintaining the space: trust and flexibility.

“Trust not only that your students can handle the space but also trust them to learn and fill in the blanks of what you might not know as an educator,” Fleming said.

Trusting students to lead the way democratizes the process and forces the kids to take ownership of their tools. Fleming also believes a certain level of organized chaos is a sign of a healthy and well-used space. She wants the space to be desirable and is liberal with the library rules.

Fleming allows food and beverages in the library, so kids can spend their lunch hours and independent studies in the space. And they do. The room is packed with eager and independent makers during all lunch hours.

The small space functions much like a microcosm of an inventive society. There are opinion leaders, known in the space as “experts,” who are frequent tinkerers, creators, makers, and masters of their skill sets. These experts often teach other students how to use the equipment. Those students then teach their friends, the network of learning expands and student autonomy is perpetuated.

Chris Learn, 3-D printing expert, is mostly a creator of toys and nonfunctional items inspired by old video games and movies. His penguins-donning-top-hats stand proudly on the workbench-turned-Little Bits bar, and a picture of his emulation of the Elder Wand from Harry Potter is displayed nearby on a virtual Makerspace wall of fame.

Not all students see the 3-D printer as primarily a tool for play, however.

Jonathan Melendez, friend and fellow expert, sees his new skill set as an opportunity for the future, “I’m definitely going to buy one for myself when I get out [of the service]. Let's say I come up with an invention, I just create it online and see how it works out and just give it out to people. I could start a business that way.”

So far most of his creations are modified versions of things he has found online, but an iPad stand made from the printer's PLA filament -- the thermoplastic material used to create images -- shows true ingenuity and innovation.

But this autonomous world is not as utopian as it may seem. As in the real world, the power structure in the Makerspace sometimes favors the experts over those who do not know how to use the equipment. For infrequent users, there are some obstacles to overcome, like getting a time to tinker on the 3-D printer that is busy for hours on a single project.

Pamela Yachouh, take-apart expert, argues for more supervision in the space. She has noticed that it is difficult for nonexperts to get a turn on the printer. She also thinks that her fellow classmates would benefit from some instruction and background information at the take-apart station, where she feels barbaric screwdriver slinging is more common than learning.

“Having a little lesson or course on how to take apart a computer would help take the mystery away from computers,” explained Yachouh, who went on to make a suggestion, “Get a student who understands this stuff well to teach the other kids how to take apart a computer successfully and maybe put it back together.” She feels this would maintain the student-driven mission of the space, while providing a greater opportunity for learning.

When the lunch bell rang and a group of students was forced to leave the space, one boy neatly summed up the situation. “Wait I want to hang out here, I don’t want to go to gym.”

Selena Handler is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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