Students put ‘maker’ spin on science
MONKTON — Fifth-grader George Collette’s entreaty to come see the science experiment waiting outside the Monkton Central School gymnasium this past Thursday afternoon was hard to turn down.
“Have you ever seen a marshmallow fly?” he asked.
Outside on the pavement, he and his team scrambled to ready their contraption. Using a bicycle pump, a length of PVC tubing and lots of tape, they used air pressure from the pump to launch marshmallows, as well as their favorite projectiles — wadded tissues soaked in water.
“They’re basically giant spitballs,” said teammate Christofer Wolak.
In addition to being great fun for a gang of fifth-grade boys, the endeavor had a scientific component. The cannon, as indicated by a nearby hand-drawn chart, was a working demonstration of Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of physics.
For them, the fun was designing and then testing their marshmallow/spitball gun. The fact that they learned about science was incidental.
Science-by-discovery is a practice that fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Kate La Riviere Gagner said is intended as a part of the Monkton class’s “maker movement,” an umbrella term that describes a culture of independent inventors, designers and tinkerers driven by a desire to experiment. Workshops called “maker spaces” have popped up all over the country, and expos, called “Maker Faires,” attract hundreds of visitors in cities across the United States.
Gagner discovered the maker movement last summer on Twitter and decided to bring it to her science classes.
The Monkton class received about $500 to buy high-tech learning tools from DonorsChoose, an online nonprofit that allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects. Then Gagner let the students take over.
Starting in the fall, a corner of the classroom at the Monkton Central School was designated their “maker space” and became a mayhem of hammers, saws, screwdrivers, glue guns, soldering irons — along with dissected VCRs, circuit boards and more — where the students could experiment during free time or designated class periods.
“It’s organized chaos,” she said.
That “organized chaos” can yield some positive results. Unlike a conventional science class, where a teacher would stand in front of the class, the “maker” method follows a more hands-on approach, one driven by the students’ curiosity.
“There’s no way we can know all the things they want to know,” Gagner said. “When they come up with a question, they’re self-propelled. “
Fellow fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Kelly Pierpont also sees the pluses of the maker method of teaching.
“It sparks curiosity, which then feeds on itself,” Pierpont said. “They may just be playing, but then they’ll have a spark of an idea. Hopefully, with some guidance, they can research it and take it further.”
The class’s first Mini Maker Faire in the gymnasium last Thursday showcased the students’ year of exploration. At first glance, the gymnasium looked like a typical science fair with 40 students standing by cardboard displays and models of their experiments to demonstrate for visitors.
Sixth-graders Quincy Cook and Stang Chantawan experimented with circuitry using a device called a Makey Makey. Slightly smaller than a cell phone and wafer-thin, the Makey Makey is an exposed circuit board with terminals for cables with alligator clips that can be attached to any object. For their demonstration on Thursday afternoon, Cook and Chantawan showed how electricity-conducting objects — in their case, pickles and blobs of PlayDoh — could be used to control the computer game Tetris.
The two spent the entire year practicing with the device and experimenting by attaching the terminals to as many objects as they could. They found their time in the new maker space to be less stressful and more productive than sitting in a class.
“We can do what we want and learn how we want,” Chantawan said. “There’s not much structure to it and there’s no time limit so we can take our time and we don’t have to rush.”
Cook and Chantawan said when students got stuck on a difficult project they would go on to another project and then return when they had a new idea. Both were interested in science, but said their experience with the maker space has made science their favorite topic.
Sixth-graders Sierra Petrocelli and Sarah Lavigne made physics-related observations with the help of a cardboard chicken named “Clyde,” which dispensed Skittles candy through a ramp.
Neither said they were aspiring scientists before this year, but thanks to Clyde they’re starting to give science a second chance. Lavigne said she wants to research more about Isaac Newton, whose work in the 17th century formed the basis for much of modern mechanics, calculus and optics.
“He really seems like an interesting person. It’s amazing to think he had all those ideas in his head,” Lavigne said.
While some students used kits, others weren’t hesitant to break things apart. While taking apart and tinkering with the parts of car speakers, sixth-graders Joey Hemingway and Owen Farell learned about magnets in household objects and the Earth’s magnetic poles.
Gagner and Pierpont will take their students to maker fairs at Shelburne Farms in September and at the University of Vermont in November. The maker spaces and the fairs will be regular fixtures at Monkton Central, they said.
Meanwhile, Grace Harvey, Anni Funke, Txuxa Konczal and Halle Huizenga took a more motorized approach, building a car out of Lego bricks on rubber treads, controlled with an iPad via Bluetooth connection. The group of four found their maker space time to be a welcome break.
“It’s great to have that two hours of freedom to be creative,” said Harvey, describing the two hours she spends taking apart keyboards and CD players, getting ideas for future projects. “Science finally got interesting this year.”
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