New Haven sixth-graders build a makerspace

NEW HAVEN — Just inside the door of a Beeman Elementary School classroom, three sixth-graders knelt on an outer-space-themed rug, sorting Lego bricks, wheels and electronic controllers for a design challenge. In the opposite corner a busy bread machine gave the table it sat on the shivers.
At one station a student sketched — right onto the whiteboard tabletop — the preliminary designs for a hand-held maze she planned to build. At another the hesitant churr of a sewing machine, a pause, a few more stitches. Elsewhere, glue guns, cardboard, scissors, pens, marbles, bins, cutting, thinking, shaping, sharing, dreaming, and a five-foot-tall cardboard rocket about ready to take off.
“Beeman Galaxy,” the school’s new makerspace, was created by kids, for kids, and its occupants are encouraged to “reach for the stars.”
“The only requirement is to be flexible with your thinking the whole time you’re here,” said Beeman sixth-grade teacher Annette Carter, whose students created the space.
A bulletin board near the bread maker spells out the key concepts of Beeman Galaxy’s “design process”:
• Empathy: learning about your audience for whom you are designing.
• Define: redefining and focusing your question based on your insights from the empathy stage.
• Ideate: brainstorming and coming up with creative solutions.
• Prototype: building a representation of one or more of your ideas to show to others.
• Test and revise: returning to your original user group and testing your ideas for feedback!
“The empathy part of that is really important,” Carter said. “Making something that fits people’s needs. They’ve been doing lots of thinking about that in class.”
Sixth-grader Hailee Allen (the tabletop maze designer) gave an example.
“For one exercise we closed our eyes and imagined a rocking chair,” she said. “Then we thought about who it might be for: a grandmother, a new mother, a small child.”
Allen had decided to build it for kindergarteners.
“So for that you have to consider texture, age appropriateness and things like that,” she said.
Her classmate Ezra Louer was designing a maze with third-graders in mind. One question he asked himself was, “Will it be light enough to pick up and move from one place to another?”
BEEMAN ELEMENTARY SIXTH-grader Hailee Allen, 12, sketches an initial design for a marble maze she plans to build out of lightweight materials. Beeman’s new makerspace, which opened in May, includes a couple of whiteboard tabletops, where students can doodle, design and calculate. Below, sixth-graders focus on various stages of design/build projects in the school’s new makerspace.
Independent photos/Christopher Ross
During her teacherly rounds, Carter paused to examine Allen’s tabletop drawing.
“That’s starting to look pretty complicated. Are you sure you’ll be able to make that?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Allen replied. “If I use straws to make it.”
“Straws — I like that idea,” Carter said. “Don’t forget to take notes or photograph your design before it gets wiped away.”
“It was a student-led project from beginning to end,” Carter explained. “The sixth-graders made this their goal at the beginning of the year and did the work necessary to make their dream a reality. It’s really a story of ‘making something out of nothing.’”
They began the school year by asking questions, developing ideas and sketching initial designs for the space, she said. An underused room close to the library downstairs made the perfect spot, they decided, and librarian Susie Snow began helping them secure the items they needed.
On a field trip to the Shelburne School last fall the class got to see an existing makerspace in action.
Louer was most impressed by the 3-D printer there, he said.
“You can make really cool designs that you wouldn’t even think of,” he explained. “While we were there someone was making a coin with an elephant on it.”
Inspired by their trip, the Beeman students started formulating ideas and thinking about funding, he added.
Then they emptied the room and did a complete makeover.
In May the sixth-graders held a grand opening for the rest of the school.
“Some students did Lego robotics, ozobots, whiteboard sketching and designing with cardboard,” Carter said. “One group of third-graders made a prototype of a puppet theater and (they’re) currently looking to make a full-size (version). That means students will want to make puppets. That means students will want to write scripts. That means students are engaged in their learning.”
Teachers are discussing ways to incorporate Beeman Galaxy into the curriculum, she added. But that won’t get rolled out until next year. For now, the school is getting to know the space, enjoying it, seeing what happens.
Each class is spending two periods per week in the makerspace. Students can also sign up to use it for specific projects. Beeman participants in the Girls on the Run program, for instance, were planning to design and make costumes for their upcoming annual running event, Carter said.
The bread-making project is in the taste-testing phase, Carter said.
Once a few suitable recipes have been developed, the school will start selling bread to help fund future makerspace projects and purchases.
“Students are independently making bread a few times a week and have calculated what profits we will make if we sell a certain amount of loaves,” Carter explained.
The machine also makes jam, sixth-grader Jack Barnum pointed out happily.
Students now have two places to stimulate their imaginations and work through their ideas, Carter said: the Beeman Galaxy and the Outdoor Classroom.
The latter was expanded earlier this spring with the addition of a “mud kitchen.”
“Beeman has been fortunate to have a principal (Travis Park) who has been in complete support of this space,” Carter said. “He understands the importance of student-led, inquiry-based, project-based learning.”
Park was grateful for the students’ efforts, he said.
“This is a great legacy that the sixth grade is leaving with Beeman for years to come.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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