Northgate to open new middle school “maker space”

Anyone out of the learning loop for the last few years in regard to current educational methods may not be so sure of what is meant by “project-based learning,” a term that refers to a classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges, acquiring a deeper knowledge of creating solutions to those problems.

That classroom approach usually requires an area referred to as a maker-space, a location where students are excited to work and demonstrate their creativity through innovative activities. This student-centered practice enables students to acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems and to gain the skills and knowledge needed to answer complex questions or problems.

During the 2017-18 school year, the Northgate School District focused on designing project-based learning opportunities for students across all content areas and grade levels. These projects, known as cornerstone tasks, engaged students so that they might explore content and skills in rigorous and lasting ways.

As Northgate superintendent Dr. Caroline Johns explained maker-space plans, “We want to offer standing-height tables as well as stools for students to collaborate with their peers in a variety of ways. Writable-surface tables will act both as work spaces and design spaces. This will offer them stations to optimize creativity and engage student cogitation. A unique cloud shape will inspire creativity and fit in well with our “The Sky's the Limit” theme of the room. This innovative area will be a place where students will want to come and collaborate and truly learn how to work together. This will aid in their academic careers and assist them in career readiness.”

Of course, such a space also would also have a hefty price tag attached.

To the rescue: Johns recently shared the reply to a grant request written by seventh grade science teacher Stephanie Francis last June.

“Congratulations! The Allegheny Intermediate Unit is pleased to inform you that your 2018-2019 Catalyst STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math] Grant proposal to support The Sky's the Limit (Makerspace) has been selected to be funded. You will be receiving an official letter of agreement that details the grant reporting requirements in the very near future. The proposals were reviewed and selected through a rigorous review process: each proposal was carefully read by four separate reviewers, which included representatives from three separate intermediate units, The Remake Learning Network, past grant recipients, and resident experts. Your proposal was selected for its vision in implementing truly cross-disciplinary, innovative STEAM instruction. You should be proud of this recognition and we look forward to you joining the cohort next school year.”

The $16,500 grant will mainly benefit seventh and eighth grade students, prime users of the maker space facility.

Johns said that she was not certain how many school districts submitted grant requests, explaining, “We were supposed to be notified by the middle of July who was awarded the grant. We received an e-mail that week stating that because of the number of applicants, they needed approximately three more weeks to review the grants.”

Johns said that with the help of this grant, Northgate will create a community destination where students can create, problem-solve and develop their skills and talents.

“We hope by encouraging students with our theme, 'The Sky's the Limit,' they will be inspired to reach their full potential through design-thinking. With project-based learning as a foundation for our curriculum, we were in need of an in-house space where students can learn through creation and not lecture-style learning. By re-purposing a currently underused storage space, students will have a place to go to help engage, enrich and expand their learning experiences. This space will house materials needed for students to create projects to demonstrate learning and provide a positive learning atmosphere as well as promote collaboration among peers. Design thinking and project-based learning are both at the core of our most innovative teachers' professional practice. Across the district, we see faculty designing learning opportunities for students that engage them in community-embedded service learning and other real-world contexts.”

Any teacher in the school will be able to use the space, but Johns said that when the grant was written, the projects and activities that middle school teachers did in their classroom were kept in mind.

Seventh grader Lillian Sierra said, “I think that it will be amazing to have a maker space because I can remember helping Mrs. [Karen] Klicker [elementary school teacher] with her maker space and it was so much fun! I can't wait to experiment and build in the new maker space!”

Johns said, “We hope to fill this space with a conglomeration of building materials, technology options, and tools, making it a place where all students feel they have the materials needed to create their method of understanding without feeling inadequate due to financial stress. This space will enable our students to be creative, think critically, collaborate and communicate in an equal-footed environment.”

Seventh grader Memphis Szakelyhidi agrees with the entire concept. “The maker space is a good idea because the students will have a place to go to really see and learn what they are learning in class.”

An official opening date has not yet been set, but shelves are up and the materials that Northgate purchased using prize money from winning the Duquesne Light contest last year are on the shelves.

“So, I guess the official opening will be sometime close to Thanksgiving, but classes can go and use the materials and space anytime,” Johns said.