Third Place, $5,000: Maker Educators Collaborative: Innovation in the Learning Commons, West Vancouver, B.C.
A toy bear with hand-carved wooden snowshoes and a tiny crocheted hat. If Michelle Davis thinks back, that childhood Christmas gift-a handmade collaboration between her parents and her grandmother-is where everything started. It’s what led her to get a graduate degree in educational technology and design, and what inspired her to transform her place of work.
“Growing up, there was always a sewing room or a workshop at home. I was always encouraged to create,” she says.
When Davis, a teacher-librarian, first arrived at Gleneagles Ch’axay Elementary School in West Vancouver two years ago, she knew she wanted to replicate that experience on a larger scale. The answer: a “makerspace,” a physical area where students from kindergarten to Grade 7 could use equipment, whether a sheet of cardboard or a 3-D printer, to design, explore and, ultimately, learn.
In cooperation with col- leagues from three local grade schools and a high school, Davis set up a space in the Gleneagles “learning commons” (a.k.a. the library) where students could tinker. (All four of the schools currently have makerspaces in varying stages of development; Davis and her collaborators would like to equip other institutions across the city, as well.)
For Kelly Richter’s daughters, eight-year-old Ava and seven-year-old Sabina, the makerspace is part of what makes their school cool. And experimenting, rather than following instructions, lets them risk failure-as important a lesson as any. “I was struck by how Ava and a friend became engrossed with figuring out how electronic building blocks could work together in different ways,” says Richter. “They were fearless about making mistakes.”
Davis sees the learning commons as a “library plus,” a hub where traditional skills like reading are complemented by creative problem solving and critical thinking. Working with the different grade levels, she chose five themes to launch its makerspace: robotics, video creation, fabric shop, engineering and building, and design challenges.
Participants have made murals on a giant Lego wall, built an igloo out of 400 milk jugs, come up with a concept for a GPS-equipped dog collar and programmed robots to navigate a handmade obstacle course. But literacy is the engine driving all this innovation. Reading a book about a robot begat the design of a robot, which begat the composition of a story about a robot. And because the kids were writing about something they constructed, their level of investment grew. “By asking the children what they want to make, we are helping them realize that they aren’t just consumers,” says Davis. “They can create new knowledge and give back.”
The students aren’t the only ones who feel empowered. Maker education is grounded in the spirit of community, and that’s reflected in the West Vancouver collective. “We’re made up of teacher-librarians, a vice-principal and teachers at both the grade-school and high-school levels,” says Davis. “You don’t often see this kind of cross-pollination. Pooling our resources has made this experience richer.”