While in middle school, Hayden McGarry, now a freshman at Schalmont High School, worked with friends to turn a pile of old computers into a small computer network – an intranet, they called it.
They used their intranet, forged in Schalmont Middle School’s library “makerspace,” to play a multi-person video game, but they also learned skills they had not mastered in their core classes.
“The fact I can just tinker and build, I learn more in this program than I have in school because it’s not traditional,” said Hayden, who was among the first students to join Schalmont Middle School librarian Linda Fasano in the school’s makerspace when it debuted in 2015.
Speaking as an ambassador for Schalmont’s makerspace program Friday at an annual education technology conference hosted by BOCES, Hayden said the program is the reason he is proficient in basic website development and other forms of coding. He said he has learned how to work on teams and collaborate to solve challenging technical problems.
“If you didn’t do your part, everyone lagged behind,” Hayden said.
Now at the high school, Hayden said he is working to get a similar program established, highlighting the importance of having a space where students know they can go to tinker away.
At the middle school, students can visit the makerspace as part of study periods; the makerspace lab also hosts weekly after-school events on Mondays. One student at the conference said he played sports all year and wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the makerspace if it were only an after-school activity.
The makerspace is outfitted with 3-D printing pens, small robots that students program to move in certain ways, and games that challenge students to solve problems and learn about technology.
Fasano presents students with tasks and challenges them to work as teams to develop solutions. The challenges are new each time: make their own, powered model cars, create a pair of shoes using only newspaper and string, design a new use for a simple cup.
Will Kruk, who started in the program as a fifth-grader with Hayden and is now in high school, showed off a jerry-rigged video game controller that relied on a tinfoil bracelet attached to the user — it powered a classic version of Pokemon.
“This type of program is their niche,” said Katie Kruk, Will’s mom and a member of the Schalmont school board. She said she didn’t realize Will spent part of nearly every day tinkering away in the library, but it was those projects he told her about when she asked how his day was — not projects for his standard classes.
Kruk has helped Fasano bring outside experts and groups to Schalmont for “maker Mondays,” a schedule of near-weekly after-school programs that revolve around technology, engineering and art. Activities so far this year included a photography lesson, an electric car show and engineering challenges with a women-led group of GE volunteers.
Fasano said the makerspace program is optional and open to all middle school students, but for some students, it offers a way of learning that inspires in a way traditional classroom learning doesn’t.
“It’s highly supplemental, but to some of these guys it is central to what they do,” Fasano said. “It teaches kids who might not care for this (technology) that there are possibilities.”
The makerspace program is supported by donations and grants and is advertised largely through word of mouth, as students bring their friends with them, she said.
Sixth-grader Caelyn Eiser, 11, said she started visiting the makerspace in fifth-grade, because it was one of the only after-school programs open to fifth-graders. Caelyn said she comes from a family of teachers and builders and that she felt the makerspace was an ideal combination of the two.
“When I first came, I loved it,” she said of visiting the makerspace in fifth-grade. “Basically, it described my life – all the cool stuff they had.”
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