By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – When some students at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton complained that sitting on the floor during some class periods wasn’t comfortable, LGA Executive Director Ellen Frank says the kids asked if the school could buy cushions for them to sit on.
“We said, “No, but you can make cushions.” So we got out sewing machines and taught them how to sew. And they made seat cushions,” Frank said.
LGA has always promoted this kind of hands-on problem-solving/learning, but next year the Jewish day school will take it up a notch with a state-of-the-art Makerspace that will combine elements of a science lab, woodshop, computer lab and art room.
A “groundbreaking” ceremony for the new Makerspace was held at LGA on June 3, attended by Northampton Mayor David Narkiewicz, State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, and State Senator Jo Comerford.
Since no ground will actually be broken – space on the lower level of the school will be reconfigured and renovated – LGA students in hard hats and safety glasses wielded hammers to break down specially-created walls to symbolically initiate the new project. During summer vacation work will begin on the new space that next school year will allow students to design, build and learn in hands-on, creative ways.
Interest in Makerspaces – collaborative workspaces that encourage creativity, problem-solving, building and learning – has been growing over the past few years, especially in school settings.
According to makerspace.com, “These spaces are also helping to prepare those who need the critical 21st-century skills in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They provide hands-on learning, help with critical thinking skills and even boost self-confidence.”
“The idea behind Makerspace is that many kids learn better by doing,” explained Ellen Frank. “For example, it has long been part of Sukkot that our 5th graders go back and read the original verses about how to build the sukkah and what the dimensions are. Now what they will be able to do is actually translate that into building their own scale model sukkah.”
LGA Principal Deborah Bromberg-Seltzer says the new Makerspace will allow for more collaboration between academic subjects.
“We do a lot of integration between subject matter – it’s not, ‘This is art and we only do art during art time,’ or ‘This is Judaic studies; we only do Judaic studies in Judaic studies time.’ We do those things in an interconnected way. But when the projects kids are doing in their own time and their learning become one, the learning is so much deeper. When they can say, ‘I’m interested in doing it this way’ or ‘I’m somebody who really likes this and here’s a space in which I am able to explore that,’ the excitement and therefore the learning is so much deeper.”
Flexibility is key
Plans have been in the works for a dedicated Makerspace at LGA for the past two years as part of an initiative of the David Lear Sulman Fund to support the study of computing, science and engineering education in Jewish Day Schools.
LGA, Maimonides School in Brookline and Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead are the three day schools taking part.
A room next to the art room was used this past school year as a kind of introductory Makerspace to help familiarize both the students and faculty to this kind of space. It also helped them to figure out through trial and error what was needed in the new Makerspace.
“We knew this was a temporary solution but we felt like we needed to start having a Makerspace to be able to really have conversations about what we needed,” said Bromberg-Seltzer. “And there were definitely things we learned by being in the space, like storage. Every time we met with the architect, it was, ‘Let’s put more storage in!’”
“We spent a lot of time last year thinking about the best space to put the Makerspace into,” added Frank. “We felt it was really important that there be flow between the Makerspace and the art room because there is so much overlap between the two.”
Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) has already finished the Makerspace’s design. Wright Builders of Northampton, the company that built LGA 16 years ago, will begin constructing it during summer vacation. It will be finished when school begins in the fall.
A workbench that will be built around the perimeter of the room will be the actual Makerspace. In both the Makerspace and art room, which will be connected but separated by a door, there will be tables with wheels that snap together and apart.
“So you can make one very large table for everybody to work together, or you can break them apart and have smaller groups working,” Frank said. “So flexibility is key.”
LGA already has some equipment for the Makerspace that was used this past school year, like a Glowforge laser cutter. They will soon be getting a 3D printer. But not all of the stuff in the Makerspace will be so high-tech.
“It’s interesting, there’s post-it notes and puffy pompom balls; and there’s markers and glue; hammers, nails, cardboard and wood – and sort of everything in between,” Frank said. “So that depending on the project, the kids can pull the materials they feel are most appropriate for it.”
The sewing machine and fabric came in handy when the second graders received their siddurim.
“When they get their siddurim the kids have had a hand in helping to make their siddur covers. This year they started sewing them themselves for the first time,” said Frank, who sees many possibilities for the Makerspace.
“When the 5th graders learn about the Renaissance they each do an individual project,” she said. “When you have that student who’s really interested in fashion and now can go and sit down at the sewing machine and sew the items that might have been used during that time period, or the student who wants to make a 3-dimensional object – to have the space to be able to do that and learn those skills is really exciting.”
Frank said that it was important to include the kids in the whole planning process.
“Knowing the kids were going to be the primary users of it, we had faculty input in the design process but we also knew we wanted to have the kids’ input.”
Sixth graders filled out applications to be a part of the Makerspace committee, detailing what they could contribute to the project. The faculty read them blindly and chose four of the applications.
“We and our two fellow committee members went around school and talked to each of the individual classes and gathered information like what they would like to see in the Makerspace. It was clear that they had thought about it,” said Eden Kates, a 6th grader who was member of the committee.
The young committee members also had a few lunch meetings with the architects.
“It was really fun; they were awesome and really nice people,” Eden said. “It made us feel like we were a part of making the space.”
Max Keller, also a 6th grade committee member, said that helping to design the Makerspace was important to him, even though he was graduating from LGA this month.
“I wanted to show how much I love this school,” Max said. “It’s been my community and where I met all my friends and where I have really felt at home for a long time. So leaving it I kind of wanted to feel that I did something that would help out on my way out.”
He added that he loved using the future Makerspace area this year for work in science lab.
“We experimented in creating the color blue as a dye which involved extracted snail glands and chemicals and it smelled really disgusting but it was really fun,” Max said.
It is this kind of hands-on, experiential learning that many education experts say allow students to become the more independent and innovative thinkers they will need to be going forward in the 21st century.
“Information is much more accessible to people at all times, so education is shifting from learning facts, to learning how to learn,” Bromberg-Seltzer said. “So many of our students when they want to figure out how to do something are immediately going to the Internet, not books.
“In the same way, everything is a touch screen at this point. Most likely our youngest students, by the time they are adults will not be typing at all; they will be doing everything voice to text. We are still teaching the same things, but as we change as a society the way we learn and the skills that we need change a lot. And so it’s important to have spaces to learn more hands-on skills and spaces to explore more, and places for there to be less breakdown between subject matter.”