Makerspaces: Learning Through Play at Portage High School 

Guest post by Robin Kvalo

As the principal of Portage High School, the term “makerspace” came into my world when I brought Naomi Harm, innovative educator consultant, to Portage High School for staff development workshops. Initially, I wasn’t sure where makerspaces would fit in a high school. However, after attending Naomi’s makerspace workshop Make Room for Makerspaces at the School Leaders Advancing Technology in Education (SLATE) convention in Wisconsin, I was hooked. 

For our library media specialist, makerspaces had been a topic of conversation among her library peers for at least a year, but she admitted that they made more sense to her at the middle and elementary levels because she saw those students “at play” on a regular basis. At the high school level, where the focus is on academics, career planning, or job skills, it seemed a harder fit. Then she came across an article by Diana Rendina, which pointed out the amount of research available about how both children and young adults learn through play. Rendina writes, “What often looks like ‘just play’ to adults is actually a reflection of much deeper learning.”

Planning for Makerspaces

In 2011–12, PHS had already converted its traditional library into an iCenter, where print and technology came together in a 21st-century learning space. This was the perfect location to launch several makerspaces at PHS. Providing that space to students in a place that already housed a variety of resources for everyone to access was a natural fit.

Our library media specialist, technology director, technology coach, and I formed a committee and called ourselves the Google Gals. We brainstormed various makerspaces that had been researched. The team selected eight stations for the initial launch: Osmo, 3-D pen, Google Cardboard, Lego wall, adult coloring books, puzzles, drones, and Makey Makey.

Launching Makerspaces for Students

During Digital Learning Week in 2016, we launched a different station each day. Library staff had the PHS iTeam (a technology team of students who reside in the iCenter each period to troubleshoot technology issues) learn each makerspace, become an “expert” in that space, and present it to other PHS students. Everyone brainstormed challenges for each station. We gave hints to students about what was coming that week through Twitter, Facebook, the school website, and morning announcements.

The week after the launch, all of our science classes visited the iCenter to experience each makerspace. We believed our science teachers naturally understood makerspaces and could help students see how they fostered the 4Cs—creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—as well as problem-solving, design and redesign, and innovation. Students began learning through failure and experimentation. We had successfully brought the 4Cs and 21st-century skills together in one place.

Introducing Makerspaces to Staff 

Once students had experienced the makerspaces, it was time for staff to join in the fun. At a staff meeting, we provided an overview of why the makerspaces started in the iCenter, as it is a central location for inquiry, information, and research. Now, the iCenter had hands-on experiences for discovery. As departments experienced each makerspace, they discussed and recorded ideas they had for makerspaces in their courses. They also discovered that many classes already had makerspaces, they just didn’t name them as such. Most of all, they realized that there is learning through play!

What’s Next? 

Makerspaces have brought excitement to our students and staff. Students are suggesting makerspaces they’d like to see and coming to school early to create some in our resource room. Teachers are now thinking beyond the traditional educational practices and looking at new and innovative ways to incorporate creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving into their curricula. They want to implement makerspace environments in their classrooms and departments. Teachers are even talking about creating makerspaces for one another and the community.

It is exciting to see energy and enthusiasm from students and staff over makerspaces. These collaborative and dynamic environments have generated an eagerness in our school for designing, tinkering, exploring, and creating. The fear of failure is OK because there is a willingness to try again. Makerspaces may re-engage some of our students to learn life skills that are necessary for success in the 21st century.

What are your experiences with makerspaces? How have they helped your school community get excited about learning?  

Robin Kvalo is the principal of Portage High School in Portage, WI. She is the 2016 Wisconsin Secondary Principal of the Year.

1 Comment

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Our students love makerspaces. We’ve had a lot of fun with the Spark Lab Invent It Challenge through the Smithsonian Lemelson Center. It’s a yearly challenge for students to invent a product. Check it out!

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