Pleasant Ridge Makerspace Combines Science, Art, Technology and More

 09/27/2017 - 01:25
Meg Phillips poses in front of the makerspace mural in her new classroom at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School. Phillips was hired to coordinate the makerspace full-time after testing a successful part-time pilot program on a mobile basis last year.

What began last year as a part-time, pilot program at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School has blossomed into a full-fledged brick and mortar makerspace classroom, offering students the chance to lead the way in discovering their own learning opportunities.

Meg Phillips was hired by Saline Area Schools over the summer to run the makerspace full-time after testing the program last year.

Phillips said as she gets her new classroom up and running, she is encouraging teachers from all grade levels and academic genres at Pleasant Ridge to collaborate with her to incubate new ideas and projects that allow students to learn in an organic way.

"The ideas are endless in here," she said. "It's not just a science lab, computer lab, wood shop or art class. It's all of that."

Phillips said she works with teacher to come up with projects that are structured in such a way to satisfy necessary curriculum requirements, but also open-ended enough to force students to come up with answers and conclusions on their own.

Activities in the makerspace also often focus on incorporating manual dexterity skills into traditional academic subjects. Phillips said she was brought up by her father working on cars and spending time in a wood shop, and knows this type of proficiency is not always stressed enough in the current, digital age.

"Kids don't know how to use a screwdriver or hammer a nail, so we're trying to expose them to just a variety of different resources," she said.

As an engineer by trade and degree, Phillips said she got involved with makerspace-type learning via STEM activities well before moving to Saline with her husband and family two years ago.

"I'm a structural engineer and I worked 14 years in the consulting world," she said. "My husband's from Kentucky, so we really didn't see ourselves leaving the area."

Phillips said at the time she was telecommuting to Dayton, Ohio, and even though she loved the company she worked for, felt as though she was lacking a more intimate connection to her local community.

"I didn't feel like we were contributing to where we were living in Kentucky a whole lot," she said. "STEM is a big passion of mine and I didn't feel like the elementary programs near us were doing enough."

What came next was something of a leap of faith for Phillips.

"I worked for a great company and so I went to them and took a leave of absence," she said, citing how she used the time to evaluate which direction she next wanted to take her career.

"I was on the management team and everything, so it was a big shift for me."

Phillips ended up getting involved with her local school district.

"I started volunteering with third graders every Friday and working with a group of students during their science block," she said.

It was really successful," she said, "so successful the teachers said, 'Can we add 12 more?'"

After receiving copious positive feedback from staff and students alike, a decision was made amongst administrators to have Phillips commence a comprehensive curriculum.

"So, they decided to start a program the next year and I piloted the program there at our K though five," she said. "It was a STEM program there, so what they did was a little different from a makerspace. They were coming to me to do hands-on STEM activities to apply what they were learning in the classroom at the time."

Even though Phillips is now teaching in Saline, she said the program is still operating at her former district.

"I got that off the ground and running and it's still going strong now," she said.

Phillips said she comes from a family of educators, so when she and her family moved to Saline following her husband's job transfer, she followed her innate inclination toward education and started getting involved at Saline Area Schools.

"We got here and I was volunteering in the community, doing the PTA and I got talking to (Principal) Kevin (Musson) and the timing just kind of matched," she said.

After collaborating with Musson and others in administration, a job description was drawn up, for which Phillips formally applied and ultimately was awarded.

Because of the lack of space mid-school year at Pleasant Ridge, the makerspace was initially on wheels.

"We started last February, but we didn't have a space because every room in the building was full," she said. "So I was pretty mobile."

Phillips said the conference room became her temporary workspace.

"That was kind of my office, if you will, and I would just go to classrooms," she said. "Everybody was really welcoming and, as it turned out, I was able to get into every singe classroom, some multiple times, with different activities."

Recent bond-related renovations at Liberty School, as well as some subsequent space shifting, allowed for Phillips to have her own classroom this year at Pleasant Ridge.

She said she is excited to see where the program goes next as more and more teachers come to her with innovative makerspace ideas.

"We really worked hard to make it part of the curriculum. We're not just going to do an activity, like pulling out Legos, just to have them play with Legos," she said. "We're really trying to make makerspace an extension of the curriculum. As teachers are ready and willing to embrace the idea, we're collaborating with them."

From the kindergarten level up, Phillips said she knows teachers at Pleasant Ridge are already doing a great job of incorporating creative building and learning activities into their daily routines.

"We're just looking to take that up a little bit and offer them a few extra resources," she said.

Some of the learning tools Phillips has purchased are really exciting for students, such as a green screen for video production.

"I've bought a bunch of different electronic-type stuff. I don't know if you've ever heard of Makey Makeys," she asked. "They're a little chip board that you plug into a computer and you can put leads to, say, bananas, anything that conducts electricity, and you can make that your keyboard."

Students will even have the opportunity to learn the basics of computer circuitry.

"We have snap circuits and a bunch of robot things we're going to to with the kids, programming too," she said. "We just will have more resources than they'll have at home or have ready access to."

Musson said the makerspace classroom coincides precisely with the next generation learning environment at Pleasant Ridge, as well as all district schools.

"Really, if you're looking at the district compass, and the different district initiates in general, this meets the needs of what we're talking about and what we want our students to do, and to be, moving forward in the future," he said. "The hands-on learning concept is something that we've talked about using, such as the 4C's (communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking), and trying to bring that all into play."

Musson said he and other district officials were very impressed by Phillips' efforts last year.

"We definitely felt that things were really successful and we wanted to actually create a space," he said. "So, Meg and I along with (Assistant Superintendent) Steve Laatsch went to another school to take a look at what a true makerspace would look like inside of the building, and brought back those ideas and took a classroom space and were able to facilitate and create that for the start this school year."

Currently, Phillips is encouraging all Pleasant Ridge students to participate in the Global Cardboard Challenge by using an empty paper towel roll tube to create anything they desire, using any additional materials they can find.

Submissions are due at school Oct. 4, and additional information on the global initiative can be found at www.cardboardchallenge.org.

All entries submitted by students at Pleasant Ridge will be displayed at the school.

Steven Howard
Steven Howard is a freelance writer and journalist living in Saline.