Rebuilding a School Community with Maker Learning - Digital Promise

Rebuilding a School Community with Maker Learning

A student works on a Maker project in the Duquesne City School District.

June 12, 2019 | By

In July 2018, Digital Promise launched a new Maker Learning Leadership Cohort dedicated to professional learning, peer connections, and school transformation in the Pittsburgh region. This blog post is the second in a series where participating districts share why they are committed to providing maker learning opportunities to their students.

As the leadership team of Duquesne City School District balances its budget, impactful maker learning spaces and experiences for all students are serving as the cornerstone of what can be called the district’s rebirth.

Over the last 12 years, the school system has undergone major upheavals. Beginning in 2007, the district’s financial situation and declining enrollment were impeding its ability to equitably serve the student population. To ensure access to high-quality educational experiences at the high school level, students enrolled in Grades 9-12 were provided tuition to attend one of two neighboring high schools. In 2012, students in Grades 7-8 followed suit. Now serving Grades Pre-K through six, the administration and faculty of Duquesne Elementary, the district’s sole remaining school, are determined to provide each student with the best educational experience possible.

Today, step into any of Duquesne Elementary’s shared learning spaces and you will see students immersed in hands-on design work. The walls and shelves of this 106-year-old building are covered with authentic student learning artifacts. Fifth-grade students proudly display their dream backyard models, built from cardboard, graph paper, and popsicle sticks. Just down the hall, another group of students are showcasing their self-portraits created using wood-burning tools and slabs of wood.

For Duquesne Elementary educators and students, maker and STEAM learning sit at the intersection of core content and real-world skill acquisition. Powering these learning experiences are the district leadership’s goals of:

  1. responsible fiscal stewardship;
  2. innovative learning spaces; and
  3. professional learning and new learning experiences.

Responsible Fiscal Stewardship

With leadership’s goal to establish strong maker learning programs and spaces on a limited budget, it was important to not rely solely on school system funds for new programs. Administration and staff were quick to understand the impact grant funds could have on the development of Duquesne Elementary’s maker learning spaces and programs. Through their hard work, and the financial support of organizations like the Grable Foundation, Sprout Fund, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Duquesne Elementary received over $80,000 in grant monies to support the work of creating innovative learning spaces and providing the necessary professional development to create powerful learning experiences

Innovative Learning Spaces

With the necessary funds secured, the work of creating exciting new teaching and learning spaces could begin. What started as a conference room became the Creation Station, a large open-concept space for students in Grades Pre K-2. The following year, the former wood shop was established as the Boiler Room, a workspace for students in Grades 3-6. Next, the traditional library space was repurposed as Duquesne Media Central, outfitted with flexible seating, new technologies, and a recording studio. Finally, in 2018, a Coding and Robotics Lab (CAB Lab) was born out of a former art room to better serve as a space where students learn about programming and circuitry while experimenting with robotics.

Professional Learning and New Learning Experiences

Innovative learning spaces and equipment do not necessarily make an impactful maker learning program. Strong professional learning to help create the desired instructional outcomes was paramount to our initiative’s success. Hosting a local Agency by Design cohort, a research program from Harvard University’s Project Zero, students and teachers worked collaboratively to design a recycled-object obstacle course for robots. Through the shifts in learning environments and practices, Duquesne’s staff was on the path to success in establishing maker learning as part of the school’s fabric.

In addition to the work with Harvard, a small team from Duquesne are currently engaged in Digital Promise’s Maker Learning Leadership Cohort, supporting each other as they grow their maker learning programs. Having a school-based team participating in this cohort has helped the administration and faculty better understand how to use all available maker tools and skill sets.

Ashli Detweiler, Duquesne Elementary’s STEAM coach, believes that focusing so deeply on maker learning has shifted mindsets in and around Duquesne. “This school year, I have… allow[ed] my students to work collaboratively while making,” shared Detweiler. “I believe in the Maker Movement in schools because it provides opportunities to think outside of the box… while problem-solving and applying the subject matter to real-world situations.”

It is obvious that students agree with Detweiler’s assessment. “The Maker Movement is important because it gives students things to look forward to when they come to class,” Breanna, a current sixth grade student, excitedly explained. “It gives students opportunities they wouldn’t have at other schools.”

These sentiments are not lost on those leading this charge. The teaching and learning in these spaces benefit Duquesne Elementary students while also serving as an opportunity to show families the incredible learning experiences taking place that make Duquesne unique. When the school doors are open for events like open houses and parent-teacher conferences, parents and families are increasingly amazed by the learning opportunities that their children now have here at Duquesne, oftentimes audibly wishing that they had these opportunities when they were students in the very same building.

Are you looking to start or expand a maker learning program for your learners? Visit the Digital Promise Maker Learning Leadership Framework to access more resources and tools to support your work. Read the first blog post in this series, in which New Castle Area School District shares how their district fosters social-emotional learning through making.

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