A new space

Noelle Conover, right, and Renee Shaffer at the dedication of a Matt’s Maker Space in Western Psychiatric Hospital. Shaffer was instrumental in securing a grant for the space from ANSYS.

Making a difference has gotten me through grief.” Noelle Conover has experienced grief no mother should have to: the death of a child. But Noelle, and her husband, David, have found a way to create good for others out of that grief.

When their son, Matt, who was in the seventh grade at Mellon Middle School, died at age 12 from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, they wanted to do something for the school and community in gratitude for the support they received during his illness. The Conovers, with their children Alex, Anna, and Megan, lived on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard at the time, but were planning to move to Lawrenceville. Noelle said before they left, “We went to the principal and said we want to give you a gift, and he asked if I ever heard of Maker Space.” Her answer was “no.”

Maker Spaces are technology-based designated areas where students can explore the STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) through creativity, invention, and teamwork, by hands-on learning using various types of tools and equipment. They contain such high-tech equipment as 3D printers, robotics tools, laser engravers, and vinyl cutters. The latter can be used to design items like T-shirts or cups, and the kids are encouraged to make something useful, something that would make a difference in someone’s life. 

According to Conover, a maker is “a kid who learns by doing, somebody who wants to build something by touching it and dreaming it and playing around with it. And when it doesn’t work, they fix it. It’s a different way of learning.”

The Conovers acted on the principal’s suggestion and donated Maker Spaces to Mt. Lebanon’s seven elementary schools, and as the elementary students graduated, they added two more for the middle schools. Since that time, a total of 33 Maker Spaces have been established in area schools and facilities, the latest one being in Western Psychiatric Hospital. The Conovers had previously started one in Children’s Hospital in 2019.

“It went over so well, and because of COVID and so many mental health concerns with children, we said it would be great to put one of these at Western Psych,” she added. They opened a Matt’s Maker Space in Western Psych’s outpatient facility in fall 2021, and another in the inpatient in summer 2022.

Western Psychiatric hospital staff and patients working on a craft activity.
Staff and patients christened the new space with an activity.

“We know these are unique, there aren’t Maker Spaces in [other] psychiatric institutions. Yet when we talk with the therapists who bring kids in, they say, ‘This is great.’ These kids have depression, eating disorders, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, schizophrenia—all of these mental health psychoses. But when you get them in a Maker Space and the playing field is level, everyone is making something together. There’s a lot of healing that goes on.”

Conover partners with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to design the spaces, and she explained that when they began to work on Western Psych, they realized that because safety measures had to be taken into consideration, it would have to be different from the ones in the schools. “We could not have sharp objects or anything that posed a ligature risk. By consulting with the therapists who would be using the room daily and understanding their population, we were able to design a space that is welcoming and safe.” She added that the area had to be approved at high levels and had to meet not only the safety requirements, but infection control regulations as well. For that reason, many of the teachers and therapists were included in the design process.

The idea of having a space in a hospital, where a stay is not likely to be as lengthy as a school year, might be questionable, but Conover counters that children still need to learn and play. “There are so many different components to life that don’t stop when a child is in the hospital. Even if they’re only in the Maker Space for one day, it’s still something we’re providing that they would have had access to on the outside.

“Mental health is such a sweet spot,” she added; “there is such a need there.”

—Lois Thomson