Making in the Schools
When the tour of the new Matt’s Maker Space program in the middle schools concluded, the group lingered, enjoying the balmy April afternoon outside the entrance of Mellon Middle School and discussing their impressions of the project. The school district matched a $25,000 donation from Noelle and David Conover, founders of the nonprofit Matt’s Maker Space, so that the district’s elementary school maker program could finally follow the students from the elementary schools to the middle schools and into the high school, creating a continuous STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) resource for students from K-12.
“That tree was actually the first thing we did,” said Noelle, pointing to a beautiful mature dogwood in bloom to the left of the entrance. A plaque beneath the tree reads: In Loving Memory Of Mellon Middle School Student Matt Conover, July 14, 1989 – July 5, 2002. Forever in Our Hearts. “I remember we stood [with the students] and dedicated the tree. It gives me goosebumps because I remember the day and it was just this little stick in the ground.”
All four of the Conover children—Alex, Anna, Megan and Matt—went to school in Mt. Lebanon School District. Matt started out at Foster Elementary School and was in the seventh grade at Mellon Middle School when he died of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Then-principal Dr. Kevin Lordon worked with the Conovers to have the tree planted in Matt’s memory at that time. Later, they donated funds for Matt’s Media Room at Foster, honoring his love of electronics and video games.
“Then when all our kids graduated out of the high school, we went back to Foster and said, ‘We want to give you a gift.’ We figured [the principal] would want a big-screen TV or new computers or something,” said David.
Instead, Foster principal Jason Ramsey asked for a maker space. Ramsey explained that maker spaces are a place where students learn through creativity, invention and teamwork, often featuring STEAM resources such as 3D printers, robotics tools, sewing machines and craft supplies.
“Then he said, ‘and by the way, we need seven,’” said Noelle with a laugh. That was in 2017.
Since then, the Conovers have created Matt’s Maker Spaces in each of the seven elementary schools and in Mt. Lebanon Public Library. Then they expanded their influence beyond Mt. Lebanon, achieving nonprofit 501c3 status for their Matt’s Maker Space organization. This year, they are working on their 30th maker space, and while details have not been confirmed just yet, they expect it will be in Chicago.
“It all started here. It really did,” said Noelle.
The new maker spaces at the middle schools follow a different model—they are more of a program, rather than a space, with resources designed to supplement students’ six required courses in Practical Arts, including Family and Consumer Science, Technology Education and Business Information Technology.
“We were in a unique position,” said Duane Lewis, Practical Arts Department Chair. “Most middle schools don’t have this sort of requirement set in place for kids to do, so that’s why we decided to approach the [maker space] program in a different way.”
Both schools have much of the same maker equipment: sewing machines, heat presses, mug presses, vinyl cutters, Cricut computerized cutting machines, Amazon Echos, green screens, robotics tools, 3D printers, laser engravers, hydroponics tools and mini-CNC machines, which route out designs in wood and other types of material. Each item has its place in one of the Practical Arts classrooms, but Lewis is also planning shared spaces at both schools where much of the equipment will be available on carts, so that it will be mobile.
Jefferson’s Practical Arts Department has slightly more room, but Lewis is planning to build up the space that is used as the school store at Mellon, so that students can sell their maker products in partnership with the Life Skills Department.
“It’s the same skill set at the end of the day that they come out with [at both schools]. They are learning problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills,” said Lewis.
A lot of the maker space items were purchased in the 2019-2020 school year, but pandemic shutdowns stalled the program. Once the schools re-opened this year, teachers were able to pick up where they left off and use the new technology with the students.
They expect that the program will grow and become more ingrained in the curriculum over the coming school years. Lewis plans to expand the maker program with a $35,000 PAsmart Grant for K-8, which they received last year.
“You invested in the elementary schools for maker spaces, which was great,” Lewis said to the Conovers. “But we were getting kids that came into a program that was way outdated. They were coming in and they were bored. So we did the best we could to kind of jazz up the program, but there is no way we could have done any of this without your donation.”
In fact, Lewis estimates that, because students have used maker spaces since elementary school and now into middle school, they will need to update the Practical Arts curriculum at the high school in about two years.
“I’m getting kids in my programming classes that do coding for fun now, because they did Scratch [a coding program geared toward young students] and a little bit of Python. We’ve gotten their hands dirty, so they get to the high school and they’re like ‘this is my thing. This is what I want to do,’” said Lewis.
As we toured the Practical Arts Department at Mellon, many teachers stopped what they were doing to greet the Conovers and share their memories of having the Conover children as students—including Matt. The Conovers spent time reminiscing with Business Information Technology teacher Deanna Amenta, who had a couple Conovers in her classroom over the years, and admitted “I think about Matt every day.”
“Many people don’t understand that they can donate to a public school and have such an impact,” said Noelle. She added, “And when things really go bad, like they did for our family … community is the most important thing. When people ask, ‘why do you do what you did?’ I say ‘it’s because this community carried us. It carried us.’”