reimagining libraries

Foster Elementary teacher Stacy Chambers (from left), Lincoln Elementary teacher Julie Snyder, and Markham Elementary teacher Jen Marsh discuss measuring a piece of wood in order to make a chisel cut during a “Hard Materials” workshop held for a few dozen Lebo teachers inside Children’s Museum.

Our Mt. Lebanon students know a thing or two about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Mt. Lebanon School District also added an “A” to the acronym—STEAM—acknowledging the outstanding visual and performing arts programs that are part of our comprehensive curriculum. MTLSD received some acclaim for the program this summer, when the Pittsburgh Business Times published a list of the top STEM high schools in the state, and there we were, at No. 72

Wonder how quickly we will move up that list, now that we are teaching first-graders how to code.

Starting this school year, students in all seven elementary schools will go to library class to learn about coding, the computer language needed to create software, apps and websites—something that for the majority of adults sounds about as foreign as becoming fluent in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

It’s all part of the Reimagining Our Elementary Libraries initiative, which is funded by the school district’s ongoing capital campaign to provide desirable projects or assets not covered by the operating budget. The goal of the libraries initiative is to enhance each elementary library with the addition of a “maker space,” a gathering space that inspires learning through creativity, invention and teamwork. Library maker spaces often have 3D printers, tables, computers, tools and craft supplies.

David and Noelle Conover stand inside the children’s wing of the Mt. Lebanon Library.

David and Noelle Conover, Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, spearheaded the initiative with a $175,000 donation—$25,000 for each elementary school library.

It was the first major project funded by their nonprofit organization, Matt’s Maker Space, which honors the memory of their son, Matt, who  died of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2002 at age 12.

With the school library project under way, the nonprofit’s focus in 2018 will be to sponsor a series of robust maker programs in Mt. Lebanon Public Library’s maker space, so that the maker philosophy is open to all young people in the area, not just at the elementary schools.

Librarian Rachel Blier reads “Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes” to children during a Brushstrokes Art Lab maker program inside the Mt. Lebanon Library. Elementray age students were then able to create their own shadow boxes similar to art in Joseph Cornell’s children’s tale.

“We knew that maker-centered learning was something the district wanted to pursue,” says Dr. Michelle Murray, Howe School principal and head of the district’s elementary school librarians. “The Conover family’s generous donation was a great opportunity to kick it off.”

The schools will receive the funds over the course of the next three school years.

“This first year, we wanted to really wrap our brains around maker-centered learning, which encompasses a lot,” says Murray. “There’s one strand that involves activities like robotics and computer science. Then, there’s another, what I call the ‘low-tech’ strand, where kids can create with basic materials like popsicle sticks and clay.”

Howe Elementary School teacher Cassie Mader uses a peg board with an attached length of yarn and plastic needle, to practice sewing techniques during a Fiber Workshop held for Mt. Lebanon teachers inside Children’s Museum. The teachers learned techniques to teach sewing and fiber arts using readily available items which are also safely suitable for younger students.

Teachers plan to use the maker spaces to increase students’ engagement with some aspects of the existing STEAM curriculum. For example, if MTLSD students are growing plants in science class, science teachers could use the maker space to challenge the students to design a container that will allow the plant to grow, thrive and be easy to transport. Then art teachers could add to the challenge by asking the students to design the container so that it is aesthetically pleasing.

“We just looked at the big umbrella that is ‘maker space’ and took it one step further to ask, ‘What’s the best way to integrate this into our elementary programs?’” Answering that question and charting the course ahead are district- and school-level committees consisting of parents, administrators, the technology department, school librarians and teachers.

To prepare for the initiative, a small group of Mt. Lebanon teachers attended Project Zero at Quaker Valley School District in May, a Harvard Graduate School of Education program that offers ways to include maker activities in a STEAM curriculum. In July, a larger group of 28 teachers, representative of all seven elementary schools, across all grade levels and departments, attended Maker Space Boot Camp at the Children’s Museum. 

A leader in the maker field, the Children’s Museum is partnering with Google and Maker Ed, a national nonprofit organization, to integrate making into schools across the country, and it is playing a key role in shaping Mt. Lebanon’s maker program.

The museum is one of 10 national hubs, each of which has worked with 5-10 local schools “to create engaging, inclusive, and motivating learning experiences through maker education.”

The museum conducted a pilot program involving some public elementary, middle and high schools; charter schools, Catholic schools and schools for students with special needs, among others, in this region.

Lily Weir, 7, (from left) Ella Wong, 10, and Grace Weir, 10, create shadow boxes during a Brushstrokes Art Lab maker program inside the Mt. Lebanon Library. Elementray age students were invited to hear the story “Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes” then asked to create personalized shadow boxes similar to art in Joseph Cornell’s children’s tale.

When elementary students go into their maker spaces this month, they will experience a setting that was carefully crafted over the summer. The Children’s Museum helped plan the layout of each space by visiting the sites and recommending equipment, furniture and storage. The librarians and principals then oversaw the acquisition and placement of the items.

Some of the maker spaces were placed in existing auxiliary spaces in the schools, such as computer labs or empty classrooms, and others were created in a designated place in the library.

The maker spaces are all different because each school used its existing assets. For example, if the school already had a 3-D printer, it is now being used in the maker space. Or, if teachers have a hobby or interest they wish to share, such as sewing or woodworking, they have been given the opportunity to set up instructional stations in the maker spaces.

In this first year, the spaces have two goals: to support the new coding curriculum for students in grades 1-5 and to supplement the existing STEAM curriculum with at least two standard maker activities per grade. Teachers also can use the space to enhance their individual lesson plans.

A blue bot, similar to those acquired by the school district.

To support these goals, the district acquired multiple sets of Blue-Bots— small, easy-to-use robots designed to introduce programming principles. Also new are Puzzlets, which connect to tablets to teach STEAM through educational puzzles and games, and Spheros, robotic toys controlled by a smartphone or tablet.

Each elementary librarian received computer science training through last spring, and they will conduct a four-week unit at each grade level. They plan to build on the curriculum next year as the students move into their second year of coding.

“Year one is ground zero. Year two, we might find some things that work better and enhance our collection,” says Murray. “We are going to see how everything evolves … one of the pieces [we hope to incorporate] is ‘open thinker time,’ where, at certain times, kids can sign up to go in there on their own … with no goal in mind, to play around with what’s there and be truly creative.”

That’s where the parents come in. The schools will be looking for parent volunteers to supervise open thinker time, particularly if the spaces are able to remain open for kids to finish projects after school hours. They’ll also be looking for parents to help replenish and organize consumable things used in the maker space such as paper towel rolls, oatmeal containers and crafting supplies.

Where the community can help is through the Century of Excellence capital campaign. The Conovers’ donation was enough to get the program started, but the district needs private donations for the spaces to survive and thrive. Donors can either give to the overall campaign, or they make a gift to a specific school’s maker space.

“The capital campaign has provided a vehicle for me and my family to combine our philanthropic giving with our passion for a school district that provides so much for our children,” says Conover. “It has given us a way to remember our precious son and ensure that kids will benefit from new and exciting learning opportunities as a result.”

Photography by John Schisler