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Makerspace at CMU

CEHS plants a seed for STEM

Makerspace classes use fun projects to teach middle schoolers problem-solving skills

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​On a recent afternoon in room 134 of the Education and Human Services Building, Josiah Schwartz and Aiden Baker were making a stop-action movie. Lucas Frost was building a robotic arm, and Carson Hrdlovich was building a 16-wheel vehicle.

None was over 12 years old.

Welcome to Open Make, one of two Central Michigan University makerspace classes hosted by the Center for Excellence in STEM Education for area children in grades 4 through 8. The other is called Middle Make, which is new this semester.

"We want them to be excited about math and science." — Julie Cunningham

Together they are the roots of a CMU STEM program designed to help area middle schoolers develop the skills to be thinkers and problem solvers, said Ashley O'Neil, STEM education program coordinator in the STEM center.

The seed

The idea for makerspace at CMU grew out of a Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance report, unveiled at a STEM summit at CMU several years ago, that determined there was a great need for middle school students to be better prepared in math and science.

"No one else seemed to be taking steps to meet the need of middle schoolers," said Julie Cunningham, director of the center, which operates under the College of Education and Human Services.

Recognition of the need led to a charitable gift from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation that supports the makerspace classes.

"Makerspace seems to be a good fit for that group," she said. "These school years tend to be very creative grades, and the children can work on their own with some direction."


The programs

The Open Make class introduces students to the concept of makerspace, which, broadly, is a place where people can gather to create and share ideas, equipment and knowledge.

At Central, O'Neil puts out materials such as Legos or ZOOB BuilderZ pieces and encourages the children with teasers such as "I wonder if we can figure out how this works," or "I wonder what we could make with this."

The children then gravitate to tables that have what piques their interest. They can work alone, with other children, with O'Neil or with one of the several volunteer undergraduate teacher education students from the STEM Education Scholar Program who move among the children to offer help and encouragement.

Almost all of the student helpers have a math or science major or a minor in teacher education, Cunningham said. Their continued involvement in the STEM Education Scholar Program requires that they have a number of volunteer hours with children per semester. Other students can be involved also, she said.

Middle Make is for students in grades 5-8 who are designing their own problem to solve.

To ensure that nobody feels unsuccessful, they use "design thinking," which asks them to come up with a solution as quickly as possible without worrying if it is a manageable solution, Cunningham said.

Students make only a prototype to solve the problem, so nobody's really done, nobody's really right, and everybody needs more time or different resources, she said.

Both makerspaces build on field trips from the children's schools and have experienced CMU STEM Education Scholars as helpers. Individuals also can sign up for sessions, which run through mid-May.


The goal is that each child learns problem-solving skills, doesn't give up and develops a passion for a new challenge, O'Neil said.

"We want them to be excited about math and science," Cunningham said. "We know that in middle school, especially among young women, those interests drop off. I think just being interested in finding math and science fun — identifying themselves as being capable of doing math and science — is huge."

She also wants to expand the program into rural areas. They are hiring someone to take some of the programs on the road, and they've talked with Mid Michigan Community College about partnering on its Harrison campus, she said.

Another goal is to expand a pre-K program with the Mount Pleasant Discovery Museum.

Student helpers

The makerspace classes also give undergraduate students teaching experience.

"I love working with kids. I think giving kids this kind of opportunity is good," said Molly Sergant, a senior majoring in secondary education in integrated science. "A lot of schools just don't have the funding for these kinds of things, so it gives them the extra experiences that help them learn things in a different way."

Jayda Sykora, a junior majoring in secondary education mathematics, said, "I feel that a lot of college students don't have these kind of opportunities, and so I feel like I have a major head start."

Garrett Comer is a junior majoring in secondary education mathematics. "I'm connecting with the faculty, I'm connecting with the community," he said, "and so to have that experience, it's crucial."

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