The goal of The Colony, the Central High School makerspace, is to create an ongoing STEM program for our students. It is a lab that allows students to explore robotics, computer coding, mechanical and electrical engineering, and biomedical electronics. This environment has brought the Internet of Things movement to our school. By combining the right tools with education, our students are able to design, prototype, and create devices that would not be possible if they were attempting to work alone. We have also allowed for our students to gain experience in groundbreaking technologies of 3D printing, CNC machining, and single board computing.
Walt Disney famously reflected, "that it was all started by a mouse." I'd like to think that our room started with a robot. In 2014 I bought a couple of robots as a present for my daughters. The mBot was from a Chinese start-up that I had followed on Kickstarter. It was a clever little kit that could be programmed, but the instructions were limited to playing around with a remote. It took me some time to find the coding instructions, but I finally found a Chinese textbook of sorts that was written for a second grade curriculum. It dawned on me that students in China were learning how to code at a dramatically young age. None of my high school students were even close to understanding the complexity of the mBot's coding. Talk about an epiphany! How in the world could I bring this opportunity for the students of Central?
An answer came via a challenge from my school district. The VEX Worlds competition had moved to Louisville, but Jefferson County Public Schools only had a few teams. The powers that be were able to procure a NASA grant to provide a handful of schools a competition kit. Since I had been prodding my administration for the need to increase our STEM opportunities, my principal suggested that I become the school's robotics coach and accept the kit on the school's behalf. Looking back, I'm quite sure that he did this to shut me up, as it were. We got the kit, I recruited a handful of students for the team, and our robots went all the way to the state championship that year.
Needless to say, we were smitten. I wanted to go beyond a club and build a class around a robotics curriculum, but I needed funding, something that can be difficult to attain within the convolutions of public school budgets. One of my resource teachers pointed out that the Verizon Foundation was accepting grant applications. I spent the summer revising an application that revolved around the genesis of a makerspace for our school. Verizon apparently liked the idea, and they granted us the seed money to start our class.
We formed a committee of teachers and students to decide how to best spend our new-found funding. Our research pointed us to a number of innovative start-ups in the New York City area. We attained professional development funds (that feat alone required a different committee), and four of us went to NYC to visit makerspaces, startups, and schools who were noted for their methods. One of those schools was Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. There we met FRC Team 694 - a powerhouse of a robotics team that had the most awesome class that we ever come across. We had our model, and we had a plan!
The University of Louisville J.B. Speed School of Engineering stepped up and assisted us with design, décor, and a sweet laser cutter. Artco-Bell donated some super revolutionary furniture. It was decided to use a large room that used to be part of the school's cafeteria for the space. It was a solid room, and it was adjacent to the magnet's computer lab. We began construction of our space on May 31, 2016. Work continued over the next three months with both teachers and students giving up their summer for the cause. Carpeting was pulled up, the floor was resealed, a garage door was added for access to the next room, computers were installed, workbenches were assembled, and a fresh coat of paint was slathered. Central High School had a makerspace!
We held our grand opening on October 18, 2016, and it was quite the party! Dignitaries from the district, city, and state joined us in the celebration. The bulk of our pride came from the student involvement in the design and execution of the room. It was hailed by local media as a 21st Century shop class. Our students had a place like no other.
Today, we teach innovation and cyber engineering classes to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in The Colony. We've made a ton more robots and so much more. As part of our curriculum, our magnet students have to create a year-end technological product for a mini-maker faire. They've made everything from remote controlled lawn mowers and solar powered refrigerators to facial recognition devices and prosthetic hands. It allowed us to start a FIRST Robotics team so that we can finally start catching up to Stuyvesant. Perhaps the best part of the whole story is that we have been able to keep the room running with minimal school funding. Good corporate citizenship from organizations such as Verizon, Artco-Bell, and the Speed School has kept the parts on the table, so to speak. There are times that I worry about when the graciousness of others runs dry, but for now we are delivering a strong, student-centered program that is positively impacting the lives of our students, and that is what matters. For many of them, the room is a home away from home. We have to run them off at the end of the day. Some of them cut their other classes to work on their projects, which is a unique problem! We rearrange the room now and then, but the walls speak volumes. Imagination lives here!