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District 54 Makerspaces inspiring innovation

The library at Hanover Highlands Elementary School was bustling with conversation and activity last month as fifth-grade students worked together to build castles,rocket ships and other items of their own imagining using cardboard and other materials.

As two students discussed next steps for their project, one had an idea and excitedly jumped out of his seat.

“We could use straws for the landing gear,” he said. “Let me go get something for the wheels!”

As he returned with cardboard tubes, Learning Resource Teacher Laura Masters came over to the students’ table and asked them what they were making.

“Airplane…in progress!” they answered.

Two boys working on a cardboard projectAll District 54 elementary school libraries are now home to Makerspaces, where students at all grade levels are collaborating, creating, communicating and problem-solving during their library time each week. Their Learning Resource Teacher acts as a facilitator and guide.

“It’s been interesting to switch roles from a giver of information to facilitator, and asking questions to get them where they need to be,” Masters said.

A Makerspace, according to, is “a collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.” Joshua Bolkan notes in his article, Integrating Makerspaces Throughout the Curriculum, that the Makerspace “isn’t just a fixed space where kids come and go to complete busywork. It’s an extension of a well-established approach to educating students that has applications and deep implications across disciplines.”

“The content knowledge is important – they need to be able to read and write and do math and compute – but they need to be able to look at the world and diagnose where those problems are going to come from and have unique and innovative ways to solve those problems,” said Jim Vreeland, District 54’s Director of Math and Science. “The Makerspace gives them that creative outlet.”

The Cardboard Challenge, which wrapped up in December, was the first in a series of student-driven projects kindergarten through sixth grade students will complete in District 54 Makerspaces this year as the district seeks to cultivate innovation. Through these projects students are learning about the steps in the design process – ask, imagine, plan, create and improve – and developing skills that will be crucial for success in jobs that may not even exist yet.

Three girls work on a cardboard project“Students often get into the mentality that they want to know the solution to the problem, or what the answer is,” Vreeland said. “We have to, in a sense, ingrain a problem-solving process in our kids in which they can create a solution to something they see. That takes time to develop. We wanted to start with something with literally no criteria or constraints attached to it. Whatever you could think of to create with cardboard, you could create with cardboard.”

Several smaller challenges laid the groundwork for the Cardboard Challenge. In the Tower Challenge, students were given 100 notecards, 2 feet of tape and 20 minutes to build a structure that would hold a stuffed orange frog.

“We learned that teamwork is crucial,” said Tristen, a Lakeview fifth grade student.

Enders-Salk Learning Resource Teacher Katie Montalbano said she saw collaboration skyrocket during the Cardboard Challenge. Students who started the school year wanting to work by themselves are now collaborating with their classmates, and everyone is actively participating, she said. She also noticed that students who are quieter in other settings or struggle in other subject areas are getting the chance to shine in the Makerspace.

“They look forward to coming every week,” she said.

‘Not just a box’

The Lakeview Makerspace was abuzz with conversation and strewn with materials including duct tape, tubes, paper, scissors, safe screws, rulers, and of course pieces of cardboard in varying sizes, as a class of fifth-grade students worked on their projects this fall.

Two boys work on a cardboard project“The Makerspace is a place where people can get ideas and create them without anyone stopping them,” Hamdaan said. “I wasn’t sure what a Makerspace was when I heard about it at the end of fourth grade, but now I’m loving it. I love having enough time to build and make it look its best.”

They began with Maker Inspiration — watching videos of someone who used cardboard in an innovative way — before brainstorming real-world problems and imagining possible solutions.

“It really got them thinking about how we’re looking at things not just as a box, but what it could potentially be,” Lakeview Learning Resource Teacher Lauren Franciose said. “We talked about how you could build a desk at your house if you don’t have one. It doesn’t have to be something no one has ever thought of — it can be something that meets a need.”

Fifth-grade students Leilani, Gigi and Rebecca were building a garbage-collecting robot.

“Not everyone keeps the world clean — this robot doesn’t waste gas or affect the world in any way, but it helps the world,” Leilani explained.

Their classmates Hamdaan and Anthony were figuring out how to cut out the tailfins for their rocket, while Tristen and Caleb talked about how to stabilize their sushi food truck, and Caitlin and Kylie fixed the roof on their house for stray dogs and cats.

For their Cardboard Challenge, Lakeview kindergarten through second grade students read “The Three Little Pigs” and built a house to keep the pigs safe, Franciose said.

“I built a drawbridge with pipe cleaners,” said Michel, a Lakeview second-grade student. “That way they could just live there and stay there, and the wolf can’t get in.”

Two girls work on a cardboard projectDistrict 54 Director of Digital Learning Hobbs Behrouzi said students are thinking deeply about how their work in the Makerspaces can impact the community and the world, as well as their own schools. For instance, one group of students invented a portable wheelchair ramp, which would fold up into a suitcase. Another group developed a machine that would feed a dog a specific amount of food.

Franciose said a sixth-grade enrichment group at Lakeview brainstormed a solution for students who want to check out and return books between their weekly library times. After researching how to keep books safe — which included hearing from a Lakeview lunchroom supervisor who also works at the Schaumburg Township District Library — they crafted a cart and dropbox, Franciose said.

Students are also building for the sheer joy of creation, such as the student who designed her own Halloween costume: a wearable claw machine.

“It’s all about watching that creative sparkle in a student’s eyes as they say, I created that. I did that,” Vreeland said.

“It’s fun to do it. You get to experiment with a lot of things you haven’t done before,” said Ab, a Hanover Highlands fifth grade student.

“It’s challenging, and if it doesn’t work you can think about new ideas for what you can do,” said Ab’s classmate Eric.

Reflection and improvement

A key component of the design process is reflection. Learning resource teachers guide students to reflect about their thought processes, successes and next steps for improving their Makerspace projects, as well as challenges and how they overcame those challenges.

“I really like that this work is helping them be reflective of themselves as a learner — not just of the subject matter, but as a critical thinker and as a problem-solver who perseveres,” Masters said. “It’s great to see that every group can be successful, even those who have struggled or started over.”

Students learn and gain inspiration from others as they move through the design process. Franciose begins each Makerspace session with an Inspiration of the Day, which has featured student work such as Michel’s drawbridge and the sushi food truck designed by Tristen and Caleb. Enders-Salk’s Montalbano and Hale Learning Resource Teacher John Siemieniec connected their classes via a video chat to present their Cardboard Challenge projects and ask questions. Students also conduct their own online research and incorporate aspects into their projects.

Franciose said that there is a real sense of community as students share and repurpose materials, ask questions and discuss ideas. Staff are embracing the Makerspaces as a hub of the school, as well. For instance, at Hanover Highlands staff have brought in requested materials such as colored paper and stickers while at Lakeview, some classes are collecting plastic bottle tops to be used as car wheels.

Building on success

A group works on a Rube Goldberg deviceLast month Montalbano began preparing her students for the next Makerspace project: building a Rube Goldberg device, which is a complex machine built to accomplish a simple task through a chain reaction.

In one session, fifth-grade students rotated among stations with different materials such as tennis balls, dominoes, action figures and cardboard and worked in groups to create a chain reaction with two to three steps. One group cheered as the ping pong ball they rolled between two rulers knocked down a series of dominoes, the last of which toppled an action figure.

For the third, and final, Makerspace unit for the year, students will create a project that exhibits a solution to a problem. These projects will be showcased at a Maker Faire hosted by each elementary school this spring.

Teacher training

The Makerspace approach is new for teachers, as well. All District 54 elementary school learning resource teachers are participating in professional development opportunities to help them ensure student success. This has included completing the same challenges that their students would face.

“They experienced the same difficulties as the kids, which allows them to understand where their students might struggle,” Behrouzi said.

One of the most difficult concepts is understanding that it is not just OK to allow students to fail and try again — it is crucial to the learning process.

“We’re creating a culture where it’s collaborative and where ideas can percolate,” Behrouzi said. “They’re not asking anymore ‘what if my kids don’t get it?’ They’re asking what other processes they can embed to make it work.”

Click here to check out even more photos and videos of our students working in the Makerspaces!