Matt’s Maker Spaces began with a dream in the Mt. Lebanon School District in the spring of 2016.
The district made a trip to Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library to learn about creating maker space programs at its elementary schools, but allocating enough space and funding the initiative was a tough prospect. That’s when our family stepped in.
“In order to be competitive, it’s going to take private dollars. … We are fortunate enough to be able to give back. It’s made us feel good. I think being able to give back to your school is completing the circle.”
Our family endured everyone’s worst nightmare when our son, Matt, died of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2002, nine days before his 13th birthday. After falling into a black hole, and through the amazing help of our community, we were able to pull ourselves out and start imagining ways to bring Matt’s memory to life.
We have donated funds for fun technology-based spaces: Matt’s Media Room designed for pre-teens in Gilda’s Club Western Pennsylvania (now named Our Clubhouse), a playroom for the hematology/oncology ward at Children’s Hospital and a room where kids can create technology at Foster Elementary School. Other projects included a playground in Mexico and media carts for hospitals so critically ill children who must stay in their rooms can play too.
Matt would be 28 now. He would have moved on from toys and he likely would have focused on how to get the next generation of kids interested in technology. And he would have loved Maker Spaces.
Matt’s Maker Spaces began as a project at seven Mount Lebanon elementary schools.
The 2017-18 school year is the first year with all the Matt’s Maker Spaces implemented at the district’s seven elementary schools: Foster, Howe, Hoover, Markham, Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington. The $175,000 donation will support the project for the next three years. Before undertaking the initiative, the school district needed to prepare teachers for how to best utilize the maker spaces. Thirty teachers and administrators (and me!) went through a “maker boot camp” at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum to learn the best techniques and methods of maker learning. It was a week filled with fun, challenges and surprises. The Mt. Lebanon faculty were amazing. It is so exciting to think about the creativity and energy that these teachers will use in the maker spaces. The principals and district leadership visited maker spaces in other schools in the area as well as partnering with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on how to design the spaces.
Michelle Murray, principal at Howe, is the coordinator of the program and said collaboration is a hallmark of maker spaces. “It’s a hands-on approach to learning that is about making connections across different content areas,” Murray said. “There’s lots of ways to solve a problem, and that’s what we’re trying to teach kids is that sense of agency. They can put their heads together, collaborate, talk about it, exercise critical thinking and come up with some creative solutions and have a lot of fun.”
The funding of the spaces in the Mt. Lebanon schools is a unique effort. The money was donated to the District Capital Campaign. This campaign allows individuals to donate money to a municipal entity because the campaign is the 501-C-3 registered non-profit. Donating to the capital campaign allows the giver to fund something that the district may not be able to afford with tax dollars. It allows people to connect their philanthropy with the passion! We are so happy to be a part of this unique and innovative campaign.
It was decided that to enable support of the Maker Spaces, Sloan Astorino, the campaign fundraiser, would ask people in the different elementary school areas to host some get-togethers or coffees to share the story of Matt’s Maker Space, answer questions, and just meet one another. I was able to attend some of these events. At the end of each event, people are invited to participate in the campaign or the Matt’s Maker Spaces and are encouraged to donate.
I also have been touring the rooms since they opened. I still have not made it to all of them! Seven is a big number! Each room is a little different. Each one reflects the personality of the schools and their students, faculty and families. What I so know is that all the kids got to learn a little bit about Matt and who he was. At Foster and Hoover, the librarians actually knew Matt. They were his teachers. Some of the lessons centered around teaching the kids that Matt was really a boy who loved to learn, imagine and create just like them.
I heard from many parents and students in the first few weeks about the rooms. One parent wrote, “I just wanted to send you a quick note to tell you that my youngest came home this week and talked non-stop about Matt’s Maker Space in the Washington library. In general, he’s a man of few words, so we were all a little surprised by the fact that he completely dominated the conversation at dinner. He was so excited that his brother and sister couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I just wanted to let you know how happy my littlest guy is with the changes he saw at Washington and say “thank you.” on his behalf.”