Matt’s Maker Space is Helping Redefine Education
The Mt. Lebanon School District takes a unique approach to traditional education by integrating maker space coursework into the school curriculum. Unlike other schools that have a designated maker space or are in lieu of one, the Mt. Lebanon School District exposes students to maker space education beginning in elementary school. This approach was made possible through the Conover family, who donated a space adjacent to each school library in memory of their son, Matt Conover’s who passed away in 2002 from cancer while he was a student in the district. Over the years, the spaces have evolved and expanded, and today, there are nine maker spaces within the school district. Matt’s Maker Spaces began in the heart of Mt. Lebanon, and have since expanded even further across 27 locations.
Duane Lewis, Practical Arts Department Chair of the Mt. Lebanon School District, oversees the maker spaces for grades 6-12. The Practical Arts Department teaches classes in engineering, computer science, and woodshop, and has helped numerous students bring their greatest ideas to life with the help of these spaces. Lewis describes maker space learning like “learning a second language,” in which early exposure is essential to planting a seed of early understanding to build on throughout the years.
Lewis explained that the approach to maker space learning began with conversations in the district about making learning more engaging to allow students to dive deeper into more career-relevant material in high school. Early transitions to the new curriculum faced many challenges, including difficulties in storing large equipment like CNC machines with limited classroom spaces. However, this was resolved through a unique approach of making some equipment portable and mobile to move between classrooms rather than being stored in one place, and to help maximize physical space.
Their maker space curriculum is structured so that students gain exposure beginning in elementary school through projects relating to their coursework in their respective Matt’s Maker Spaces. In middle school, students are able to further their understanding through a required rotational program that guides them through various tools. Once they reach high school, students are able to take elective courses such as graphic design, robotics, Introduction to Computer Science, or applied engineering courses based on their own interests. The activities in the spaces are unique to students and projects drift away from typical classroom coursework. Some activities include laser engraving, sewing, screen printing t-shirts, programming robots, and creating handmade soap. This application-based learning reinforces concepts learned in class by seeing examples in the real world, and Lewis has observed visible improvement in understanding between students who go through maker space curriculum versus a traditional textbook and classroom approach.
“The kids come up with the projects and we give them the resources to make their project possible,” Lewis says. “A group of three students even designed a functional prosthetic hand for a disabled student to be able to play the violin!”
Education is changing rapidly from the development of technology, and Lewis believes the curriculum also has to evolve: “What we’re teaching in a maker space will be different in three years because of the evolution of technology. Mt. Lebanon is great at altering curriculum to keep up with what’s going on in the world.”
Mt. Lebanon School District is paving the path of integrating project-oriented learning through their Matt’s Maker Spaces, and it would have not been possible without the Conovers. Matt’s Maker Space has been a vital stepping stone in bringing the opportunities to life: “Without the Conovers, this would have been a much slower process, and would have extended our timeline by 5-8 years.”