It Takes a Village to Build a Robot
Four years ago, on a $100 budget, Gregory Hill (St. Louis ’08) unlocked a closet at Grand Center Arts Academy, a St. Louis charter school where he served as the director of technology. He called it a makerspace and invited middle school students to stop by to teach themselves computer software, sift through building supplies, and learn in an exciting new way: by designing, building, and inventing things.
Today, the DIY supplies fill a classroom where Andrew Goodin (St. Louis ’08) teaches five credited “maker” classes. Hill, Goodin, and another colleague, Allie Cicotte (St. Louis ’11), also started a nonprofit called Disruption Department to inspire and develop makerspaces all over the city. Thanks to their efforts, Metro St. Louis has become a hub of school-based makerspaces, with 25 (including early-stage projects) and counting.
Goodin’s classroom feels like an inventor’s workshop. Students buzz around the room gathering tools and supplies. The hum of a 3-D printer joins the sounds of propellers whirring and tiny speakers chirping as students tinker with wires and circuit boards. They dream, they make, they fail, they prototype and test again. And they’re laughing, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, cheering each other on. To Goodin, this is what 21st century learning should look like: Students get hands-on STEM practice while gaining confidence in their own creativity.
The Disruption Department will work with any school—urban or suburban, public or private—to help it surmount barriers to creating makerspaces. Even so, students from low-income communities are at the heart of their mission. They believe the more enthusiasm they can generate regionally, the more likely the movement will spread to schools with the greatest need. To speed that, they’re actively seeking philanthropic support to offset costs at schools without funds.
In these early days, wealthier schools are the majority of the Disruption Department’s partners. But Goodin’s classroom, animated by diverse students in the heart of St. Louis, is the gold standard—the place where educators and industry leaders visit to imagine what’s possible. “I love that we’re piloting the makerspace at an urban charter school, and the county schools are coming to us to see how we’re doing things,” Goodin says. “From an equity standpoint, that sits really well with me.”
"There’s something to be said about the schools under the biggest pressure to perform well on standardized tests not giving their kids the freedom and time to be creative," says Renee Racette, vice principal at Gateway STEM, a traditional St. Louis public magnet high school and the first school in the district to create a makerspace. Nearly all of Racette's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and many attended under-resourced feeder schools. "We are an example of a school saying we want to give that [freedom and time] to our kids.”
Racette (in blue and white stripes) was Goodin’s teacher-mentor when he was a corps member. Now, she is his makerspace mentee. She worked with the Disruption Department to win a $15,000 grant to expand the school’s maker capabilities over the next year and beyond. The money allows for a more robust robotics program, a maker “library” where teachers can check out supplies, and an after-school coding club led by Jennifer Gibbs (St. Louis ’14), complete with new computers. “We want a computer lab where students will never, ever be testing,” Racette says. “We want a lab where kids go and it’s just creativity."
Gateway STEM’s robotics team is called 931 Perpetual Chaos, named for some member drama. “But that’s another story,” says fourth-year teammate Sir John McKinney (left, in denim vest). McKinney helped build the team’s most recent competition robot, which can pull itself up a tower, grab a ball and shoot it through a hole, and maneuver over and around obstacles. Racette’s makerspace grant will bring the team a belt sander for the construction of new robots, computers, and a 3-D printer, which will be accessible to the whole school.
School leaders who work with the Disruption Department go through an intensive design process to ensure a makerspace that suits the school's community— nothing pre-fab about it. "Science at our students’ elementary schools has largely been cut, and that breaks my heart," Racette says. “Hands-on projects, when they’re measuring and cutting and drilling, offer really good enrichment."
While St. Louis may be a hotbed of school-based making, odds are it’s happening near you too, says Andrew Coy (Baltimore ’09), senior adviser for making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. To get started:
• Make Magazine provides ideas and advice on everything from getting started with making to building your own personal droid.
• MakerFaire.com has up-to-date info on maker expos happening all over the world, including the National Make Faire in Washington, D.C., from June 18-19; an expo in Honolulu on June 25; and one in Chicago on August 6.
• A free basic guide to starting a maker space is available at Spaces.Makerspace.com.
• “Design thinking,” a human-centered approach to identifying and solving problems, is at the heart of making. The Stanford University design school offers a free 90-minute “virtual crash course” in design thinking geared to groups looking to experiment.
About the Author
Leah Fabel is a Teach For America alum (Chicago '01) and has been at One Day since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who is also an education journalist, and their two sons.