Longfellow Middle School students cut lumber to furnish their new “maker space.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Longfellow Middle School students cut lumber to furnish their new “maker space.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent afternoon at Longfellow Middle School, an energetic group of students piled into a room that until recently served as the campus cafeteria.

There were no sandwiches or milk cartons to be seen, though — just a stack of two-by-fours and saws.

Teacher Matt Hinckley held up a piece of lumber. “Plywood,” he told the seventh- and eighth-grade students, “is an incredible human innovation. We totally take it for granted.”

When a new lunchroom opened last year, the old cafeteria was identified as a prime location for the district’s first “maker space,” where students could come to devise and create a fusion of art, engineering and science projects.

The “maker movement” has made its way to schools in force in recent years, with advocates touting the hands-on, student-driven approach as a great way to build critical technical and creative skills. Everything from sewing to 3D-printing falls under the “maker education” umbrella, but there is a particular focus on the application of math and science concepts — whether through circuitry or architecture projects — as well as the design and engineering processes. Often students are prompted to identify a problem and come up with a solution, tweaking and tinkering with their creations along the way.

Despite the promotion of maker education in new national science standards and state guidelines — and broad support from corporations that see the emphasis on innovation as key to a competitive future workforce — funding for a full-fledged school maker space does not come easy. At Longfellow, a $10,900 grant for supplies from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund has helped get the project off the ground. (See all the 2017-18 Strategic Impact Grants.)

“A few years ago our board decided they wanted to provide more support for math and science, and middle school is the most effective place to start,” said Erin Rhoades, executive director of the Schools Fund. “Kids can really struggle with math and lose momentum before high school.”

New math and science curricula implemented in the district called for more hands-on learning, so “bringing a maker space into one of the middle schools was something we felt we could do and should happen,” Rhoades said. The biggest hurdle was finding available room in a district that relies on portables for some of its classrooms.

At Longfellow, the Schools Fund found an opportunity — and, in Hinckley, a science teacher eager to pioneer a maker program.

Teacher Matt Hinckley told students, “These are called studs.” Replied one: “That’s me!” Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Teacher Matt Hinckley told students, “These are called studs.” Replied one: “That’s me!” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The cafeteria room alone did not a maker space make, however, so Hinckley had the idea to turn the task of furnishing the spot into one of his students’ first projects.

On that recent afternoon, the elective maker class he teaches was preparing for a community construction workshop the following Saturday. The kids divided up into groups to measure and cut the pieces of wood, purchased through a class crowdfunding campaign, for table frames and legs.

These early projects will involve a lot of guidance from adults, but the goal is to get students working on their own, and with each other.

Ultimately, there will be more “student decision-making and autonomy,” Hinckley said, but “at the beginning of the year we’re going to have some really specific projects. Bind your own book; just follow these steps. Through those kinds of projects, the students learn to use the tools safely and effectively, and start to get ideas about what kinds of things are possible. Then we’ll kind of gradually release them throughout the year.” Kids are not typically trusted by adults to use power tools or create their own lessons from scratch, so maker projects are empowering for students, Hinckley said.

The promise of autonomy is what drew seventh-grader Charles Samser, 12, to the elective.

“I thought it would be better and more independent than other classes,” Samser said. “You get assignments for this, but there’s going to be some choice later.”

With Schools Fund grant in hand last year, Hinckley initially imagined drawing up a shopping list and stocking the space with the latest technology and materials. After sleeping on the idea, he and his colleagues decided to instead gather materials as projects called for them.

“We’re not going to obtain a 3D printer just because it’s cool,” Hinckley said. “We’re going to obtain it when there’s a project where students really learn about digital fabrication and design in a meaningful way. We do envision [the space] having sewing, papercraft, robotics, electronics, woodworking — I mean we really want it to run the gamut.”

A number of school faculty members and administrators have collaborated with Hinckley on the maker space, and teachers will start bringing their classes to the space for special projects. As the year progresses, supply kits — sort of projects-to-go — will be assembled and teachers will be able to check out them out.

Parents pick up kids from Longfellow Middle School, the site of a new maker space meant to serve as a “hub” for the district. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Parents pick up kids from Longfellow Middle School, the site of a new maker space meant to serve as a “hub” for the district. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In addition to support from the Schools Fund and Longfellow, the staff involved in the maker space are partnering with the Maker Education Initiative. Longfellow is receiving professional development and networking opportunities with other school maker spaces through the national nonprofit, which is based in Oakland. Berkeley Unified’s facilities department is also helping with some of the upgrades to the cafeteria space.

The idea is for the space to eventually serve as a “hub” for maker education in the district, welcoming field trips and collaborators from other schools.

Wyn Skeels, the supervisor of BUSD’s career technology education, views the maker program as a precursor to the pre-professional courses offered at Berkeley High. Those offerings range from a fire science programming to an interior design class. The programs have expanded in the past couple of years, keeping pace with a national trend and filling what Skeels views as a void.

“When I was a kid many, many parents had garages with tools. Kids played with things and built things,” he said. “In the late 80s and 90s, we got rid of vocational education. There was a generation of kids growing up with no exposure to maker culture.”

The maker space at Longfellow will get younger students thinking about careers, which “needs to start earlier and earlier,” in large part because the state is pushing earlier exposure, Skeels said. Under the new state accountability system, “more and more we will be measured by our success in college and career indicators,” he said.

For Hinckley, the most immediate purpose of the new maker space is not to prepare kids for future careers, but rather to better engage them in the math and science they are learning in middle school. It is a way to reach students who do not thrive in traditional classroom settings.

A number of students were willing to take a chance on the brand new maker elective this year, selecting it over other enticing options.

“This class had everything I wanted,” said Tallulah Beneviste, 12. The seventh grader is interested in art, coding and architecture, and the maker elective “incorporates most of those into one,” she said.

For Elio Kossa, 14, in eighth grade, the course is a more unusual version of the art classes he has enjoyed in the past.

“I thought this was something you could be creative in, but that you wouldn’t be able to do at home,” he said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...