Smita Kolhatkar implores the lunchtime rush of elementary school students to wash their hands, but they're not listening. They flood into the Barron Park Elementary School classroom and make a beeline for laptops, circuitry kits, sewing machines, LEGOs and wooden building blocks and start tinkering.
The classroom has been converted into Palo Alto Unified School District's first maker's studio, an open space where children as young as first grade can freely build, play and learn science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). During lunch this Tuesday, a group of third graders congregated around a table with Apple laptops, each working on his or her own project using programming languages Scratch or Alice. Some tackled a coding challenge posed on a nearby whiteboard: "Using Scratch, Tynker, Alice or Python think of a project which describes California's drought and something you can do to help with it." Across the room, first grader Keiondre Warfield dashed to a sewing machine to make a scarf; fourth grader Emma Sweeney started stacking wooden building blocks, carefully building a tower.
The maker's studio opened with the start of the school year and is the brainchild of Barron Park Principal Magdalena Fittoria and Kolhatkar, the school's education technology specialist. The two have worked in recent years to further integrate technology into Barron Park's classrooms, through Partners in Education (PiE) grants for LEGO robotics and a 3-D printer; the addition of iPads to all fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms; and in 2012, the launch of a lunchtime programming club lead by Kolhatkar, a former Oracle engineering manager. The very presence of Kolhatkar's position, which is new for the district, indicates the school's commitment to supporting technological innovation.
With funding from the Barron Park PTA $12,000 dedicated last spring and $7,500 set aside for this year and an under-used classroom, the project was off and running. When asked why she wanted to bring the concept of a maker's studio to Barron Park, Fittoria answered simply: "Changing times."
"As a site, we have been investing and doing a lot of work in integrating technology into our teaching and learning. That's just a given. We try to think: What is it that we need to prepare students for? And the bottom line is, we don't really know. So how do we teach them to learn to learn and to always be on this sense of problem solving and designing?"
All activities inside the maker's studio support this idea. Moveable whiteboards on wheels stationed throughout the classroom offer coding, construction or circuitry challenges for the students. Last week's construction challenge was to build a really high structure; Kolhatkar said one student completed it with a different design each day. This week's circuitry challenge read: "1. Using wires, one LED and a battery, try and build a simple circuit. 2. Expand the circuit."
Fifth grader Max LaWer spent much of the 45-minute lunch period excitedly hunched over a laptop, testing a game he created called "Maze of Max." He's on beta version 50.3, and was testing the game out with a fellow student Tuesday.
"It's really cool to see the computer do what you tell it," he said.
He and the other children were mostly left to their own creative devices, with little instruction from any teachers or aides.
"Kids are excellent for making because that's what they want to do," Fittoria said. "They want to be building and putting things together. So for us, it's creating a space where they can apply that creativity. And for me, as a teacher, if you can be in first grade and you can be confident about this, then other things aren't going to seem so difficult."
Kolhatkar stressed that the studio is a work in progress, with much potential for future projects. Currently, it's open at lunch to all students. Teachers can also schedule time to bring classes in for projects. The 3-D printer a Makerbot Replicator 2 that was purchased through a PiE grant has yet to be introduced at lunch, as the school waits to enlist parent volunteers who can monitor kids' use. The same goes for expensive LEGO robotics kits, which come with StoryStarter software that aims to improve language and literacy skills. (Kids build using the actual LEGOs and then create their own story, which is brought to life on a computer via the software). They're also waiting on mini iPads on which students will be able to use Stop Motion to make animated videos; there's a green screen backdrop that hasn't been put up yet.
"There's so much potential," Fittoria said. "For me, I was probably very traditional as a female minority learner. I liked the idea of medicine when I was in grade school and high school, but I had no idea what kind of background I would need. So I felt like when I went to college ... I wasn't prepared to really major in the sciences."
Fittoria said she hopes the maker's studio will change that for Barron Park students, and be a place where at a very young age, they can learn to take risks, make mistakes and learn by doing.
"The people you hold up there the Google people, the AOL people, all these people it wasn't a course they took. It was this idea of just being so flexible and creative," she said. "I think that's what schooling should be. It should give people those wide-open spaces."
Barron Park Elementary School is hosting an open house this Saturday, Sept. 6, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to celebrate the official opening of its maker's studio. There will be a range of hands-on activities for children of all ages. Rushton Hurley, founder of Next Vista for Learning (a free, online library of teacher- and student-made short videos), and new Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee, will both speak.