Where you or I might see a room full of cute elementary school students absorbed in coding projects, or using wooden blocks to design a structure through which a toy ball can roll through, a local school district and tech company see something much more: a path to higher education, to jobs, to economic growth and to access.
"For us, it's the access, the digital divide," said Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff, standing in a classroom at Brentwood Elementary School in East Palo Alto that was transformed this year into a decked-out maker's space. "Our students are primarily Latino, African American and Pacific Islander. They don't have a lot of technology at home.
"If they're going to be part of this new technology boom that's out there, the jobs of the future, the thinking that leads to higher education this is the only place that they'll get it," she said.
Brentwood's new maker's space, which opened this fall, is just the first of many in the Ravenswood school district. Through a partnership with neighboring social media company Facebook, the district plans to open a total of seven maker's spaces at its elementary and middle schools in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
With 90 laptops (donated by Facebook), three 3-D printers, one laser cutter, one sewing machine, a host of robots and a belief in the power of technology to transform young lives, the school district and Facebook are investing together in the future of Ravenswood students, the majority of whom are students of color from low-income families.
Ravenswood's first maker's space opened at Los Robles Dual Immersion Magnet Academy in East Palo Alto last January and has since garnered the district two STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) innovation awards. The pilot project was spearheaded by Robert Pronovost, Ravenswood's STEM coordinator and a longtime advocate of integrating technology into the classroom.
Brentwood, Ronald McNair Middle School, Cesar Chavez Elementary School and Belle Haven School in Menlo Park followed suit this year. Each maker's space is outfitted with laptops and furniture donated by Facebook and all other bells and whistles have been secured through grants and outside support, including a $7,500 grant this year from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.
They're stocked with state-of-the-art technology as well as simple making materials like cardboard, duct tape and lanyards. On shelves at the Brentwood maker's space sit books like "Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom" and "A Kid's Guide to Awesome Duct Tape Projects."
Since joining the district as a teacher at Belle Haven in 2007, Pronovost has worked to bring more technology to Ravenswood students, 90 percent of whom come from low-income families and 67 percent are English language learners. His first classroom was stocked with only three aging Mac computers. He soon made sure there was a class set of MacBooks, several iPads, iPod touches, an eBeam interactive whiteboard, a Mac Mini, a projector, an Apple TV and numerous other small electronic devices such as speakers and a Bamboo tablet.
The maker's spaces, dubbed the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative, are an extension of those efforts. The initiative will provide at least 700 students per year with the opportunity to be immersed in design thinking, programming, robotics and "tools to allow students to make in whatever way suits them," Pronovost said.
Students can come in at lunch and recess, and teachers are also learning how to incorporate the technology into their classroom lessons.
Down the line, this will hopefully translate into long-term benefits like a college education, job security and economic growth in a city surrounded by enormous wealth, the school district, City of East Palo Alto and Facebook hope.
"Being in Silicon Valley, we know that that's where the jobs are. To give kids and the residents of East Palo Alto an opportunity to compete for those jobs you have to start really small sometimes," said East Palo Alto mayor Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier as she gestured toward a trio of boys sitting on the floor in the Brentwood classroom, building with wooden blocks.
"I want to see them grow in STEM and go to college and be able to start their own companies, perhaps, within the Valley," she added. "We're looking at the community and fighting growth and gentrification, but this is the economic development that we need so our residents can compete."
Ravenswood has also partnered with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education to study the impact of the maker's spaces on students' academic growth. The university's Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (also called FabLab) will be tracking Ravenswood middle school students' academic achievement, interest in STEM and school in general through surveys, Pronovost said. They also hope to follow these students into high school to see if maker's spaces might have an impact on their performance and things like how many Advanced Placement (AP) courses they enroll in.
Atelaite Vea, a Brentwood fifth-grader who spent an hour Monday bent over a Facebook-donated Macbook, has been learning how to code since last year. She likes playing around with programming software Scratch in the maker's space just as much as building with LEGOs. And she's one of about 20 to 25 students who like the maker's space so much they show up before school starts as part of a coding club run by a fifth-grade teacher.
"Kids will come to school because this is here," Hernandez-Goff said.
When asked what he likes most about the maker's space, fourth-grader Roberto Zepeta responded: "You can build anything."
Facebook's Director of Community Engagement Susan Gonzales said, "Over time, we hope that this encourages these students to stay in school, go to college and pursue an education in technology. Who knows maybe the founder of the next Facebook is right (here), from the Ravenswood school district."