Blake Tharp watched intently as hot, melted plastic squeezed through the tip of a 3-D printer, weaving side to side, stacking layer upon layer to build a small, orange octopus at the St. Louis Science Center’s Bright Ideas Expo.
“This is cool,” the grade school student said as he held a finished 3-D printed model in his hands at the Arch Reactor booth. “I wish I could take it home!”
At a nearby Science Center classroom, another young boy had an epiphany when operating a small circuit board called an Arduino.
“These are just plain computers, just really plain computers,” he said as Arch Reactor instructors watched his progress.
Kids love to build and create things and are often excited about the kind of technology shown at the Science Center, Darrel Flynn said at the Arch Reactor booth. “Every one of these kids, they look at this stuff and have a fascination with it,” Flynn said. “You’ve got to catch that fascination early.”
The inaugural Bright Ideas Expo was held June 7 to expose people to new technologies through workshops and demonstrations. The expo is just one example of many events and spaces across Missouri that have begun using new technology to engage young people.
The Science Center also hosts gatherings for Coder Girl, a coding group for women, and camps for DigiGirlz, a Microsoft program that teaches women about careers in technology fields. Arch Reactor also participates monthly in the center’s First Fridays, which feature science fiction films and the science behind all kinds of science fiction. In June, for example, the center played “X-Men” and explained the genetics and science of mutations.
“Our goal in bringing all those people together is to show how the creative process and scientific process is one in the same,” said Paul Freiling, the Science Center’s director of technology and engineering education.
Movement nurtures innovation
For the past two years the Science Center has partnered with Arch Reactor, a community-run workshop for hobbyists and “makers,” also known as a hackerspace. The partnership is part of the Active Creativity Initiative, a Science Center program that brings together hackers, makers, crafters, tinkerers and formal artists, a group often referred to collectively as the “maker movement.”
The high-tech movement was nurtured by MAKE Magazine, founded in 2005. As interest in the do-it-yourself, or DIY, community grew, so did the magazine. The magazine held the first Maker Faire, a festival celebrating the movement, in the Bay Area in 2006. The faires have grown to include numerous locations worldwide, and hackerspaces like Arch Reactor have popped up in metropolitan areas across the country.
Now the trend is catching on in schools, libraries and other public education spaces as a way to interest students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers. The timing coincides with a profound shortage of STEM workers — Missouri will need to fill 143,000 STEM jobs by 2018, according to a report from STEMconnector, an online network that connects STEM educators.
This gap in STEM workers is being felt by employers throughout the state. Less than 2 percent of the four million students who enter kindergarten each year will earn a four-year degree in engineering, Matt Daniels, regional manager of university relations for Boeing, said via email.
“In a global economy where the rate of job growth in science, technology, engineering and math is outpacing other sectors, we have a limited number of students graduating in STEM fields and more competition than ever for talent,” Daniels said. “These challenges are felt by high-tech employers like Boeing.”
With this shortage in mind, the company has made efforts to promote technology engagement. Boeing introduced a 3-D printing course for its employees and actively supports and mentors students participating in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions and other engineering competitions.
Maker Faires bring technology to public
The connection between the Maker Movement and STEM education is being emphasized by other organizations nationwide. This weekend, Union Station in Kansas City will host the city’s fourth annual Maker Faire. In 2013, the festival was the fourth largest in the world, drawing a crowd of more than 12,000. This year, Maker Faire KC will host a number of education-focused speakers and is partnering with the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to give free tickets to more than 200 area teachers. Festival organizer Luis Rodriguez said the movement continues to engage more of the public.
“We only expect this year to get crazier in a good way,” Rodriguez said. “It’s permeating everywhere, and we just want the momentum to continue.”
Read more: “Maker Faire KC Looks To Build On Big 2013“
The movement has also spread to the nation’s capital. President Barack Obama hosted the White House’s first Maker Faire June 18, declaring a National Day of Making, 2014.
“Across our Nation, entrepreneurs, students, and families are getting involved in the Maker Movement,” Obama said in his proclamation of the day. “My Administration is increasing their access to advanced design and research tools while organizations, businesses, public servants, and academic institutions are doing their part by investing in makerspaces and mentoring aspiring inventors.”
Educators use makerspaces to spark STEM interest
Other organizations and institutions are also seeing the benefit of using science as a means to inspire creativity. Several Missouri schools and libraries have opened spaces similar to Arch Reactor’s, but use the term makerspace rather than hackerspace.
In 2013, the Grand Center Arts Academy, a public charter school in the St. Louis area, opened a makerspace for seventh graders.
“Maker culture is thriving right now, and it’s wonderful that our school has jumped on board,” teacher Andrew Goodin said. “There’s so much learning that happens when students are in control of their own projects.”
The space quickly grew in popularity, and Goodin was hired to manage the operation. This year the space was open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. for sixth through 10th graders. It will expand to 11th and 12th graders.
Goodin said students use 3-D printers, Arduinos, iPads and other tools to create projects. Some students even created their own in-school businesses and sold what they made to other students.
“Once you see the possibilities of giving students the opportunity to innovate, it’s incredible, and I think it could work at any school,” Goodin said.
With the help of grant awards from MOREnet, the state’s largest public sector technology services and network connectivity provider, the Fulton and Grandview R-II School Districts and the University City Public Library in St. Louis were also able to implement cutting-edge technologies this year.
Jim Hall taught three sections of an introductory class in Fulton High School’s new makerspace this year. The school was able to purchase 3-D printers, laser and vinyl cutters and other computer-driven machines with the help of the grant.
Hall said the technology teaches students what the real world is expecting of them, especially in STEM jobs. But he added that the lab’s technologies are underutilized or nonexistent in other classrooms.
“The interesting thing is with all of the new technology, it’s not really something that’s been used or taught,” Hall said.
Employers value STEM engagement tools
With many more open jobs than suitable workers in the STEM marketplace, the grants were seen as a way to engage students with technology, MOREnet executive director John Gillispie said.
“The hope is in the long term that we will attract students into STEM careers, which is a real need we have in Missouri and nationwide,” Gillispie said. “We just don’t have as many students expressing an interest in those careers. They may not find it engaging and interesting. From our experience, if you get people in a lab, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize people do some of that stuff.’”
Boeing’s Daniels agrees. He said students with experience in a makerspace are further ahead on the learning curve than others.
“Boeing is looking for people with the skills to not only solve today’s problems, but to solve the problems of the future.” Daniels said. “… The Boeing Company needs employees who not only can solve complex engineering problems, but can do so by collaborating well and being creative at the same time.”
Back in the Science Center classroom, children were being taught, step-by-step, how to use the small circuit board. The boards can be used for small projects, such as making attached LEDs light up in a pattern, or for larger projects like remotely controlling a motorized vehicle. The larger projects require the kind of problem solving skills that are crucial in any STEM job, Freiling said.
“It’s these 21st Century workforce skills (that students need),” Freiling said. “It’s not just the technical skills, but the foundation of this ability to think creatively. Really, what these STEM jobs are looking at are problem-solving skills, and those aren’t skills you’ll find in an engineering class; you’ll find them at the Science Center and Arch Reactor.”
At the end of the classroom lesson with the circuit boards, the instructor from Arch Reactor asked one last question: “What would you like to make?”
“A picture out of lights,” one boy said.
“I want the lights to flash to songs,” another said.
“Maybe the lights could move with sensors,” a third said.
Then more hands shot into the air.