Increasingly, makerspaces are helping students sustain interest in STEM fields

makerspace-STEMRobert Pronovost, the science, technology, engineering and math coordinator at the Ravenswood City School District (Calif.), has a mission: to spark student interest in those topics by bringing tech-filled “makerspaces” to low-income schools.

Now with the help of Facebook and the Ravenswood Education Foundation, he’s come close to reaching that goal.

By the end of this week, five out of seven of the district’s public schools will have spaces filled with 3D printers, Legos, laptops, robots and more for hands-on learning. Castano and Willow Oaks schools are expected to open their makerspaces in the fall.

As tech companies try to find ways to create a more diverse workforce, they’re looking at education as a way to help increase the pipeline supply of women and minorities graduating in the STEM fields.

“It’s clear that more minorities need to be pursuing an education in STEM and whatever we can do to support that growth we want to be a part of it and to make a positive impact on our neighbors,” said Susan Gonzales, who heads community engagement at Facebook, which provided 90 MacBooks, furniture and funding to create makerspaces in the district. “For all we know, the founder of the next Facebook is right here in the Ravenswood School District.”

In Ravenswood City School District, about 90 percent of students from kindergarten to eighth grade are low income and 67 percent are English language learners.

“Every kid deserves to find what drives them,” Pronovost said.

At Brentwood Academy, students moved around a classroom, building objects out of blocks and duct tape, creating animated films, controlling robots using a program on an iPad and using a 3D printer.
The spaces in the district focus on robotics, coding and creating. The first one was created at the Los Robles Dual Immersion Academy in 2014.

Fifth-grader Mark Pacheco, who wants to become a doctor, spent three days creating a stop-motion animated film about a skydiver using Legos.

“This person wants to go skydiving, but when he’s on a plane he jumps off and he doesn’t have a parachute,” he said.

The hardest part was getting the plane to appear as if it were flying, he said.

Other students were using a program called TinkerCad to design their name and other objects, which were then printed out on a 3D printer.

“I’m trying to make the X more small,” said 8-year-old Alexa Rodriguez as she designed her name.

Pronovost said the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative is partnering with the Stanford Transformative Technologies Lab to study how effective makerspaces are in fostering academic success.

East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier, who attended Brentwood elementary school when she was a child, thinks it will work.

“If students can design something and have it printed out in their hand, I think it means more than just reading something out of a book,” she said.

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