Maker Boot Camp Connects Kids and Technology
The Seminole Community Library is a joint-use facility in collaboration with the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus and the City of Seminole. A unique feature of our library is the Innovation Lab (iLab), which is a collaborative learning environment, oftentimes referred to as a technology playground or makerspace. The iLab is open to the public, and people of all ages with common interests come to meet, socialize and collaborate while sharing innovative ideas and learning new skills.
We created this learning space where people create things and share knowledge across multiple interests and disciplines to support and enhance our institution’s mission for lifelong learning. Hands-on learning spaces like these can offer so many opportunities for libraries and their communities. By having a makerspace, even something as small as LEGOs scattered across a table, a library can evolve from being a place of consumption to an exciting and engaging place of production.
Since it’s inception in 2014, the iLab has offered many learning opportunities. These are just a few examples:
- The iLab invited drone expert Donny Klotz to do a workshop where he discussed the variety of drones available to consumers, highlighted safety and legal issues, showed how to assemble the popular Phantom 2 Vision drone and then gave a flight demonstration to a group of interested hobbyists.
- St. Petersburg College student Dylan Harvey provided a hands-on workshop on Arduino, an “open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects.”
- Esteban Valdez, owner and Executive Producer at Echo Bridge Pictures, gave a lecture and a free hands-on animation workshop explaining the vital art and professional skills necessary to do well in the competitive field of animation. Two St. Petersburg College students now work at Echo Bridge Pictures as a result of attending the workshop!
Creating Children’s Programming with Maker Boot Camp
In June 2015, three groups approached us about offering programs for kids over the summer months: the St. Petersburg College’s College for Kids summer program, the City of Seminole’s Recreation Department and the Boy and Girl Scouts. Since the iLab was already offering workshops and other educational opportunities, the answer was an emphatic “Yes!”
Summer is usually a time to reflect on the year and to focus on the fall session, but the summer of 2015 forced us to roll up our sleeves and write a curriculum that would highlight the technologies housed in the iLab. We began by offering a series of five free workshops in July and August: 3-D Design and Printing; Introduction to Robotics; Fun with Circuitry; Building a Synthesizer Using littleBits; and Virtual Reality/360° Imagery. We dubbed this workshop series Maker Boot Camp.
The main objective of the series was for kids to have a better understanding of how things work and to learn how to solve problems down the road in their professional and personal lives. And we saw all this and more with our first Maker Boot Camp series, which was a complete success!
Kids filled the iLab and various computer labs in the library and throughout our campus learning how emerging technologies interweave into just about every part of our society. For example, our 3-D Design and Printing workshops were eye-opening for students because the students started to realize that design is a big part of everyday life. This workshop exposed them to new technology and taught the following:
- Students learned the basics of 3-D design and that they can find everyday objects and revise them or create brand-new objects. This taught them to be innovative and more perceptive to the world around them.
- Students were presented with problems and learned to solve them using 3-D design and printing concepts.
- Students learned to design an object in software and later see it become a tangible object through 3-D printing.
Maker Boot Camp is now our most popular workshop series. It’s a wonderful experience for the kids and their parents and for instructors as well. Designing and teaching these workshops has helped me to learn something new and interesting every day that I want to share with our community. It is rewarding to witness educational programs that you hold dear to your heart gain widespread attention. When you see the look on a kid’s face when they experience something amazing for the first time, it motivates you to do even more.
Expanding the Program with Outreach
In order to expand our Maker Boot Camp series, we did outreach to local schools and homeschool organizations. We sent emails explaining Maker Boot Camp to school media specialists with whom our library’s youth department frequently works to gauge interest in participating in the series. One month after reaching out to local elementary and middle schools, we did presentations about the Maker Boot Camp series to 445 students from four different schools, two of which had after-school STEM clubs. Although we did not work specifically with a cohort from each school, many students from these schools attended our workshops.
For the homeschooling segment, we sent emails to parents who use our library for homeschooling purposes, posted announcements to homeschooling organization listservs, and made flyers to be distributed around the area to promote Maker Boot Camp. After our outreach to homeschooling organizations, Maker Boot Camp started to gain intense popularity. If you have not reached out to your homeschooling community, do it right now because they will devour your resources while providing great feedback on what works and what does not work for their children.
Many people also heard about our Maker Boot Camp through Facebook or saw an Innovation Lab booth at a variety of events (e.g., Barnes and Noble Mini Maker Faire or the Et Cultura Innovation Expo at the Salvador Dali Museum).
This expanded Maker Boot Camp series had a total of 428 students participate in our workshops! Most of the time a child attended several or even all the sessions offered. Here’s a snapshot of attendance:
Maker Boot Camp Schedule
As a result of our outreach efforts, we started to offer three sessions for each Maker Boot Camp workshop. We had two workshops on Thursdays, one in the early afternoon for homeschooling students and one in the evening for public school students. On Friday mornings, we would offer another workshop for the homeschool community.
We use web-based forms to register participants for each workshop we offer. We send out a reminder email to all our registered participants. We also create a waiting list, so we can fill a spot if someone cancels. We ask people on the waiting list to come to the library the day of the workshop just in case someone does not show up. We have never had to turn someone away from any of our workshops. Our Youth Services Librarian, Jill Storm, keeps track of all the registrants and calls roll once they arrived to the computer lab. This enables us to maintain good statistics, remain in contact with the participants for future workshops and answer questions about the workshop they attended.
Executing the Workshops
Most workshops are led by one instructor with the help of a co-teacher (we’ve also enlisted the help of a video game instructor at the college as well). If you decide to do a similar program, you may not have all the skills needed to teach every workshop — and that’s okay. Look within your staff or at outside resources, such as volunteers or experts in other organizations.
We start every workshop with a brief lecture, usually around 20 minutes, highlighting the topic and explaining what the technology or tool is capable of achieving. The last hour or more of each workshop is hands-on, giving the kids and their parents an opportunity to work directly with the technology and/or tools.
We also provide community notebooks to all participants, so that they can reflect on their learning process and share it with their community of learners and potential innovators. The community notebooks have been an underutilized activity that we will revisit during the next series. The kids were more focused on the topic at hand and did not want to use their limited time to reflect on what they learned. This reflection will occur though, whether they know it or not. It is our goal to stimulate creativity and to enable students to have fun without a fear of judgement or being graded.
Tips for Starting a Maker Boot Camp Series
To replicate our Maker Boot Camp would require some knowledge of the topics, but you can enlist the help of outside resources to help you execute the workshops.
Recruit library staff who have a passion for something and let them design a workshop and run with it. We all know that things are easier and more fun if they are not mundane tasks. Let your staff take control of something they love because it will show, and it will undoubtedly inspire others. You can also find interested and perceptive students who have attended other workshops and invite them to lead their own workshops.
You’ll also want to look to your community for experts, including other organizations that have the same mission. One of our partners is FLASTEM, which is a STEM outreach program that is collaborative, community-based and volunteer-led. They focus on after-school enrichment and technology learning outcomes. As our partner, they have offered great iLab programs, including guest speaking at our Maker Boot Camp. Volunteers from FLASTEM have led computer programming, robotics and other technology workshops for the iLab.
A passion to learn as you go and to be a natural tinkerer is also essential. For instance, after my brief Introduction to Robotics workshop, I brought unopened boxes of various robot kits and asked participants to open the boxes and start making and interacting with the robots. It was so much fun! Jill and I worked with the kids to figure things out on the fly, which tends to happen frequently in the real world. After this particular workshop, a few kids returned with their parents to finish what they started building.
It’s also important that you are getting input and feedback from your community and students. This will help you tailor your programs to your user’s interests. Based on feedback, we have continued to expand our programs beyond our Maker Boot Camp workshops. Our first sewing workshop was full, and we get requests to offer basic soldering and electronics workshops too. Don’t be afraid to start out small and then survey participants (and potential participants in your community) to see what topics interest them.
Money also plays a role, but there are ways to offer STEM workshops inexpensively and without a big budget. The iLab has zero budget, but we continue to thrive thanks to a variety of grants. Roll up your sleeves and get busy seeking and applying for grants — it will pay off, I promise!
One of the keys to writing a winning grant is to seek grant opportunities that align with your goals and initiatives. For example, in 2015, I applied for a grant from The American Library Association in partnership with the Walt Disney Company that seemed tailor-fit for our program. In October 2015, the iLab received the $7,500 Curiosity Creates grant to expand our successful Maker Boot Camp programs by allowing us to purchase new technologies to support them.
Curiosity Creates works to develop and implement a program to serve children ages 6 to 14, and focuses on one or more of the following seven critical components of creativity (as outlined by the Center of Childhood Creativity):
- Imagination and Originality
- Communication and Self-Expression
- Action and Movement
All of these critical components of creativity are integrated into the Maker Boot Camp curriculum and continue to play a key role in all our iLab programs.
Here is a copy of our Curiosity Creates grant proposal. Please feel free to model your own initiative on our program’s philosophy, and do not hesitate to contact me with questions.
After your first round of workshops, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t to inform future programming and grant proposals — and to celebrate your successes with everyone who participated. Our second Maker Boot Camp series ended with a MakerFest celebration where all our technologies and tools were put on display for everyone to explore and interact with while enjoying refreshments, watching the screening of Maker Boot Camp: A Documentary and networking. Our MakerFest was a time to reflect on the past workshops and to look to the future to figure out what our next educational path should be. Whatever else is just over the horizon, we all know that we will be dreaming, thinking, and creating together.