Imagine as a middle-school student, taking a class where your primary mission is planning how to inhabit another planet! You and your fellow classmates will experiment in various ways to grow and sustain a viable food source, construct communication systems, and develop inter-stellar transportation options. Sounds more like something from NASA’s Planetary Science Division, but it’s all a part of the innovative educational practices that are happening right here in Savannah-Chatham Public Schools! Welcome to Stephen Routh’s Maker Class!
After the STEM academy’s first year in operation, the staff worked to bring the content alive through a schoolwide storyline that would evolve with a student over their 3-year middle school experience. In 6th grade, students spend their time learning all about what humans need to inhabit planet earth (Earth Science). In 7th grade, the planet becomes uninhabitable and students are challenged to figure out what conditions they’ll need to live on another planet (Life Science). By the time they are in 8th grade, the students will be designing a rocket to take them to the stars (Physical Science).
A “Makerspace” looks something like an engineer’s handy-space and they are popping up in classrooms all over the country. These learning environments are animated by the “what happens if” mindset of scientists, the creative spirit of artists, and the formulas and codes of tech geeks. Above all else, these creative common spaces reflect the way people are showing innovation and problem-solving in today’s modern world.
Thanks to our SCCPSS Innovative Educator, Stephen Routh, students in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System are getting a unique instructional experience that combines technology with project based learning in a way that develops powerful problem solving skills.
We recently caught up with Stephen to learn more:
Why did you choose teaching as a profession?
It took me about 40 years to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I worked as a subcontractor for Southern California Edison, in construction, specialized in wooden boat construction for museums, worked in restaurants. Most of that was geared around engineering. That’s what makes this (The Maker Class) a good fit for me. Everything I’ve ever done has kind of prepared me to teach this class at this school.
What is a Makerspace and what do you do here?
Makerspace is all about taking concepts that are abstract and applying those concepts in the classroom. I try to tie it in with the curriculum students experience in their other classes. Based on that, we build things. Anything from electronics-based to wood-based, we’ve done clay this year with pottery, since they were studying minerals and rocks in 6th grade. A little bit of anything you can image when it comes to making things.
What specific things have your students made this year?
Right now, they are building models of plate tectonics boundaries to tie in with their earth science class. With the 7th grade kids, we’ve done hydroponic units and built compost bins. We’ve built communicators to communicate with a new species of plant that was discovered on a fictional planet that’s tied into the Nevermore story line that we’re doing throughout the school. The 8th graders built catapults to tie into what they’re doing in physical science. Right now, 7th and 8th graders are doing electronics with arduino microcontrollers. The 7th graders are building devices that, when something steps on a pressure plate, it sounds a warning. The 8th graders are working on two projects. One is a laser trip wire that sounds an alarm. The other is a temperature sensor, that when the temperature goes above a certain degree, it sets off an alarm.
Do these things actually work?
Yes. They work. They create a prototype, then we have working prototypes when we’re done.
I’m guessing there's a lot of trial and error and failure.
How do you handle that?
That’s all built into it. Anytime they work on these projects, there is learning that goes on in the beginning. Which, I try not to go overboard with. I want students to have time to explore on their own. So I give them the basics. Then they have enough time built into their project that they're able to build something, try it out, then, OK, it doesn’t work. We need to go back and redo it. So that’s a big thing for me. It’s all about failures. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to truly get them to understand why things work the way they do, particularly when you are working with arduinos and coding. They could just copy and paste code and make something work, but that’s not what it’s about.
What do you like best about this class?
It was a club one day a week, but based on what we believe, what needs to happen in education, we decided it needed to be more than just a club; it needed to be an actual class. Every day is a little bit of an experiment. I’m learning a lot and changing things as I go. It was a struggle at first because obviously there is no standard curriculum and we work very hard to tie our learning experiences to other curriculums in a way that carried high rigor and relevance.
What keeps you motivated?
For me, I think it’s when the kids actually are able to make that connection, “Oh this makes sense now with what we were learning in science class.” Or, when they actually pull something off they’ve been working on for a week and a half - something they’ve been working on where they couldn’t get it to work and now it actually works. It’s about the feedback I get from them when that happens.
Are you a techie?
I consider myself a maker. I’m a tinkerer. I pull things apart, figure out how they work, put them back together. I was always trying to get the newest gadget that was out.
So, you’re curious?
Yes. I’m a lifelong learner.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
Don’t be afraid to try things that are new or different. Don’t be afraid if they’re not working to stop and say, “Hey, this isn’t working, we need to try something else."