Every Wednesday afternoon, the Parkdale Elementary Library undergoes a transformation — from a place of quiet literary exploration to a bustling Makerspace.

On those days, a group of 30 third through fifth graders in Parkdale’s afterschool ExCEL program get to flex their inventing muscles, building and creating through a regional effort called “Maker Club.” At Parkdale, the students refer to this time as “Makerspace.”

On one chilly December day, the young learners had the task of creating a bristlebot — a miniature robot, built on the head of a toothbrush and powered with a tiny vibration motor. Integral to the task was the key idea of what creates a complete circuit. But just as important were the skills of following instructions (students were self-guided), trouble-shooting, working together, and persevering through setbacks. The motors, with their tiny stripped wires, were not particularly easy to work with and some of the batteries were dead. So each student who had a faulty first design had to investigate the potential cause.

After 20 minutes of building and trouble-shooting, supported by educator Jenni Donahue and volunteer Jay Lyman, most of the bristlebots were working.

“I’m a builder myself, so when I see kids get excited about it, it lights me up,” said Lyman, a retired engineer; that is what motivates him to support Parkdale’s Maker Club all year, he said.

As the robots skidded around tabletops and tickled hands, the next task was introduced: Design something for your robot.

Without need for much additional guidance, the elementary learners sprang into action. Using mostly recycled materials, solo or in teams, the youth began designing houses, landscapes, a stadium, and even a trampoline for their bots. Fifth grader Esteban, holding up a cardboard case he was building, explained that he was “trying to invent something for (the robot) to defend itself.” He and four other boys were also creating the stadium, with the hope that their robots could eventually battle.

Maker Clubs are a program of the Columbia Gorge STEM Hub, led in close partnership with local schools and other sites.

“The goals are to ignite interest in STEM early and to promote problem-solving, creativity, and perseverance,” said STEM Hub Director Christy Christopher. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math and represents an approach to learning that is hands-on, allowing students to apply their learning to solve real-world problems.

The STEM Hub created the curriculum and supply kits, but most sites lead the “clubs” with their own staffing. This model allows the program to impact far more students than if it were staffed by the hub and removes the prep time needed if the schools had to design the activities. Funded by a national grant to expand maker learning, the effort now has Maker Clubs at eight sites across Hood River and Wasco counties.

“It is a joy to see our students get so excited about the Maker Club program,” said Parkdale Elementary Principal Gus Hedberg. “Jay and Jenni do a wonderful job of creating a safe and creative learning space where students can explore. The opportunities students have to experience science, technology, engineering, and math are extremely valuable and significantly builds upon the lessons their teachers provide during the regular school day.”

To many students, the Maker Clubs are simply a break from the traditional classroom setting, a chance to be more open-ended in their own learning and creating. But it seems that the goals are hitting the mark with some of the young innovators.

“I have learned to be a better person,” said third grader Junior, “by making stuff you’ve never invented before.”

Fellow third grader Yahaira said that she “likes using (her) imagination to make crafts” and “wants to be an engineer when (she) grows up because they help people.”

This year is the second year of Maker Clubs, with revised lessons in place thanks to feedback from maker leaders and classroom educators. The new curriculum includes a whole session about safety, making sure youth can demonstrate the ability to use glue guns and cardboard cutters appropriately before being allowed to use them semi-independently.

Also added was more of an emphasis on math and additional lessons directly connected to life in the Gorge. These include a day of bridge design, where local bridges are used for inspiration; an introduction to simple machines as they connect to the school’s playground; and a day when makers design wind-powered boats.

“I am amazed at how excited the kids are to be involved in design, engineering, working together, and solving problems. It is a well thought-out, supported program teaching engineering and other science concepts so early,” said Donahue.

A benefit of the program being designed locally is its ability to adapt and continue to be perfected. And that’s also in line with what the students are learning.

“I’ve learned to not give up because we try something and it doesn’t have to be perfect,” said third grader Hayley when asked what she has learned from Maker Club.

There are efforts in STEM across all age groups. For example, in the classroom, there are engineering classes at the middle school level and career and technical education classes at the high school level, which include courses in digital media, engineering, agriculture, health sciences, and more. Out of the classroom, there are opportunities for students at all ages to get involved in STEM, especially robotics. While opportunities exist, they are not always accessible to all students. Transportation, the idea that STEM is only for certain groups people, and limited resources can all be barriers. The Columbia Gorge STEM Hub is partnering with education, industry, and local volunteers to break down those barriers to accessing STEM.

Maker Club is an example of how these barriers are being broken down. As a part of the ExCEL after-school program, transportation challenges have been removed and all third through fifth grade students in the program at Parkdale Elementary are able to attend Maker Club. These students have learned to see themselves as innovative thinkers, capable of solving problems. Kandi, a third grader, puts it this way: “I learned that anything is possible.”

Interested in volunteering? STEM advocates and those working in STEM fields are encouraged to reach out to the Columbia Gorge STEM Hub to learn more about how to get involved; for more information, visit www.gorgestem.org.

Interested in bringing Maker Club to your school? Reach out to your principal who can work with the STEM Hub to get the program started.

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