Area teachers learn to stay hands off with Makerspace STEM Labs

Nebraska Public Power District Senior Energy Educator Chad Johnson speaks to area teachers on Tuesday about best practices with the Makerspace Labs.

LEXINGTON — For some area teachers, the lessons started early, but they were the ones taking the notes this time.

The Mid-Nebraska Makerspace Lab teacher training was held to show educators how best to use the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, STEM, labs which will be coming to local areas soon.

The Makerspace STEM trailer idea came from a partnership between Dawson Public Power District, ESU 10 and Orthman Manufacturing.

The concept was to create three different STEM trailers, each containing 10 different units for students to learn about. These trailers will travel across the ESU 10 area, stopping at schools for two weeks at a time.

Orthman Manufacturing was also able to apply for a Developing Youth Talent Initiative Grant from the Department for Economic Development. This grant was open to manufacturing or IT businesses and the money raised locally was used in the grant application. Orthman was one of the three winners who received $125,000. This money will go toward the Makerspace Lab trailers.

Nebraska Public Power District has operated their own STEM trailer for the past four years and has moved it far and wide across the state to introduce hands on labs to students.

On Tuesday, July 30, area teachers gathered at Central Community College to learn how to best implement these labs. NPPD Senior Energy Educator Chad Johnson led the presentation in during the morning session.

Johnson said NPPD realized there needed to be a better tie between the power districts and STEM teaching four years ago. In response to this, their own traveling STEM trailer was launched with the idea local areas will be able to replicate the idea and to teach students the power of hands on experience.

There are three rules with the Makerspace, Johnson said, and they might have seemed counterintuitive at first to the teachers listening.

Rule number one, he said, “You are not the smartest person in the room,” when it comes to the Makerspace Labs. Johnson told the teachers to embrace and encourage this idea.

“If you limit the students to what you know, you are wasting their time,” he said.

The second rule was, saying, “I don’t know,” is okay. He said if a student asks a teacher a question they are unsure of, the student is expanding their knowledge.

“Getting out of their way is the best thing you can do for a student,” he said.

The last rule spoke to a shift the teachers needed to make in their outlooks. “You are now a giver of opportunity, not just a giver of knowledge,” Johnson said.

He might have shocked some of the teachers when he said, “Youtube is a better teacher than you are, it’s how they learn, it’s awesome.” He acknowledged not every student is going to self-educate themselves on the internet, but he stressed the importance of providing new opportunities, rather than just facts.

“Start with this mindset, the more opportunity they get, the more they can grow,” he said.

Johnson related a story of three freshman students who had built a robot and taken it to a state competition. The problem was the robot kept falling over as its arm rose up and a solution couldn’t be easily found.

That was until Johnson and the students were in the hotel room at 1 a.m. in the morning when one of the freshmen had the light bulb go off and proposed using the quadratic formula to slow the robot down as the arm was raised higher. Johnson was stunned by this student’s proposal and cited it as one of the reasons these hands on opportunities are so worthwhile.

“The lab is not for you, it is solely for the opportunity of the students,” he said, “let them make stuff, figuring it out is an employable skill.”

Johnson said if employers are honest, one of the biggest issues they have with younger hires is they lack practical skills to solve hands on problems.

“Kids don’t figure out stuff anymore,” he said, “We have taken away the tinkering from our kids, the culture doesn’t encourage failure.”

“There are no lessons,” Johnson said about the Makerspace Labs, “They have to figure it out for themselves.”

One of the groups which tends to struggle with these labs are the straight A students, Johnson said, they often look for hard instructions on how to succeed in the class but may not do well when there are few guidelines.

Johnson told the teachers in the first few days with the labs, the students might not accomplish much, they are using this time to feel everything out.

“Kids will take ownership of the labs and step up into leadership roles,” he said, “Let them do that.”

Failure in the labs is to be encouraged, Johnson said, students may learn more trying to fix the 3-D printer for example than they will actually printing anything.

“If one kid builds something amazing, then it has been a success,” Johnson said, “It’s not about the 100 other kids.”

Johnson gave the example of a 7th grade student who had used one of the labs to create a penholder for his cousin, who had cerebral palsy. The cousin loved to draw, but after his condition got worse, he couldn’t hold the pen. The 7th grader, all on their own, made this tool for the benefit of their family member.

“If you must, set up parameters, then back away, don’t force them to learn,” he said.

After the morning session the teacher took a tour of Orthman Manufacturing. The afternoon session centered on recognition of the Makerspace lab sponsors.

The teachers also had the time to experiment with the labs themselves and figure out how they worked in preparation for when the trailers will be at their schools for a two week time period.

The trailers are expected to hit the roads in November of this year, materials and equipment for the labs and trailers have already been ordered.

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