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Creating Project-Based Learning Environments Through Makerspaces

Transforming learning with technology

In the Ventura USD in California, one low-achieving middle school at risk of closure was instead transformed into the De Anza Academy of Technology and the Arts (DATA), a high-achieving magnet school. A significant component in DATA’s dramatic turnaround has been its innovative project-based and collaborative learning environments and makerspaces, which employ technology as a central component. 

In this web seminar, an educator from DATA discussed how the school’s leadership is using technology in innovative ways to create project-based learning environments through makerspaces, as well as some strategies for doing the same in any school or district. 

Alex Wulff

Middle School STEM Instructor

De Anza Academy of Technology and the Arts (DATA)

Ventura USD (Calif.)

DATA Middle School was down to about 450 students, with a 100 percent poverty population, and based on No Child Left Behind, was failing pretty horribly. It looked as though the school was going to be shut down. Then our district did something pretty incredible. Instead of shutting the school down and busing kids to high-achieving schools, they elected to put in place a 1-to-1 technology initiative, bringing innovative, project-based instruction. As a result, in the past six years we’ve grown to close to 1,000 students with a waiting list.

Thirty percent of our students come from outside of the boundary, and those students are primarily from middle- and upper-middle-class families. That creates a dilemma for us, which is how do we meet the needs of these super high-achieving students who are busing in? How do we meet the needs of our unidentified high-achievers who are in the neighborhood? And then how do we also meet the needs of kids who are struggling due to poverty, due to English language challenges, etc.?

I reached the conclusion that the 1-to-1 initiative and the ability to create custom learning experiences for each of these sub groups is a huge advantage. We have a STEM classroom, which is a giant makerspace full of all kinds of goodies like CNC routers, 3D printers, laser engravers, and drones that kids build and program and fly. I also get the privilege of teaching math and science project-based, and because of the fact that DATA is on a block schedule—which is another important aspect to integrating technology—I get to see these kids for 100 minutes every day. That means that we have these huge, meaningful chunks of time in which we can implement PBL at a deep level. It means that we can very quickly get kids up to speed with technology proficiencies, how to access and communicate through blogs, how to access all kinds of open-source CAD and CAM programs, etc. Obviously, having 1-to-1 has been instrumental in allowing us to innovate.

The students are given lots of different choices, are given lots of opportunities to fail early on and to hopefully learn from those failures—but there’s a constant eye on specific standards and specific outcomes that we’re looking for. With 1-to-1, you have incredible flexibility, not only to pinpoint where these 

 kids are, but also to customize your curriculum to meet their needs.

For science and technology instruction, most of the kids who come into sixth grade have not actually had many opportunities to be scientists or to conduct a lot of independent research. They’ve read about science, and they’ve learned vocabulary about science, but as far as actually having the opportunity to be scientists and to be engineers, it’s hit or miss. If they’re going to mix baking soda and vinegar, they already know what’s going to happen. There’s not a lot of substance there. Whereas if you’re actually using science to build a faster solar race car, to build a more powerful wind turbine, to engineer an aquaponics set-up that ideally balances abiotic and biotic ecosystem components so that your fish and plants can thrive—that’s a totally different experience. You get kids who are engineering aquaponics set-ups, monitoring for the nitrogen cycle, performing real experiments for which they don’t know the outcome. Sixth-graders rise to the task, and by the end, everyone has made incredible progress. It’s not that everyone has to succeed; it’s that everybody has to learn and make progress, and everybody has to be a scientist, and everybody has to have an opportunity to engineer something and fail.

Without 1-to-1, it’s incredibly challenging to deliver meaningful content that’s aligned to what the students need. And there’s just no limit to what can be accomplished with 1-to-1 and a creative approach to instruction.

Another great tool that’s been indispensable has been screen captures. I can take these technical aspects of how to use a 3D printer, how to use a CNC router, etc., and I can record my lessons. I can take all of those recorded lessons for each of the machines, categorize them and upload them to either Edmodo or a Google classroom, and then the students have access to all of my lessons tailored to each to the machines.

One of the things I’m proud of is that DATA Middle School has not had to pay a single penny for any of the equipment that’s in that classroom. We’re lucky that we have an organization called the Ventura Education Partnership. They give $1,000 mini-grants. That’s how I got our first 3D printer six years ago.

Also, the community has become very excited. We’re constantly pitching, constantly reaching out to local members of the community. Acer made an incredible gift to the classroom of 32 laptops, and they’re touch screen, interactive, so the kids are able to interface with those seamlessly and produce beautiful works of art on the CNC routers and 3D printers and lasers, as well as for writing reports, putting together experiments, etc.

And word has spread. We get support from Gene Haas Foundation, Rotary Club of Ventura, and we’re in position to get a new grant for $10,000 sums. I just got my CTE credential and some NIMS certifications—anything to try to access more funding, more equipment and more opportunities for students in the classroom.

The teacher needs to be an entrepreneur, and the teacher needs to be a scientist, and the teacher needs to be an inventor, and the teacher needs to be an engineer. With 1-to-1, and with proper support from administration, you’re going to find that you already have people on your staff who are going to jump up and do that.

 To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: www.districtadministration.com/ws092717