Maker program encourages kids to be creative

Maker STEM camp participants build and test electronic circuits to run small engines.

Maker STEM camp participants build and test electronic circuits to run small engines.

While the robot that 12-year-old T. J. Handy made at Maker STEM camp worked perfectly fine indoors, it struggled to move over the sandy terrain when he took it outside. Instead of getting frustrated, T. J. simply went back inside, adjusted the robot’s suspension, and tried again. This time, it worked.

Handy is one of the 22 middle school students who participated in Maker STEM camp at the Georgetown School in Hanover County, Virginia, last summer.

Maker is an after-school and summer camp program put on by 4-H. Trained adult leaders teach students the principles of STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — through a learn-by-doing philosophy. Maker coaches lead campers through demonstrations on the day’s lesson, such as robotics. Then, the campers create their own models. The coaches encourage creativity and try to eliminate the fear of failure. This enables students to look at problems they run into as challenges to overcome, rather than as failures.

“The kids look at troubleshooting as just another part of making,” said Rita Schalk, 4-H youth development Extension agent in Hanover County.

Hanover County was one of the first four 4-H groups across the nation to receive funding for Maker two years ago. Currently, there are 4-H Maker programs in nine counties in Virginia and at least four more localities expect to have programs within the year. Also on the horizon are Maker festivals — events where participants can learn about and try out the projects created by Maker volunteers.

In the program’s first year at the Georgetown School, it had a significant impact on the children. According to Kathleen Jamison, 4-H youth development Extension specialist, the children entered the program “withdrawn and somewhat resistant.” As time progressed, however, they “reached the tipping point of total engagement” and excitement for making projects and learning.

They were actually making things and creatively evolving new applications for alternative energy, electronics, and robotics. It was wonderful to see this happen. 

– Kathleen Jamison

The students’ interest and self-efficacy in STEM subjects has also translated into the classroom. According to Schalk, they were more engaged in school and eager to apply their knowledge and experiences.

Despite the success of its first year, the Maker program was almost discontinued in Hanover County. Originally, the company that funded the Maker program, Cognizant Solutions Inc., only intended to fund the pilot year of the program.

“They were not going to fund us a second year because they only offered these grants to set pilot programs into motion. Rita Schalk’s telling of the kids’ story was so compelling, however, that they gave Hanover another year of funding,” said Jamison. “Maker is alive and well in Virginia 4-H. It is my hope that Maker education will provide opportunities across the state for children to explore their creativity and their ability to create new products, processes, and philosophies about learning and doing.”

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