In a corner of the media center at Burnsville's Nicollet Middle School one recent day, a student guided a small robot through a maze, her hands gripping a tablet like a video-game controller.
A few feet away, a small drone buzzed over the heads of two of her classmates, who giggled and ducked as a third student yelled that he wasn't trying to crash. At a nearby table, three girls twisted long strands of colorful thread into bracelets. Elsewhere, kids clustered in small groups dug through electronics kits, clicking pieces together as they tried to power a circuit.
This is not the hushed, orderly school library of the past. It's also not the kind of classroom where students are expected to sit quietly and wait for direction from a teacher. It is a "makerspace" — a place for creativity and hands-on learning that's increasingly becoming a part of school buildings, classrooms and courses in districts across Minnesota.
Some makerspaces are outfitted with expensive equipment: 3-D printers, robots and recording studios. Others are no-frills spaces, featuring art supplies, puzzles or piles of junk meant to be re-purposed for new uses. But the idea is the same: encouraging students to stretch their minds, solve problems and build the confidence they'll need to succeed in both school and future workplaces.
"Just because a student is holding a pencil doesn't mean really great learning is happening, but it doesn't mean great learning isn't happening, either," said Brad Gustafson, principal at Greenwood Elementary in Plymouth, another school where makerspace activities are becoming part of the school day. "And the same goes for [students using] Play-Doh and Legos and K'Nex and 3-D printing."
The term "makerspace" is relatively new, an offshoot of a broader movement toward hands-on learning that has also spawned huge "Maker Faire" events around the country. But many of the things that go on in a makerspace are activities that schools have offered for decades in places like shop, industrial tech, home economics, photography or art classes.
If this sounds like a mix of subjects that don't belong together, well, that's exactly the point, said Todd Hunter, a science teacher and makerspace facilitator at Anoka High School. His school is about to open a brand-new makerspace in a section of the library that once housed two computer labs. It features equipment for robotics and graphic design, video production and 3-D printing, laser cutters for cutting and etching, two recording studios and a textiles area, where students can work on sewing machines.
The central location of the makerspace means it's a place students can't miss, Hunter said. And its diverse range of uses means an end to the days when the kids who took shop, home ec, art or advanced math rarely interacted.
"Our goal is to use the arts to integrate students across all the traditional boundaries that normally exist in a high school: racial, socioeconomic and what students expect from their education," he said.
Anoka students can drop in and out of the makerspace to complete their own projects, and it can be reserved by teachers who want to add hands-on elements to what they are teaching in the classroom.
At Milaca High School, about 30 miles northeast of St. Cloud, media specialist Shelly Ash is single-handedly transforming the school library into a space she says better fits the needs and learning styles of students. There are still plenty of books, but there's also a small stockpile of games and supplies she's purchased with her own money.
In a few years, she said the library has turned from a quiet spot that few students visited to an active place where students know they can find information — and a welcoming environment to experiment with different kinds of learning.
"It just seems to make an impact when we just engage kids, get kids off their devices and have them building things," she said.
Learning or just play?
At several elementary schools in the Wayzata school district, the makerspace comes to the classroom, on demand.
Gustafson, the Greenwood Elementary principal, said his school has about 20 carts available for teachers to check out, like library books.
Each is loaded with supplies for activities ranging from robotics to a knitting loom. Aided by the carts, more teachers are beginning to swap out work sheets in favor of more complex activities, he said.
In one fourth-grade health class, for example, students created a large floor mural depicting the digestive system. Then they piloted a robot through the mural, narrating the path of food as it moves through the body — all while capturing the entire thing on video, for another project.
Like many supporters of the makerspace concept, Gustafson said he's encountered questions and criticism from people who see it as play rather than learning. He acknowledges that the impact of makerspace activities as a teaching tool can vary, depending on the abilities and interests of the teacher.
AnnMarie Thomas, a University of St. Thomas business and engineering professor who has studied and written about the role of play in education, agreed. She said makerspaces work when teachers strike the right balance between guiding students in the right direction — and knowing when to let them take the lead on their own work.
"The challenge is there is no master playbook," she said. "They'll all look different, and a lot of it comes back to the mind-set and the people [involved] and the facilitation."
Thomas said makerspaces can transform the way students think about the rest of their school day by providing them a place to try, struggle, innovate and learn from their mistakes.
At the middle school in Burnsville, Sidney Handrahan, the student piloting the robot, proudly explained how she's learning to master computer coding. Math is her favorite subject, and makerspace projects have provided her with some of her first opportunities to see how math works in the real world — and have prompted her to think about a future in engineering for 3-D printing.
"That's actually something really cool," she said. "You get to code with it, and do the math of what you're building."
Her classmate, Abdirahman Ali, working with an electronics kit called Snap Circuits, spent much of the class period trying to connect the right circuits to power lights and a fan. For a while, he struggled as he tried to power on a small speaker. Then, after a third, and fourth, and fifth attempt, he looked up, victorious.
"You hear that?" he said.