September/October 2018

Alan Hoffman, Ed.D., is superintendent of schools; Josh Reitz, Ed.D., is assistant superintendent of learning; and Fred Laudadio, Ed.D., is executive director of Learning Services and Technology for McHenry School District 15.

The buzz of excitement welcomes visitors as they enter the colorful, newly designed Innovation Center. Looking around, visitors see students actively engaged in an elementary makerspace with their learning partners, each working on a unique activity. In small teams, conversations focus on their group’s unique goal; excited gestures and voices are a regular part of the learning process. Jessica Hodge, the “Innovation Coach,” circulates, visiting small groups to inquire about their goals and how their project is progressing.

Across the district, a substitute teacher walks into a stunning makerspace known as a “STEM Lab” equipped with a “Video Production Hub” and including a “STEAM Studio.”

The role of the substitute has changed. It is no longer focused on working through a lesson plan, controlling classroom discipline, or managing a crisis. Instead, the teacher watches students enter and eagerly start pulling out robotic kits, manipulate solar energy-driven vehicles, and design bridges and skyscrapers that can withstand powerful natural disasters. Students want to be in these environments as they help each other, develop as leaders, and design their learning world.

Unlike in traditional classrooms, in these environments students readily admit to mistakes, shrug them off, and discuss what they will try next to solve their problem. None of the students are wallflowers, watching and waiting for another student to get the one correct answer. Instead, this classroom is all about process, collaboration, and accomplishing that group’s self-chosen goals. Each student is an integral and valued team member whose participation is necessary for project success.

Welcome to McHenry School District 15. Here you will find beautiful new learning environments inclusive of STEM Labs, STEAM Studios, and Innovation Centers — otherwise known as makerspaces — that students enjoy attending and never want to leave. During lunch hours, students gravitate back to these amazing spaces, finding more time to invent. After school, they return to create and discover.

In today’s ever-changing world, McHenry School District 15 educators are making sure students are well prepared for college and careers, even though their career choices are as yet undefined. While there is no one blueprint or roadmap to illustrate how this can be done, an emphasis on STEM, STEAM, and Innovative Learning within a makerspace concept is a wise path for educational leaders to take. Although no crystal ball exists, institutions of higher learning and careers of the future will be looking for students who can

  • Think critically and problem-solve;
  • Apply technology to workflow;
  • Manage projects;
  • Collaborate and work as a team;
  • Communicate effectively in a variety of formats;
  • Think creatively and innovatively;
  • Employ research skills and demonstrate information literacy;
  • Demonstrate self-direction and motivation;
  • Effectively assess self-strengths and weaknesses.

An emphasis on educational programming that meets these aims is an investment in the success of children. Through clarification of priorities, proactive planning, and development of spaces, personnel, and curriculum, school systems can take necessary steps to ensure that their students are adequately prepared for the world they will soon be entering .

The journey of McHenry School District 15

McHenry School District 15 has transformed traditional technology labs and learning centers into beautifully designed and colorful makerspaces. Essentially, any space can become a makerspace. According to educator, librarian, and author Samantha Roslund, “makerspace” is a general term for where people get together to make things. “The space is not defined by the tools you find, rather students define the space by what it enables them to do.”

In McHenry School District 15, these spaces include Innovation Centers, STEM Labs, and STEAM Studios equipped with Video Production Hubs and complementing newly remodeled Learning Media Centers that are truly eye-catching. These collaborative spaces offer sequential K-8 cross-curricular opportunities, combining the goals of maintaining and enriching the district’s core curriculum with allowing innovation and providing project-based exploration.

Innovation Coach Gina Nicholls, of Edgebrook Elementary School, describes the newly constructed makerspaces as “robust learning environments that are relevant and rigorous, allowing students to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and engaged within their learning experiences.”

“It’s a vision for a learning experience that is centered on the learner and evolves technologically as quickly as they do,” says Nick Watson, Parkland Middle School STEM coach. “We are providing our students with an educational opportunity that fosters engagement, interaction, and achievement through cutting-edge technology in a personalized learning approach.”

The evolution of these spaces has centered on the district’s re-imagination of its Learning Media Centers, which have been upgraded to a strong foundation for information literacy and blending of digital literacy while also offering better media options for exploration and flexibility for individual and team research.

In addition to the new programming and renovated spaces, the district has outfitted each middle school with cutting-edge Video Production Hubs that allow students to produce educational videos, record and broadcast sporting events, and produce promotional content while partnering with local businesses and community groups.

McHenry Middle School STEAM Coach Jessica Brown says, “District 15’s new makerspaces have no boundaries. A place with no boundary means students can exceed anything beyond what you ever expected.”

McHenry School District 15 STEM, STEAM, and Innovation Coaches have worked collaboratively as a group to design a high-quality curricular sequence for their learning community. Coaches spent a year researching STEM and STEAM learning opportunities as they conducted site visits and presented to all stakeholders during the adoption phases. Following this research, the district constructed new, beautifully designed makerspaces to meet their vision. Additionally, coaches implemented an inspiring curriculum and built a philosophy centered on being truly innovative. McHenry District 15 schools now house some of the most inspiring makerspaces equipped with a carefully adopted curricular sequence that allows students to grow during their elementary years and beyond.

Believing in our students and taking risks

Instructional strategies start by believing in the students. Coaches work with students to help them set goals and challenge themselves, while trusting students to make informed choices when coming up with creative solutions. Coaches promote the transfer of control over to their students and start to guide students from the sidelines at a young age. It is imperative to foster curiosity and provide hands-on experimental learning opportunities for young learners, a concept attributed to early 20th-century philosopher and educator John Dewey and in full effect today. Students acquire the meaning of teamwork and learn how to interact with each other. While learning, students also grow to understand failure is acceptable and a necessary component of the learning process.

Within each makerspace, students aspire to reach higher goals, simply by being allowed to work together in an environment that is dedicated to trial and error. Here they can engage in hands-on, minds-on learning activities where they can be comfortable knowing it is acceptable to FAIL (First Attempt In Learning). Students identify how failure is a critical element to the learning process. They learn how failure can lead to success while collaborating through the building and programming of robots, testing out Lego structures during earthquake simulations, and designing 3D renderings of buildings, bridges, and architectural models. Students realize failure is important while taking risks and experimenting. A clear and realistic understanding comes during these truly authentic assessments as students learn more from what they do wrong rather than what they do right.

Curriculum is differentiated using multi-platform tools and manipulatives. With over 350 “Learning Launchers” in more than 60 content areas, students explore a wide range of projects and challenge levels. They engage in activities that teach them about alternative and renewable energy, circuitry, computer graphics, digital communications, robotics, scientific data, mechanics and structures, and software engineering.

McHenry School District 15’s makerspace concept allows students to have a specials curriculum during kindergarten through fifth grade where they participate in Innovative Learning, a STEM- and STEAM-based course. Students then engage in Exploratory Curriculum (STEM Lab and STEAM Studio) during middle school, participating in lab projects that foster creative thinking and understanding of design principles. The coursework focuses on the discovery of real-world problems — the “what” and “how” — and overall impact their discoveries have on society — the “who” and “why.” Each challenge provides available resources, materials, and limitations for students as they work and try to solve real-world issues.

A supportive and visionary school board

Re-imagining a school district’s learning spaces takes careful planning, collaboration, and a vision for the future. It was imperative for school district employees to work in tandem with the school board during the research phase, bidding and construction phases, and curricular design phase. To that point, the importance of the board of education as it relates to the creation of these innovative makerspaces cannot be underestimated.

The Board of Education has provided support for innovation, but at a reasonable cost, making clear the expectation that administration does due diligence in investigating research-based programs before making a recommendation to the board. School board Vice President Patrick Miller says, “In McHenry, we get the best bang for the buck. In creating these makerspaces we had to balance the need for innovation with a conservative approach to spending, and we were successful.”

The school board understands its role in creating a big-picture vision or the “what” while delegating the “how” to the administration. Years ago, the strategic plan was approved by the board of education and has provided the roadmap for our school district for many years. It is still relevant today, guiding our initiatives and priorities.

For instance, the second goal in the strategic plan states, “The district will provide a rigorous research-based curriculum, instructional best practices, and innovative materials for all students.” This is a powerful statement in that it explicitly provides a clear vision and expectation for excellence while implicitly empowering administration to develop the necessary steps to achieve excellence. The McHenry CCSD 15 Board of Education, in short, is the glue of support that makes the creation of our innovative programming possible. Board President Kimberly Qualls states, “These incredible makerspaces allow our children to be exposed to innovative programming typically available only in affluent school districts and communities.”

Facility expansion: A collaborative approach

Due to the board’s support and vision for overall innovation, District 15 administrators could pursue developing a plan that would transform this vision of innovation into an everyday vibrant learning experience for students. Before brainstorming ideas, researching options, laying out timelines, and creating logistical operational matrices, the administration had to realistically estimate the costs and affordability involved with such an ambitious endeavor. After this affordability was determined, there were now clear fiscal parameters from which to inform the facility expansion team.

The district philosophy strongly supports and fosters an environment of sharing and working together. To that point, the administrators intuitively made the decision to collaborate (and sometimes over-collaborate) to make these projects come to fruition. The district facilities expansion team met each Wednesday for many hours to develop what was conceived to be a thoughtful and realistic approach. The team consisted of senior leaders, principals, coaches, and administrative support staff, as well as an architect and construction management company. Expertise was drawn from individuals with considerable knowledge in curriculum, technology, fiscal management, architectural design, and project management.

The group emphasized the creative use of space that would allow students the opportunity to be collaborative in a technology-rich, eye-catching, kid-friendly environment. In addition, the group had to develop these spaces to fit into the current architectural structure without adding to the current building footprint. The result is that each school is equipped with its own unique innovative space that takes advantage of each building’s architectural idiosyncrasies and nuances, while also staying true to the district’s vision of excellence, quality, and innovation.

None of this would have been possible without District 15’s strong emphasis and insistence on collaboration.

Authentic learning and assessment

Authentic problem-solving opportunities for students are demonstrated as learners document and present their learning through ePortfolios, professionally edited videos utilizing the cutting-edge Video Production Hubs, and collaborative engagements in a student-friendly, interactive curriculum platform. Each challenge features a “Learning Launcher” that identifies the project-based STEM activity and applies technology to reinforce academics while building on 21st-century skills. Multiple challenge levels, open-ended activities, and extended projects make up each grade level and meet all varying cognitive abilities. There are hundreds of authentic projects with integrated assessment rubrics to allow both learners and coaches to identify areas in need of improvement.

Learners identify key impacts and consequences of each challenge they participate in. Examples include designing structures, such as bridges or buildings, to withstand the impact of natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes. Students learn how to construct and program robotic equipment (Lego EV3, VEX, and Ozobots) to assist and enhance performed medical procedures or feed animals in a community zoo. Students can also discover more efficient ways to use fuel while studying different kinds of energy. They work on predicting future costs via challenges that circulate around new forms of solar and wind technology. As projects lead students to new theories and inventive solutions, young learners discuss the larger impact on society and collaborate to develop marketing campaigns to share how their discoveries will have an influence benefiting communities worldwide.

Building impactful partnerships

McHenry School District 15 has also worked on building lasting partnerships with the community high school district, public library, and local recreation center, all of which offer students innovative learning opportunities during the school year and throughout the summer. Through these affiliations, there are summer STEM/STEAM learning camps and competitions that students can partake in. There is even a partnership with the local community college for students to enroll in. Students can seek career paths into medical, engineering or computer programming fields and then receive guaranteed enrollment into state universities.

Local business partners also expose students to a number of STEM and STEAM careers through hosted science fairs, career days, and educational field trips. Students engage with professionals in the field and have visiting guest instructors, as well as presenters at their schools. Elementary students even get to participate in Lego Education competitions and virtual field trips with NASA astronauts.

Teachers have benefited as they have received over $100,000 from grants for innovative project-based learning activities and supplemental curriculum resources. Learning media center directors have partnered with Parent Teacher Organizations to build amazing STEM Discovery Bags to complement the core curriculum. STEM coaches even produce and honor outstanding STEM-based projects that students have completed through a celebration we call, “The STEMMYs.”

McHenry School District 15 has proudly hosted tours where school districts from around the country have visited our newly designed makerspaces. District team members, in partnership with the school board, have presented at state and national conferences in the completion of this work. District educators and coaches have already worked together with our high school district, local colleges, and state universities, to provide a pathway for students as they continue to grow and develop interests, bridging the concepts of digital literacy and information literacy. New after-school clubs and organizations have been developed to allow students more time to learn, explore, and compete with each other.

Lessons learned building the makerspace concept

As a school district, we have learned many lessons while monitoring the implementation of these programs and ensuring that they are rigorous, sustainable, and marketable to all audiences. We have designed beautiful makerspaces and have made modifications and upgrades as we filled these spaces with coaches and students. We have decorated using stimulating research-based colors and furniture concepts. We have added the value of flexible seating while integrating collaborative workstations. We have listened to our coaches and made sure to build plenty of storage and space to demo work by students. We have designed each new makerspace to accompany our Learning Media Center so our LMC directors and Innovation Coaches (STEM and STEAM coaches) develop strong instructional partnerships. We have identified and structured our job titles and job descriptions to facilitate the exploration and discovery of learning, and not just instruct and dictate learning. We have placed a strong emphasis on learning applied concepts and technology, not just skills that become obsolete. We have also highlighted career connections and have built pathways for the future.  

Lastly, upon survey of district educators, administrators, and board members, the following themes emerged as key strides McHenry School District 15 made to be successful within the overall five-year implementation period.

Collaboration with future coaches (STEM, STEAM, and Innovation Coaches)

Design of a model that bridges together information literacy through the Learning Media Center along with the discovery of digital literacy through new innovative programming

Inspiration for stakeholders through site visits, presentations, and research

Understanding that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to building a makerspace concept

Invested wisely with thoughtful implementation of the makerspace concept and programming as it is a curricular sequence that is marketed to the students, staff, school board, and community

Being creative with our spaces — but consistent. Like attributes are in all of McHenry’s schools, although not all spaces are the same dimensions. K-8 programming is in place so students will continue to grow every year and build upon acquired knowledge

Developed partnerships with sister districts and colleges. Our students now have a pathway that can take them all the way into college, and beyond

Invitation of guest visitors and marketing to the community. We have built a foundation of strong support and have a rejuvenated energy from our community since opening our new makerspaces and launching our new innovative programming.

Editor’s note

Hoffman, Reitz, and Laudadio have worked extensively creating new Innovative Makerspaces and Curricular Programming that bridges the integration of information literacy and digital literacy. Through this effort, they guided the implementation of McHenry School District 15’s Makerspace Concept, producing stunning new STEM Labs, STEAM Studios, Innovation Centers, Video Production Hubs and Learning Media Centers. Recipients of the TechXcellence Award by District Administration, the Making IT Happen Award by ICE/ISTE, and Digital Content and Curriculum Award by the Center of Digital Education, Dr. Hoffman, Dr. Reitz, and Dr. Laudadio have delivered presentations and keynotes on Technology Integration and Fusion, Innovative Hands-On, Minds-On Learning, Principal Leadership, and Ongoing Staff Development Through Technology Driven Professional Learning Communities.

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