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U-M students learn to mentor young makers

A young girl plays with a creative toy set.A list on a white board tells the children what they can do this day. Among the options: LEGOs, K’Nex, LittleBits, stencils on clothing, poster or card creation, stop-motion animation and Snap Circuits.

The message to students at Mitchell Elementary in Ann Arbor also includes a challenge: “You can make LEGOs into pianos or LEGOs that move.” This is accomplished by connecting the LittleBits electronic modules to LEGO blocks, something new to the students.

“Let’s Make Something,” is the final message scrawled on the board by Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, as she and three graduate students prepare the room for the 27 third- and fourth-grade students who are about to descend on the art room for this after-school program.

“Michigan Makers is a program in its third year that looks to give our [School of Information] students the opportunity to practice mentorship in a less formal learning environment,” Fontichiaro said. “Lots of our students go on to become librarians or to work in community organizations where this kind of work is emerging as a new model.”

The course, supported by a grant from U-M’s Third Century Initiative, is designed after the Maker Movement, which strives to encourage creativity and “tinkering,” primarily with technology, although Fontichiaro and her team don’t define it that narrowly.

In fact, they have moved beyond the better-known STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and refer to the program as a focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and aesthetics, and math).

“We realized we’re not just offering the skill building or multidisciplinary activities; we’re providing an emotional piece. Some of the kids, maybe they didn’t have LEGOs growing up. Maybe they just need a break at the end of the day,” said Alex Quay, a graduate student at the School of Information. “It’s hard to compete with all of the new, shiny and exciting things, but what I’ve found most exciting about makerspaces and Michigan Makers is that we’re bringing those two things together.”

Mitchell Elementary student Darrien Smith likes that there are always new things to do.

“It’s always a surprise and it’s always super fun,” he said. “I come back because this is one of the places I get to show my creativity.”

Smith’s classmate, Tyler Sweet, also likes the variety.

“It’s a place you can make stuff and be with your friends, and work with your friends on some things,” Sweet said.

A hair dryer hums at one end of the room as artwork transferred onto t-shirts is dried so it won’t smudge on the trip home in backpacks. Circuit boards wow with the sounds of electronic music, as a couple of students fiddle with the settings on electronic circuitry and move pieces around.

One girl has created a no-tech but original game. Plastic eggs are attached to the ends of a roughly 3-foot piece of string. Two people face one another and hold the eggs, with string taut, for a countdown and then drop them simultaneously. The winner is the one whose egg gets closest to construction paper targets strategically placed on the floor.

A productive day for the students who started their session with an original song: “Be a Maker, Michigan Makers.”

Story via University of Michigan News.