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Creating little legends by letting littles create

New makerspace offers STEM activities

Godfrey-Lee — It’s a media center, and now it’s home to the “little legends lab” makerspace, where students can use their imaginations, make a plan and watch their ideas come to life. 

Inside the makerspace, students are free to choose their own adventure. Some options include following instructions for crafts and jewelry-making or creating something of their own invention. 

Second-grader Khalil Lawrence approached the “free choice” table with an idea to solve a problem he said he faced every night. 

“I’m making a contraption to keep my brother from getting into my bed, the Sleeper 3000,” Khalil said. “If I paint it and stuff it to make it softer, it will keep him out of my bed.”

After a few minutes gathering paper towel rolls, an empty rolled oats container and some fabric scraps, he said aloud to himself, “Everything is going according to plan.”

Making A Vision Reality

Jessica Priem, a K-2 STEM teacher at Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center, first observed the power of autonomy in a classroom-based makerspace while teaching kindergarten at a previous job. 

“Creating a building-wide makerspace then became a vision that I pitched to my previous school district. The novel idea was met with curiosity, but ultimately tabled due to budgetary constraints,” Priem said. “Godfrey Lee Public Schools believes in building their STEAM program from kindergarten up, realizing that a strong foundation will develop students who are better prepared for secondary education.”

Priem made her vision reality by applying for grant funds, creating a presentation to pitch the idea to ECC staff and organizing a scheduling system to offer equal opportunities for classes to visit the space. 

In her presentation to staff, Priem defined a makerspace as “an area … reserved for creative exploration, engineering, tinkering, inventing and purposeful play. In a makerspace, children have opportunities to discover, assemble, problem-solve, construct, test and explore.”

Priem and music teacher Tami Nelson searched the building for somewhere to house the makerspace, and Principal Peter Geerling offered half the media center, which previously housed a computer lab that was no longer needed. 

‘Here to guide’

When students want to create their own project, Priem has them fill out a planning worksheet, with a rough draft and materials list. 

“The teachers are not going to tell you what to do; we’re here to guide,” music teacher Tami Nelson said. “It was fun to watch kids see it for the first time and take their own creative liberties to make it their own.”

Ginena Miranea saw her classmate with fabric and decided she wanted to use a floral print fabric scrap to make a bag.

“I was going to make a star, but then I changed my mind,” she said.

As Ginena drew a plan for making her bag, Priem told her, “It’s absolutely OK to change your mind.” 

Elliana Grande-Ramos ran straight to the jewelry-making station to make a ring for her mentor from Affinity Mentoring

Across the table, Natalia Tapia-Gonzalez and Ze-khi Westbrook cut out wings, legs and a head to glue to a paper roll and create a paper dragon.  

Observed Natalia: “If you cut off the excess, it makes it easier to cut out the head.”

‘I tell my kids ‘you can do hard things.’ It’s easy to want to help them or do it for them, but letting them figure things out helps them learn how something works.’

– Jessica Priem, K-2 STEM teacher at Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center

To which Ze-khi responded, “I’m a good cutter. I want to be an architect, so I want to learn in the makerspace to build things so I can be an architect. Natalia can color and design the building I build.”

When he accidentally cut off his dragon’s nose, Natalia reminded her friend, “It doesn’t need to be perfect.”

In the back of the makerspace is an area dubbed the “extra careful work space,” where students can use hot glue guns and canary cutters to cut cardboard. 

“A lot of eyes went wide when they saw hot glue guns, while some kids seemed apprehensive,” Nelson recalled. “We wanted the makerspace to be a break from their screen time and the technology they have to use every day for schooling.”

Deisy Pablo Pablo was very excited to hot glue a special fabric scrap she found to a plastic container. 

“My grandma is in Guatemala and this makes my mom sad, so I’m making this look like Guatemala with this (fabric),” Deisy told Priem. 

By the end of their hour-long visit, students were reluctant to leave their unfinished projects, but Priem assured them they could save their materials to work on during their next visit. 

Bringing the Lab to Life

Inspired by her family’s travels to science centers and children’s museums around the country, Priem began envisioning how the new space could look and how to “get the best bang for our buck,” she said, when purchasing new materials and how to repurpose existing furniture.

“Support from all levels within the Godfrey Lee district made this dream a reality: from being provided the physical space, time for planning and implementation and grant funding from the Education Foundation,” Priem said. 

The Godfrey-Lee Education Foundation awarded Priem $1,000 in seed funding, and $2,000 came from Grand Valley State University’s MiSTEM Network’s Greater West Michigan Region Teacher Mini-Grant Program to create, fill and enhance the makerspace.          

Some of the funding is still in the works, Priem said, “but awesome things are still coming,” like a light table, workbench and Lego wall.

Priem organized ECC specials teachers to facilitate the makerspace every afternoon so scheduled classes can visit the makerspace for both structured and self-directed activities. 

“We’re the early childhood center; play is so important,” Nelson said. “It’s how our students learn, explore and create their own personalities. 

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve noticed a lack of fine motor skills in our young students and the makerspace is a great place to practice cutting with scissors or holding a marker or pencil.”

Impact on Learning

Priem intentionally created each station to engage student’s creativity and imagination in different ways. Students are also encouraged to try new things, even if they F.A.I.L. 

“Failing is the first attempt in learning,” Priem said, describing the acronym, “and I tell my kids ‘you can do hard things.’ It’s easy to want to help them or do it for them, but letting them figure things out helps them learn how something works.” 

The “try it again” station gives students a chance to try a project again if they didn’t finish the first time or want to redo it. 

Priem and her colleagues are excited to watch students follow their own interests in the makerspace and see how they respond to an activity that’s light on rules and expectations. 

“Some of the students who display challenging behaviors in the classroom thrive in the makerspace,” Priem said. “There is incentive to be there and it’s a change of pace from the classroom.” 

Looking forward to the rest of the school year and future semesters, Priem and Nelson envision bringing in families to use the lab together.

“My vision is to include technologies in the makerspace that aren’t readily available to students and help them understand their ideas are important and valued and can come to life,” Priem said. “We want to create well-rounded students and learners who pursue their passions and career paths that haven’t been invented yet.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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