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Can't afford another teacher? Try a 'makerspace' instead

Cash-strapped school systems are turning to traveling teaching teams to help supplement their course offerings, especially in science, technology, and math.

Photo provided by Jason Martin
Students tinker outside the STE(A)M Truck, an Atlanta-based mobile makerspace that visits underserved schools.

Science: coming soon to a school near you. 

A growing number of public schools in low-income areas have begun using "mobile makerspaces" housed in refurbished school buses and other vehicles to expose students to the joys of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The rolling initiative – which would make Ms. Frizzle, driver of "The Magic School Bus" proud – follows a broader trend of cash-strapped districts turning to mobile classrooms to provide students with opportunities too costly for individual schools to afford. 

These traveling miniature science and engineering labs, inspired by the modern do-it-yourself maker movement, provide disadvantaged students with hands-on experience in areas such as coding, 3D printing, and video game design. By exposing underserved students to careers that they may not otherwise have been aware of, even if just for a day, advocates hope to increase the number of low-income students in STEM careers, where they are traditionally underrepresented. 

“What has happened in [recent] years, as the maker movement has grown in visibility, is that educators have seen it’s a really powerful way to engage youth in making and to use that as a lead-in to greater interest in science,” says Edward Price, a physics professor at California State University, San Marcos, who is involved in a mobile making initiative in the local community. “From that standpoint, it becomes natural for us to think about … how do we get more students engaged in this, and how do we broaden participation in this to other people?" 

Lack of exposure to hands-on activities such as coding and robotics isn’t the only factor holding back underrepresented students in STEM fields, of course. William Schmidt, professor of education and statistics at Michigan State University, points to the well-documented disparity in mathematics achievement levels between low- and high-income students in the United States as one of the primary drivers of the gap.

On average, he says, students from the bottom 25 percent economically tend to be two years behind students from the top 25 percent, in terms of the levels of math they have been exposed to. In many ways, Schmidt notes, math performance serves as a "gateway" to other STEM opportunities.

But, he adds, while fully closing the STEM gap will require broader improvements to math and science education in underserved schools, early exposure to careers such as programming or engineering can be a valuable motivator for disadvantaged students.

Students from lower social classes often “have very stereotyped notions of what science is or what a mathematician does,” Schmidt says. “Their performance and what they learn is going to be definitely related to their own interests.” 

A 'Geekbus' to encourage new horizons

Mobile makerspace projects take a wide range of forms and strategies. Some, like Professor Price's initiative in Southern California, take place after school or over summer break, while others provide opportunities during the school day. Some are owned and run by school districts themselves. Many others are the result of partnerships between nonprofits and schools that couldn't otherwise afford the equipment and manpower to teach niche subjects such as coding or robotics. 

The Geekbus, a San Antonio-based operation run by local nonprofit SASTEMIC, has been visiting underserved schools in and around the city since 2014, providing small groups of students with hands-on sessions lasting about 2-1/2 hours. The goal, says SASTEMIC's executive director, Jake Lopez, is to expose children from low-income communities to potential career paths they may not have previously been aware of.  

“We show them these careers, show them what else is out there, and show them at an early age so they start gaining an interest and can start pursuing a career," Mr. Lopez says. 

Eighty-three percent of students served by the bus attend public "Title 1 schools," or schools with high percentages of students from low-income families. But beyond that commonality, the makeup of participants varies depending on the session. Sometimes, Lopez says, schools select students based on grade level or class. Sometimes the bus is a reward for students with especially high grades or attendance. Other times, it's brought in for the most at-risk students to help them uncover hidden strengths. 

Overall, the Geekbus aims to maintain a 50-50 ratio of male to female students. Fewer than a quarter of all STEM jobs in the US are held by women, with research suggesting that girls as young as 6 years old have already learned the stereotype that boys are more "brilliant."

"With [female students], we want to encourage them that yes, they can do this," Lopez says. 

The true goal: a change in mindset

The STE(A)M Truck, an initiative based out of Atlanta, takes a slightly different approach. Like the Geekbus, it primarily serves Title 1 public schools, engaging students in Atlanta Public Schools through 20-day programs that include hands-on lessons and DIY projects. But while exposing young people to potential careers in science and technology is one of the truck's functions, its primary purpose is providing educators with new ways to think about teaching STEAM – (the "A" stands for art) – in the classroom. STE(A)M Truck workers include experienced educators, tech mentors, and artists.

“While we are trying build excitement around STEAM, the truck is really designed to build capacity and transform teaching and learning," says Jason Martin, executive director of the STE(A)M Truck. 

Among the schools served by the truck is KIPP West Atlanta Young Scholars Academy, a charter middle school in West Atlanta. Ninety percent of students at KIPP: WAYS come from low-income families, according to principal Dwight Ho-Sang, and school funding for STEM education is scarce. 

"For us to hire a full-time STEM teacher is a pie-in-the-sky dream," Mr. Ho-Sang told CNN last year.  

To help schools with similar budgetary limitations incorporate STEAM into their everyday curriculum, the STE(A)M Truck typically works with about five elementary and middle school teachers over the course of 20 days. These sessions, which set each school back about $12,000, are preceded by months of meetings with principals and educators to best tailor the program to each school's individual needs. Ultimately, Martin says, the aim of the program is to leave a mark that remains long after the truck has sped away to its next location. 

“The goal is that when we drive away we not only leave behind tools and technology but a change in mindset," Martin says. "After this experience, we hope teachers have a different mindset about what’s possible and look beyond how they may have traditionally done things.”

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