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Rotary gifts 'maker lab' to Altimira Middle School

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Altimira Middle School will soon have perhaps the best equipped middle school "maker lab" in Sonoma County, thanks to a night of successful fundraising by the Rotary of Sonoma Valley. At its Applause fundraiser on Oct. 15, Rotary raised almost $80,000 to build and sustain a maker lab in honor of beloved member Carole Downing, who died last year.

A maker lab, or maker space, is a place where students can learn and use new technologies and equipment they may otherwise not have access to.

“Best of all, Altimira has a certified maker lab teacher, Audrey Fry who is excited to ‘run’ the room,” said Altimira Principal Will Deeths.

Fry’s training included how to evaluate and use various equipment as well as visiting other school maker spaces in the North Bay. Every maker space is physically a little bit different according to student interest and available tools, said Fry, but they all help to develop a maker mindset of thinking, making and improving.

She said that she expects Altimira’s maker lab to focus on three general categories – found and recycled crafts, physical computing and electronics and fabrication technology. The specific equipment purchased is expected to include computers, software, power and hand tools, vinyl cutters, 3D printers and laser cutters.

Altimira will consult with the Sonoma County Office of Education, which offers a maker certificate for teachers like Fry, in its outfitting of the space.

“I am excited to get kids involved with making at all levels so they can see what’s possible with more familiar everyday materials as well as new technology,” said Fry.

“Our students will be able to practice coding skills that produce a tangible product: like turning pieces of fruit into a keyboard with a Makey Makey or programming a camera that will automatically upload pictures to twitter using a Raspberry Pi. I think these fun projects will give students incentive to continue to learn code, which will help them develop logic as well as a key career skill.”

Fry is also a big fan of introducing students to fabrication. “These projects are great because they connect students’ computer designs to “real world” products,’ she said. “Students can create one design on the computer and then see it come to life through a sticker made from a vinyl cutter or as a wooden sign if the design is sent to a laser cutter. The final products look professional and can actually be used.”

Most of Carole Downing’s grandchildren attended Altimira Middle School. “We wanted to create something sustainable and perpetual there to honor Carole,” said Rotary member Valerie Pistole, a close friend of Downing. Some of the funds raised will be set aside to make sure that the maker lab is sustainable and continues to be well-maintained and equipped in the future.

“Maker spaces provide a space for students to pursue their creativity while developing critical thinking and collaboration skills,” said Fry. “The ‘think, make, improve’ design process encourages students to persevere as they tinker with their designs to make them better and better. These skills – creativity, collaboration, communication, perseverance – combined with practical coding and design skills will help students be college and career ready.”

Sonoma Valley High School’s well-equipped maker lab, as a basis for comparison, had a budget of $40,000 when it opened in 2015. The funds for that space were raised by Rotary and individual donors.

While dozens of elementary, middle and high schools across the county now have some form of maker space, Matt O’Donnell, the Office of Education’s tech innovation specialist, said that there are fewer at the middle school level than in the younger and older grades. He said that he can’t think of another middle school in the area which opened its maker space with a budget that high.

M3, the 600-square-foot, centrally-located campus room that will house the Carole Downing Maker Lab, has been identified and the facility is expected to be up and running in the fall of 2017.

Deeths said that he plans to schedule three elective periods of the maker class and he looks forward to adding more opportunities in the future, including after school and summer programs, and options for the public as well.

“Maker spaces truly enable students to develop 21st century skills,” said Fry. “Students choose a project or problem and figure out a solution. They collaborate, problem-solve, innovate, and communicate while engaging in science, art, engineering and math.”

Ever the boisterous head teacher, Deeths can’t contain his excitement over this gift from the community. “It may be a cliche to say this, but it will be a real game changer for Altimira,” said Deeths. “I am excited because we are offering our students an opportunity to put their own creativity and ingenuity into real world applications. This is where science, math and engineering mix with a students’ imagination and that vision becomes a reality!”

Contact Lorna at ourschools@sonomanews.com.