Sonoma elementary school maker lab gets national attention

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Sassarini Principal Andrew Ryan saw an opportunity.

Sonoma Valley High School has an engineering design and technology academy open to all students in 10th through 12th grades.

Altimira Middle School now has a maker lab, thanks to a grant from the Sonoma Valley Rotary club.

Ryan starting thinking about how great it would be for his elementary school students to have some background in maker skills when they arrive to middle school.

“Why should students have to wait until middle school and high school to experience such valuable electives and enrichment that often lead to greater gains and engagement in school,” said Ryan.

A chance encounter with members of Sonoma’s local Kiwanis club led to a grant application culminating in an initial $26,000 investment from Kiwanis. Since then, the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation has jumped in with some funding above and beyond its annual support to the campus.

With money and a space in hand, Ryan and his team quickly moved to enlist someone who could take these resources and create an engaging curriculum for students at Sassarini.

Enter Lori Edwards, a local toy designer and inventor, who has her own curriculum that she has written and tested with kids in her enrichment classes.

At the start, the “maker lab” was only an empty room with tables and chairs.

Within 45 days, Edwards had outfitted and decorated an old computer lab, transforming the room into a working Maker Lab. The old wooden cabinets and tables have become working chalkboards for the kids to use while brainstorming new ideas.

“What kids really need is a space that inspires them to create,” said Edwards. “Every child is born a maker but they need a space and tools to discover what that means to them.

Some of the features of the room are an giant interactive Lego wall, a giant magnet marble wall, two huge maker tables equipped with all the tools for working in multiple mediums, a pressurized rocket launcher, a science center for hands-on experiments, a homemade light table, a giant “lite brite” with pegs to create art on the wall, and a game center with a life-sized checkers board.

“We saw a need for these young students to have a way to release their frustrations and excess energy and a maker space is a great outlet,” said Ryan.

The school’s 2018-2019 pilot program (which includes 20 students in the fall and a different 20 in the spring) runs four times a week for 40 minutes a day, and is taught by Edwards and assistant Mary Ann Bridant.

Starting next year, every classroom teacher will be able to sign up for class time in the Maker Lab.

Students are using the lab to explore rocket engineering, circuits, recycled robots, planning and engineering mini houses and game inventing. Edwards uses the acronym of I.D.E.A. to teach the students how to brainstorm an idea, design it, engineer it and adjust through hands-on testing.

The students have the choice to work in teams and collaborate on ideas. Edwards has also incorporated public speaking into the curriculum as kids present their concepts.

“We are teaching kids to take it to the next level and expect that some will compete in regional Invention Conventions and Trashion Fashion,” said Edwards.

“Our hope is that we inspire students to look at taking more STEAM courses as they move into their teen years and beyond,” said Ryan.

Edwards added: “This is a great way to get students interested in the fastest growing job fields at a very early age. These are skill sets that they will use their entire lives.”

Kiwanis International was so impressed by the impact of its Sonoma chapter’s grant to the maker space that it sent a film crew last week to Sassarini to interview teachers and students for a video about the program.

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