Program helping young children learn to be makers


A list on a whiteboard 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 School 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 in the School of Information, as she and three graduate students prepare for the 27 third- and fourth-grade students about to descend on the art room for this after-school Michigan Makers 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. 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.”

School of Information graduate student Alex Quay works with Mitchell Elementary School student Kandyce Barnes on hand sewing. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

The course, supported by a grant from the 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).

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“In our fast-paced technological world we’re not making things by hand as much as we used to. Many of us grew up with our parents cooking dinner from scratch or fixing our own cars or making our own clothing. And those hands-on experiences brought satisfaction that gave us learning opportunities; that helped in developing patience. And those things aren’t happening, especially with today’s youth,” Fontichiaro said.

Alex Quay, UMSI school library media graduate student and Mitchell site coordinator, offers a case-in-point from one of the program’s previous locations, Willow Run Middle School. She and the team left LEGOs out one day last year just to see what the older students would do with them. A group of middle school boys began to play with the plastic, interconnecting pieces.

“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,” Quay said.

“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,” Quay said.

Fontichiaro agreed: “In any given week you might see a sewing machine or a 3-D printer.”

School of Information alumna Sarah Cramer works with Mitchell Elementary School student Jay Wambere using LittleBits. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Mollie Hall, a second-year master’s student focusing on library information science and school library media, and the site coordinator for the program’s second site at Scarlett Middle School, loves to help children with one of her favorite creative outlets: crocheting. It’s been a surprising hit with boys in the group, she said, many of whom are disappointed when it’s not on the list of activities for the day.

“It’s been really great to see these kids grow as makers, and see them warm up to us and get more comfortable in the environment, and when they see that they can do even more impressive things,” she said.

Participant 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.”

Today he is designing a custom T-shirt with his initials on one side and a Michigan logo on the other.

Tyler Sweet also likes the variety, mainly that there are enough activities so that if he gets tired of one thing he can move to another.

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

SI graduate Sarah Cramer continued to help with the program after earning her degree with a specialization in library information sciences.

“I’m a big believer in having hands-on experiences that allow you to take what you’re learning in the classroom and apply it,” said Cramer, who hoped her work with the program would give her a leg up in the job market. Over the holidays she landed a position in Ohio as a children’s librarian.

And, it’s hands-on experiences for all at Michigan Makers.

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.

Nine students sitting around computers are creating cards and posters, their hands fly in the air almost faster than Hall can respond, as they get stuck logging in, loading a graphic to their creations or finding a font.

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.”

School of Information students learn to mentor and encourage young children to be makers through the Michigan Makers program.

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