Makerspace Brings Joy Back Into the Classroom
By Melissa Mendonca
Design. Build. Transform.March 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Syerra Eikmeyer
With a bright smile, sparkly eyes and a laugh that can be heard throughout the halls of the Tehama County Department of Education, Michelle Carlson seems to have a default setting of joy. To be around her is to experience a jolt of happiness infused with optimism. It’s hard to imagine her brightening any higher than her default.
Yet brighten she does as she tells the story of the first test experience bringing youth into the new Makerspace she has developed at the department. Not one to shy away from criticism, she invited a group of middle school students from a Red Blu�ff school to spend time playing with Squishy Circuits, conductive clay that, with LED lights, batteries and wires, can be used to create circuits that light up.
She delights in the telling of the seemingly disa�ffected girl who, during a feedback session, said, “When they told me we were going on a � field trip about science, I thought, ‘Meh’. �Then you brought us here to do stu�ff!” The girl assured Michelle, and her teachers, that she would love to come back to the Makerspace.
�That single response was the watershed moment of knowing for Carlson, who has invested months of passion, vision and just plain hard work into the development of the Makerspace.
“It’s a place where Tehama County kids can experience joyful learning,” says Carlson. “�They can use their hands. It’s a place where the journey is the experience. And the journey is different for everyone.”
The Makerspace grew out of a con�fluence of two ideas and two co-workers who found themselves driven with optimism about two similar projects. Carlson had produced a public service announcement for Tehama Reads that received phenomenal feedback — so much that her management team realized the need to invest in a space for creation of digital messaging. Maureen Clements, a math specialist, attended a Making Possibilities workshop in the Bay Area and came back enthused to develop a Maker Fair for Tehama County kids.
“If we’re going to have a Maker Fair,” Carlson thought, “we’re going to have to teach kids to work, to make.” � at concept set her to expand her digital arts studio into a true Makerspace, one that incorporates electronics, computer coding, graphic arts, videography, and engineering activities.
“Pretty much every single activity is centered around making something, and every aspect of that creation,” says Carlson, who enthuses about how this will bring curiosity and fun back to learning.
“For the last couple of decades, education has been something that has taken the joy out of learning,” she says. “� is is a way to bring it back. It’s a place to feed your heart, feed your hands, feed your mind and feed your soul.”
“Kids are de�finitely going to learn,” she says, “but they’re going to learn in a way that is more powerful and meaningful.” For her � first class of 75 students from Gerber Elementary School, Carlson set up stations of Squishy Circuits and paper circuits. � These fun, hands-on activities incorporate art, design, science and engineering.
“Bigger, and more importantly,” Carlson says of the activities at the Makerspace, “when you understand better how things in this world work — how to �fix and interact — it gives you an ultimate sense of empowerment. You never become stuck.”
�The Makerspace is open to kids of all ages with a limitless sense of possibilities. �The SERRF after school program has written visits into its countywide curriculum. Members of Club Live, a
student leadership group, are developing tobacco awareness videos to share with their peers. Schools are lining up to bring their students in for � field trips.
When they arrive, they quickly realize that the Makerspace is no average place. Inspired by the magic of 826 Valencia, a San Francisco youth writing program within an atmosphere of a pirate ship, the Makerspace has an industrial, rustic feel, where the wisdom of the ages of simple gears and cogs combines with the sleek, space-age feel of modern technology.
Carlson’s husband, Jim, a woodworker, stepped in to create tables and cabinetry that inspire as much as they become useful. Industrial carpet was torn out to reveal the original wood � flooring of the historic building. A traditional chalkboard is used for instructions and greetings, but the writing is thoroughly modern, steeped in elements of design.
A tweet that Carlson sent out about the space caught the attention of Steve Davee, director of education at Maker Ed, a nonpro�fit organization based in Berkeley that supports educators to provide more opportunities for kids to make things. He was impressed. “A lot of times the highest pro�blem places are those that are more well-off financially,” he says. In his search for a great example of a rural space, he says, “It was just exactly what I was looking for. I am just so incredibly proud of all the e� ort that’s gone into that Red Blu�ff space.” Carlson and Tehama youth have been invited to showcase their work at an upcoming Bay Area Maker Fair.
�The Makerspace held its grand opening at the beginning of the year, with Carlson enthused about the multitudes of possibilities for kids. “� is is the place where we can give kids the tools they need to build the future they want,” she says. “�That’s the ‘why.’”
Tehama County Department of Education
1135 Lincoln St., Red Bluff