Building a Makerspace for Kids’ Learning with Cara Lesser
Building a Makerspace for Kids’ Learning with Cara Lesser

Mike is joined by Cara Lesser. CEO and Founder of the KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. Cara starts by describing how she transitioned from working on healthcare policy to growing interested in education as her children entered school. Inspired by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, she sought to create an institution dedicated to what she felt was lacking in her children’s education: creative, hands-on problem-solving.

The KID museum features flexible workspaces, many digital items for kids to explore, as well as more traditional technologies. (Some of the educational technologies Cara mentions: 3D printers, CNC routers, micro:bits, Arduinos.) Cara partners closely with educators and administrators to provide compelling and effective pedagogy.  

The pandemic accelerated the move into the virtual space, and even into VR. While the focus is on K-8, KID Museum partners with Amazon Future Engineer to allow kids to explore career pathways. KID Museum also encourages education across traditional siloed subjects. This can be called “maker education,” or “invention education”. Cara cites research from the George Lucas Foundation on the efficacy of project-based learning.

Mike and Cara finish up by discussing how KID Museum might be a model for other initiatives. Join them both for this compelling look into the creative mind of maker learning.

If you like what you’re hearing subscribe to Trending in Education wherever you get your podcasts and check us out at TrendinginEducation.com.

Mike Palmer:   Welcome to Trending in Education. Mike Palmer here, joined today by Cara Lesser, the CEO and founder of the KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. And I’m really excited to get into a lot of the interesting elements of designing a museum and then operating one for kids.  Truth be told, I’m the father of a two-year old, so this stuff does hit close to home. But before we get to any of that, Cara, welcome to Trending in Education

Cara Lesser: Thank you, delighted to be here. 

Mike Palmer: We always begin by trying to get a window into our guest’s origin story. So what got you to this point in your professional life? From what I was reading heading in, it sounds like you have an interesting story to tell.

 Cara Lesser: I think like many good things in life for me, the founding of KID Museum results from the collision of the personal and the professional. Before creating KID, I was not in the field of education. I was always in the world of public impact and social impact, but had more of a focus on healthcare and health policy, which is an enduring issue. 

But as I saw my own two children start to transition into their formal education experience, there was a real collision of that personal and professional for me.  In my professional work, I was actually working on health reform and  implementing the Affordable Care Act. So it was an exciting time, but it was also a time where there was a lot of lost opportunity, and opportunity for creative problem solving that wasn’t seized in the moment. 

That coincided for me with seeing my two children transition out of play-based preschool environments into our public school system–on paper, one of the best public school systems in the country.  I was really shocked at how traditional it was and very worksheet- oriented. It was stunning to me. It was stunning to me as a parent and it was stunning to me as someone in the professional workspace, seeing what we needed to have real breakthrough creative problem solving. 

So it was really seeing that gap that led to the creation of KID Museum. While we do a lot that’s focused on building hard skills around computational thinking and engineering design and hands-on learning, at the end of the day, it’s about creative problem solving. And building a sense of agency as kids understand how they need to drive their own learning and really see themselves as learners outside of school and in school. 

So that combination was really the crux of the idea that we wanted to create something that helped to fill that void in our community. To really keep that spark of creativity alive for kids and keep that growing into elementary, middle school, and beyond. 

Mike Palmer: That’s fantastic. It reminds me of the quote, that’s attributed both to Abraham Lincoln and Alan Kay, which is “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So it sounds like you saw an opportunity to invent something that didn’t exist, at least in the place that you were. 

I’d be curious what you drew from to actually build this.  We talk a lot about a creator economy and how the world is changing in a lot of the ways that you’re describing. Can you walk us through what was involved in actually getting a physical museum created? That it’s a  pretty daunting undertaking. 

Cara Lesser:  Pittsburgh has always been an incredible Mecca for us. And the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and seeing really what the whole ecosystem in the Pittsburgh area has been able to do to develop a sort of ethos of learning around making has been inspirational to us. And in a true maker spirit, a lot of learning through trial and error, figuring out what we could do in our community. 

We started  by bringing the first maker fair to the DC region. So it was a large community engagement activity that  got phenomenal attendance. We had 12,000 people come for our first maker faire; that attracted many of our local elected officials, as well as district leaders and people saying you’re really onto something. And that’s what started to open up doors for us to be able to physically open our doors in our first space.

And when we started, we really thought this was something that would be primarily for out-of-school time: afterschool, weekends, with occasional field trips.  That was probably one of the biggest surprises at the beginning for us was how schools, public and private, really met us with open arms.

And it was this moment where there was a real openness to–we want to bring this type of learning into our school. We want to figure out how we can make that happen  in a deeper way than just  one field trip here or there. So really from the outset, we were invited into some pretty significant partnerships with schools in our local public school system in particular.

That’s just continued to grow. I think that’s really deepened the impact of what we’ve been able to do to just have more time with kids more time during the day as well as time with them after school and on weekends. 

Mike Palmer: I’m always fascinated when trends can sync up; so it sounds like you were able to sync up with the maker movement, which has been a huge trend in the 21st century, particularly in the last 10 years. The other aspect of this  that I’m thinking about is the actual space in which the kids can learn. 

I imagine that’s part of what captured the imagination of local schools, where school architecture is still a really old conceptual model. It’s still designed the way it was thought of in, say, the 50s and 60s. There’s not a lot of opportunity to reimagine that. Can you talk a little bit about the space itself and the way it was designed and what you’ve seen as it’s been operating? 

Cara Lesser:  I think part of what we think is so effective about our space is that it’s very flexible.  It is really all designed as active workspace. And we have lots of different types of tools and materials. That’s a big focus of ours as a maker space. Obviously, we have anything from 3D printers and CNC routers and the sort of tech tools to, lots of micro:bits and Arduinos and things like that. But also drills and hammers and sewing machines, things that are a little more old school.

One of the things that we learned pretty early on was in the beginning we had discrete spaces; the power of it is really to be able to move things around, and mix and match  And really design around the learning that you’re doing.   To your point, that’s not what most learning spaces are designed for.

I think that is part of the unique value of coming into a space that’s designed intentionally as a flexible makerspace,  where education is the lead, right? It’s not about it being a pure maker-space where people come in and can just use equipment and come and go. It’s really about the learning that’s happening in those spaces.

Mike Palmer:  It looks like from what I was reading, you’re also providing a lot of services to educators as well. So that they can understand how to use these types of tools and how to incorporate this into their lesson planning.  

Cara Lesser: A really important anchor for us is the partnerships with teachers and school leaders, both principals and district leaders.  Really understanding the different levels that we need to co-design and to have effective maker learning experiences.  

A first time  school visit to our space–you might have seen a teacher in the background and they’re letting our professional educators lead. But they get very interested, and they get drawn in.  Where we have been able to shine is being able to build these very deep partnerships with teachers to understand what we call “the mind of a maker.” 

What we’re working toward is building this mindset and habits of mind, ways of thinking, ways of learning,  that drive the work that can be brought into a traditional classroom in addition to the experience that happens in our makerspace. And then the places that get created in between as schools start to reinvent what their spaces look like. 

But  we know that classroom teachers know their students in ways that we are never going to know them. Being able to partner with those teachers to design programs that really reach kids to unlock the power of this mind of a maker concept is at the core of what we’re trying to do.  

Mike Palmer: It makes sense.  I also saw on your website a metric around how many students you’ve reached. How are you thinking about scaling? And maybe that leads a little bit into the pandemic conversation in some ways too, because once you have to think beyond your physical constraints, suddenly that can open up ways in which  you could scale that you may not have necessarily thought about before,  

Cara Lesser:  Front and center for us is opening up opportunities for kids to have these experiential learning environments. We are very much hands-on: this in-person, interpersonal learning environment. Fantastic until a pandemic hits. But I will say we learned quickly how to translate that experience onto virtual platforms. And we have flourished during this time. And like many others as you were alluding to, it opened up this possibility of we could reach so many more kids. 

This past summer, as an example, we were able to serve students in all 27 title one schools in the county where we’re located- in the course of one summer in a deep maker learning experience. And that was just something that we would not have been able to figure out if we were stuck in only our in-person  way of doing things.

We did learn how to translate into the virtual. We expect that virtual is going to be with us going forward. We know that we want to pair that with in-person, but understanding what the right balance of the virtual and in-person experiences can be  we know, can reach so many more students.

As we think about scale, we really do think that there’s the innovation hub, that’s essential space where we are continuing to push the envelope of what are the most impactful experiences through live experiences, as well as virtual. And then continue to have the opportunity to reach more students using both of those platforms over time.

Mike Palmer:  Are you doing anything with virtual reality these days? Because it’s a topic that keeps popping up on the show with increased frequency. I would think maybe you’re dipping your toes in that pool. 

Cara Lesser:  I did listen to your most recent show on virtually; I would love to learn about algebra and virtual reality.

But we have done some, we haven’t done as much in this virtual learning time. But I think when we get back we find that it is, “Yeah, incredibly powerful platform for kids to connect on and to understand how they can build their own virtual reality experiences.” Everything that we do is about making kids  the makers and not just the end consumers of the technology.   

Mike Palmer:  Getting back to your point about the future of work, you’re also doing really interesting partnerships. Maybe we could talk about the one you’re doing with Amazon Future Engineer in particular. But it does seem the mission alignment also goals all the way through to maybe opening up career pathways or ideas about career pathways much earlier than people frequently are having those types of conversations.

Cara Lesser: Our focus is on K-8 , in a very intentional way.  And that’s not where most people think when they’re thinking about career pathways–college and career pathways. But I say that high school students come from somewhere. And we know that the earlier that you can start forming these dispositions with kids, the better off we all are.

We really have focused on elementary and middle school age youth, and getting them engaged in learning through making with real world problem solving that really embeds career exposure from the very early stages. So having an opportunity to understand how different tools in the technologies are leveraged in different types of problems, solved in different industries. Kids get that when they’re in third grade, when they’re in fourth grade. We do not have to wait until they are sophomores in high school.  

Our focus is coming from a place of students driving their own project to solve a problem that they are interested in. For example, we even had a middle school maker challenge that focuses on sustainability. But we keep it very open and have the students define what they’re interested in around sustainability. And they are then designing and developing a prototype of their own invention related to that problem. That real world problem solving is  an anchor for us.  

In terms of the connection with Amazon Future Engineer, Amazon has A large presence now in the greater DC region and has been interested in ways that they can support economic development in general, as well as the talent pipeline, the tech talent pipeline.  We’ve partnered up with a focus on teacher professional development and supporting teachers in developing the mind of a maker at the elementary and middle school level.  

These were conversations that we were in with Amazon Future Engineer pre-pandemic, but have brought it into the pandemic time. And it’s really an important moment for teachers to feel supported in how they are bringing  hands-on project-based learning into their classrooms, virtual hybrid, or what have you.  Teachers are really struggling  to make those connections with students right now.

Mike Palmer: I was struck also by you describing the power of that playful mindset. As a father of a two-year old, I certainly understand that. It did make me reflect back on my K-12 education and how relatively quickly, maybe in a couple of good elementary school teachers here and there who maintained that spirit, but relatively quickly, it turned into something markedly different.  

As someone who has been in this space now, for some time, you’ve been  picking up some trends along the way where do you see this heading, moving forward? Are there opportunities that are emerging in light of the pandemic? What do you see on the horizon either for the Kid Museum or for many of these ideas  that you’ve been activated against? 

Cara Lesser: I think that the pandemic has created an enormous opportunity for this type of learning, unexpectedly.

The learning loss that has resulted from the pandemic is just so extreme. We are just starting to get our arms wrapped around this. We know that students are disengaged, teachers are disengaged. And we’ve lost several months, if not a full year of learning for students across the board and even more for students in high-poverty parts of our communities.

While we had these tremendous disparities before the pandemic, things have gotten only worse. So that’s the not good part of the story. I think  the positive is that we are  at a breaking point where we need to think about  synergistic solutions that go beyond the silos of one subject at a time. We need to think about  approaches to teaching and learning that integrate innovation, that speak to students, and that integrate the social emotional learning that we know students need even pre pandemic, but so much more so now. 

So I do think that there’s this real watershed moment for maker learning, and for schools and school systems to think differently about what learning needs to look like. To re-engage and not only make up for lost time, but hopefully leapfrog forward for kids To really move past this pandemic. 

Mike Palmer: I’d love to hear what’s emerging. Are there trends that you’re noticing that are worth us paying attention to?  You mentioned the maker movement, maker, fairs, maker learning. And is that the term of art? Is it “maker learning”? 

Cara Lesser: I think that “invention education” is talked about somewhat synonymously with maker education. There are some nuanced differences, but it’s in the same whole, and I think that there’s a lot of focus on how to engage

kids as innovators and that we need that innovative spirit to be actively nurtured.  I think that the focus on real-world problem solving and valuing kids’ ability to be meaningful contributors to that work maybe there’s something unique about where children sit at whatever stage they’re in that they can bring something important to that equation and that we don’t have to wait for them to grow up and be trained out of their creative thinking. 

There’s fascinating new research out of the George Lucas Foundation that just did a whole series of randomized controlled trials looking at project-based learning that intentionally incorporate social-emotional learning that’s squarely in this wheelhouse of maker and invention education.  There’s a sense of openness from districts and individual schools that we need to think differently about this work now.

Mike Palmer: Is the KID Museum a model that could be replicated? It reminds me a little bit of community-based education as well, where it  very much has its roots in the community that it’s serving. But it sounds like a lot of what you’ve learned, just like you borrowed from Pittsburgh, people now can borrow from you. Any thoughts on if folks want to learn more whether they have a program like this, or if they want to start a program like this in their community? Any advice? 

Cara Lesser: Yeah, I think we do very much hope that this can be a model for others. We found that it’s been very effective in our community. At the end of the day, I think what makes it so powerful is the relationships and the partnerships. 

That’s another lesson we’ve all learned in a very visceral way during the pandemic, the need for the human connection part of education. And that is part of, what has been the undercurrent of our success is the relationships we build with teachers, the relationships we build with districts, the relationships we build with individual kids and families, and creating a space where kids want to come and learn and explore. They don’t really view it as learning. They want to come in and hang out and make stuff. But it’s an extension of learning that lots of educators dream of. 

Mike Palmer:  Yeah, it’s really great stuff. If folks want to find out more, where should they go? 

Cara Lesser:  They can come to our website, which is kid-museum.org.

Mike Palmer: Awesome. And a wonderful conversation thus far, Cara, and thank you so much for joining. Before we let you go, I always love to ask my guests, what else has happening in the world around us that’s capturing your imagination these days?  

Cara Lesser:  When KID Museum started,  the concept  was integrating cultural exploration with making. At the time, a lot of people thought those are two totally separate things, and we need to decide what we’re focused on here. And I think that,  if anything, these past few years–and especially this past year–has reinforced our cultural understanding and the way we think about innovation and economic growth are completely intertwined. 

And our kids need to navigate these worlds together. We, as the adults in the room, need to keep coming up with innovative solutions  to bring those together for our kids. 

Mike Palmer: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. It sounds like you may have been spending time  in an environment that fosters creative thought, because you were able to make these connections–laterally, things that maybe otherwise we wouldn’t have connected.  

I’ll hold off for next time to talk about how we create  KID Museums for adults. Because I’m interested in retooling and inspiring that maker space in my mind.  I think with that, we’ll leave folks wanting more. Cara, wonderful having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining. 

Cara Lesser: Thank you so much for having me. It was really lovely to talk with you.
Mike Palmer:  And for our listeners, if you like what you’re hearing, tell a friend, write us a review. Subscribe, do all the good things. We’ll be back again soon. This is Trending in Education.



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