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Thank You Mrs. Pauly: The 1970s Makerspace Pioneer

What was your 4th grade teacher’s name? Mine was Mrs. Pauly. She was an outdoorsy lady who appreciated nature and the history of early Wisconsin pioneers and liked to take a unique approach to teaching. Do you remember your 4th grade classroom? Mrs. Pauly had a typical 1970s classroom that was connected to an adjoining classroom by way of an electric movable partition – very high-tech for the 1970s. Unlike the typical movable wall that never moved, Mrs. Pauly often moved the wall or kept it open completely. (Imagine that, a movable partition that actually moved! But that’s a topic for another discussion).

On the other side of the movable partition, learning came to life. The other side was Mrs. Pauly’s Makerspace. I still remember the first time the wall opened and there it was: a real log cabin. Only this log cabin was made of brown painted carpet tubes and it had windows, a door, and even some furnishings to aid the imagination of her students in entering a new world just outside the classroom.

I recently attended the Society for College and University Planners (SCUP) Conference and participated in a Makerspace session facilitated by Laura L. Tenny, ASLA, a Senior Campus Planner at MIT. During this session, conference attendees worked in small groups at round tables to create a school that incorporated a Makerspace. On the table in front of our team was a clear Ziploc bag filled with all sorts of fun treasures to build our school from. Things that everyone at the table wanted to touch and manipulate – clay, pipe cleaners, foam pieces, sticky notes, fabric, and jewels.

As we dumped the bag of shiny new things on the table, my seven adult teammates started to laugh, giggle, smile and create. We were given a problem to solve and worked as a team, manipulating, building, discussing, demolishing, repurposing, and reconfiguring materials to create our story – our solution to a problem.

The normally silent conference room was alive, filled with creative energy and enthusiasm for problem solving. An energy that was familiar to me – the same energy I experienced in my 4th grade classroom. This exercise was no different from what I did in Mrs. Pauly’s room (Well there was one major difference – we were adults acting like school kids). 

Our 4th grade log cabin incorporated curriculum connected to history, art, and math. While in the log cabin room, we had freedom to experiment, collaborate, and explore as well as the ability to do and undo. In essence,  the same thing we were doing at SCUP, as our session created a Makerspace within the microenvironment of our round table.

During my team’s problem solving exercise, it occurred to me that the concept of Makerspace is only new in name. Teachers have been utilizing Makerspaces for decades, if not centuries. The new practice today vs. when I was in school is how curriculum is purposely being connected with Makerspaces.

When I think about Mrs. Pauly’s 1970s Makerspace -- the elements that made it successful, and the themes that still apply to effective Makerspaces -- I think of:

  • Hands-on learning center
  • Connection to cross-curricular areas
  • Accessibility from multi-disciplinary areas
  • Materials that support projects
  • Collaboration areas
  • Failure is an option and discovery is required

When the topic of Makerspace arises while working with learning institutions during the programming phase, inevitably I have to ask the following questions:

  • What do you want to do in the space?
  • What curriculum is being designed for its use?
  • Which disciplines will utilize it?
  • What equipment will be in it?

Typically I get blank stares. Many schools want a Makerspace but don’t truly understand the power the space can have. I encourage you to ask yourself these questions and think about what your answers would be. Makerspaces are meant to facilitate imagination, so remember, there is no wrong answer.

Thank you Mrs. Pauly for being a pioneer with Makerspaces and for considering these questions quite possibly without any guidance or permission from others. You were a true pioneer!

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