While their classmates are finishing lunch, a few Mount Nittany Elementary students are eating up other things than sandwiches.
They’ve filed into their library for a smorgasbord of fun learning, turning the lower room into a children’s science museum. Third-graders dive into various enticing stations. A classic Mouse Trap board game presents Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, and bins overflow with Lego blocks. Other attractions include cardboard virtual reality glasses, tablets for answering science and geography trivia games, laptops for creating game character coding and a craft workshop for making duct tape roses.
It’s another installment of the school’s debut Makerspace program, a special spot to be creative, explore hands-on activities and just tinker. Following a national trend of schools and community organizations offering Makerspace experiences, Mount Nittany rotates small groups of second- to fifth-graders on Mondays for the last 15 minutes of their lunch period.
Once in the Makerspace area, students are free to settle into one station or sample as many as they wish. Activities change weekly but usually represent a mix of art, crafts, games, puzzles and science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related offerings.
Past choices have included origami, snap-together electronic circuit components, paper robots, snowflakes made from coffee filters, Minecraft building and poetry word walls.
“We want to have a chance to stimulate different creative sides of children,” said Mount Nittany librarian Dustin Brackbill, the program’s founder. “We all have different learning styles and learning personalities, and having this time is when they can express themselves in different ways, or be open to trying something they’ve never tried before. And I think it’s just a good way to build community, and it’s a good way to offer something they wouldn’t have in the classroom.”
Elsewhere in the State College Area School District, Mount Nittany Middle School holds a Makerspace program in its library, and Houserville Elementary librarian Brittany Snavely is working to introduce her version in April and May with a similar blend of art, science and technology.
“I’m excited to get it up and running,” Snavely said.
On a recent Monday, Mount Nittany Elementary’s library buzzed with excitement in contrast to its normal calmness.
“I’m finding weird stuff!” a boy rummaging through marble maze parts announced to Brackbill.
“What kind of weird stuff?” Brackbill said.
Nearby, third-grader Kaige Hutchings tested her American geography knowledge on a tablet. She missed the state that claims Devil’s Tower as a landmark but nailed the next question. Asked which state contains the Grand Canyon, she didn’t waver, pressing Arizona and smiling at the congratulatory message.
“You get to make things and learn new things,” she said about Makerspace. “There are many choices that you can do.”
Third-grader Nate Tranell chose to build his latest Lego invention: a World War I-style fort inspired by his love of history. The blocks usually draw him first, but he seldom limits himself to one station.
“Coming to Makerspace just allows me to have time to work on stuff and have fun while I’m in school,” he said.
At the virtual reality-station, students strapped smartphones into inexpensive cardboard glasses and explored a cave, swooped around on a rollercoaster, and walked around the base of the Eiffel Tower. Principal Mark Feldman even got into the act and took a VR spin, exclaiming, “That’s cool.”
Fourth-grader Yousef Kamerow, glasses on his head, was so moved by the experience he ducked and bobbed as though actually riding.
“This is awesome,” he said. “I’m going upside down.”
Third-grader McKenna Miller was more composed as she assembled a duct tape rose by methodically cutting and arranging colored strips. She used her Makerspace time to make a birthday present for her mother.
“I think it’s cool that they have all kinds of crafts here, and that we get to make our own,” she said.
So far, Brackbill said, the Makerspace program has been a stimulating “creative outlet” for children seeking an alternative to a noisy lunchroom. He’s hoping to build on that success — different activities; more community partners such as The Makery studio, the Discovery Space museum and Schlow Centre Region Library invited to participate.
“It’s flexible,” he said. “It’s a growing, morphing, changing thing.”
Chris Rosenblum is the State College Area School District communications director.