The Story of C.R.E.A.T.E.

The Story of CREATE

One morning in 2013, I sat down in my principal's office and said, "Have you ever heard of the Maker Movement?"...

The Idea

I had been on the job only a few months. It was meant to be a part-time gig to supplement my video production business. My principal, Jennifer Tyson, was also new to the campus and was eager to enhance the reputation of a school that was known within the district as a technological backwater and one of the district's lower-performing schools – ironic for a district that draws parents because of its high standardized test scores.

The old "pencil room."
De Vargas Elementary School had a computer lab equipped with about 35 iMacs. Teachers signed-up for time slots to bring their classes in to use it. To me, a computer lab was like having a special room just to use pencils. Today's students are used to having technology wherever they are.

My job was to take care of the school's hardware and support the staff's technical needs. Basically, I was the AV guy for computers. But my background as a journalist meant that I was always questioning my surroundings. My nature meant that I was always pushing the envelope. I wanted to get rid of the "pencil room."

Our immediate need was to get a bunch of new iPads configured, distributed and incorporated into each class's routine. It was a start.

The Stars Align

Enough of the students at De Vargas Elementary were on the federal free and reduced-fee lunch program that it was designated Title I. This meant that the school received special federal funding above and beyond money received from the state and the district. This gave us resources that a wealthier school night not have.

De Vargas was also an ELD (English Language Delayed) concentration school. Jennifer and I had "blue sky" dreamed about becoming a STEM school in a number of conversations. When the district changed from the specialty ELD campus model to distributing ELD resources throughout the various campuses, we had the opportunity. "What do you want to do?" asked the superintendent in a 2013 meeting. Jennifer didn't have to think about it.  "STEM and Project Based Learning (PBL)," was her immediate response. The first star had moved into place.

It's no secret that there is a national shortage of science, technology, engineering and math majors in U.S. schools. The demand for STEM education had been rising for some time. Yet there were no STEM specialty schools in the Cupertino school district.

The staff started a three-year process of pivoting from ELD to STEM-PBL. The very dedicated and fired-up faculty formed eight different task groups to make it all happen. Lots of PD.

One of the CUSDs wealthier campuses had just finished building a flexible learning area in its old computer lab – largely from parent donations. To offer an equitable situation at a less well-to-do campus, the district's new and very progressive chief technology officer offered funding to De Vargas to do the same. Title I funding also helped.

The planning wheels started spinning madly in meetings between Jennifer and I. We immediately closed the computer lab and distributed the computers to the classrooms (where they belong!) This is when I asked her if she'd heard of the Maker Movement. I had only heard of it a couple of years before and ascribed it to "artsy types" who probably wove their own cloth and made their living as potters. It was only after plugging into some online educational technology communities that I started hearing about the overlap between edutech and making. All of my mental lightbulbs went on at once. Making made total sense with our new PBL direction.

I suggested to Jennifer that we devote "a corner" of the new flexible learning area to a small, portable makerspace. She was all for it. We added maker materials to our funding request for the remodeled room. We were going to implement making as an integral part of of our STEM-PBL philosophy. We were not simply resurrecting the old "shop class" model.

When our Resource class was moved to a different room, I suggested that we enlarge our maker component and take over the old Resource room as our makerspace. Again, Jennifer's answer was yes. The district increased my hours to full-time to manage the makerspace. More stars aligned.

As we geared-up to build-out the space, we asked the students to come up with the name. CREATE stands for Construction Resource Engineering And Technology Environment.

Doing it Alone (Not!)

Now we had to actually make it happen. What went into a maker space? How would we use it when we built it? I'm the first to admit that I was never "Mr. Handy" around the house. The only clues I had were from middle-school shop classes in the 1960s. Thank God for middle-school shop classes.

And the Internet. We could not have built something like this without online connections to educators and makers around the world.

I found initial validation from school makerspace managers in Australia and New Zealand. As I discovered makerspaces in schools around the country and around the San Francisco Bay area, I was able to visit them and learn, thanks to their generous hospitality. Most notably were Angi Chau from Castilleja School in Palo Alto and Aaron Vanderwerff at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab in Oakland. The K-12 Fab Labs and Makerspaces Google Group continues to be a deep and collegial source of support and community. The Hasso Plattner School of Design at Stanford offered a number of amazing programs for educators during our start-up phase. NASA's Ames Research Center operates an in-house makerspace that they were kind enough to allow me to tour. Jennifer dispatched teams of teachers to visit PBL schools around the Bay Area. All of them helped meld the making part of the project with our curriculum.

If you're going to read just one book about making in education, I recommend "Invent to Learn" by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager. I ran into the authors at the 2014 Maker Faire and their perspective crystalized the approach for me. I gave Jennifer a copy and she authorized all of our teachers to buy it.

Martinez, along with co-authors Paulo Blikstein and Heather Allen Pang also released the free book, "Meaningful Making: Projects and Inspirations for FabLabs and Makerspaces," in November of 2015.

Another practical book is "Steam Makers" by Jacie Maslyk, which is specifically about elementary makerspaces.


I often tell visitors that CREATE is just the most visible part of making at De Vargas. The entire school is really a makerspace. One third-grade teacher instituted Genius Hour in her class. She also wrote a grant for classroom tools, including a circular saw (Yes, a circular saw) and a tool cabinet that must weigh 400 pounds (I assembled it.)

One of our kindergarten teachers (who accompanied me to several workshops at Stanford) challenged her students to "hack" their room to remake it, physically. Their ideas included removing the chairs. Two months later, the chairs were still gone.

Making extends to after-school programs such as the video club, which produces twice-weekly video morning announcements and serves as both a video-production resource and as a conduit for video skills to the rest of the school. De Vargas also has a Mouse Squad, which has selected the maker model. One of its current projects is to build more storage for CREATE.

The story of STEM-PBL-Making at De Vargas
Click here for a video about the De Vargas STEM-PBL-Maker story

No comments:

Post a Comment