Longtime teacher Donna Vial powers through a presentation of successful inventions made entirely by children. The prototypes show on the screen, and she patiently and passionately answers each question the students throw at her.

As the students discuss their projects and blueprints, the sixth-graders maintain varying levels of interest, some with their eyes glued to the screen, others talking. Vial instructs them to work as a team and to keep their peers from talking.

It is a traditional sixth-grade classroom environment, until Vial releases the students to their respective “maker” tables to work on their projects. This class is another example of modern education embracing the Makerspace learning philosophy.

The students congregate in groups with Google Chromebooks and white sheets of paper to plan and prepare to bring their creations to life.

With over 50 years of teaching experience, Vial has been the instructor for the makers classes at Rail Road Flat Elementary School for about three years. In addition to these enrichment courses, she also teaches 3-D printing, coding and archery. The school also offers robotics, 3-D printing, gardening, weaving, sports and art. Enrichment courses are organized into different grade levels and the schedule is blocked out by age groups throughout the week.

Vial said that some children lose confidence in the traditional academic environment. These students are better at conceptualizing processes and, naturally, they shine in makers and robotics courses, according to Vial.

“If you’re not an academic kid, you fail at school, and you get turned off. The maker group and 3D printing stuff gives those kinds of kids areas to be successful,” Vial said. “We get these kids who drop out and feel like failures and they stop trying, because we’re not reaching them. Schools are failing these kids.”

In recent years, what was historically STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has transitioned to become STEAM (to include arts). The latest initiative, STEAMIE has branched out to include innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The enrichment programs provide valuable opportunities for students to engage and explore in a wide variety of areas and are really aligned to our overall efforts to equip students with the ability to further develop real-life skills,” said Rail Road Flat Principal and Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell.

“We put together the picnic tables out there – they can conceptualize how to build stuff, and it’s so exciting to see them just light up and feel confident with things that they couldn’t feel confident at before – and, it’s still called school. We’re not all made to be academic,” Vial said. “There’s jobs that haven’t even been invented, involving coding and 3D printing. They’re going to be left out unless we expose them to it.”

Vial said that in addition to science fairs, there’s now something called “Invention Convention,” which, according to the Eduplace website eduplace.com, gives students “opportunities to solve problems, think creatively, experiment, and work with data throughout the school year. The Invention Convention is an event that gives students an opportunity to demonstrate these skills independently as they invent a new product or process.”

Whereas the traditional science fair allowed children to create experiments, Invention Convention encourages children to identify a problem and create a new invention to solve the problem.

“I just know what’s missing in education and I don’t have to do the regular stuff anymore. I can look at the outside, the fringes, and say, ‘These are the things we need – we need this kind of stuff.’ We need hands-on, we need 3D printing, we need to know how to code,” Vial said.

Makers students Cody Freeman and Pedro Perez work on their invention of a bean bag launcher, carefully using a power drill to carve a circle in a round piece of plastic. They prepare to use a hot glue gun to connect pieces of their invention.

A power drill whirs in the corner as the class gets fully immersed in their projects. Sounds of excitement are heard as children work together to brainstorm solutions for problems they encounter. A team of three girls works on the plans for a hybrid pillow-blanket to use for napping away from home.

There is a backdrop of a tool wall with multiple power tools, hand tools and other miscellaneous tools and devices for the children to learn and use. Vial confirms that all of the supplies in the makers class have cost her $600, touting donations as a huge contributing factor, especially from Sender’s Hardware store. The children are limited only by their imaginations.

Each group of children in the maker class worked on building their blueprints by using a Chromebook computer, a sheet of paper and markers, and by searching for inspiration online. The exercise challenges the children in a creative way to integrate logical and creative processes, and to use the multiple tools available to them in the classroom to bring their inventions to life. The “invention process” is less intimidating for some students than others. Some children easily find a rhythm trouble-shooting and planning out their processes. Vial attends each group of students and helps them overcome obstacles in the planning and experimentation processes.

The robotics class has a slightly more structured feel to it, as the students pair up to work on LEGO Mindstorms kits. The main teacher of the robotics class is Martha O’Leary, with Sal Sanchez helping. O’Leary is also a para-educator and intervention specialist at the school, in addition to being a coach. Sanchez is one of the teachers of the robotics class. Sanchez works remotely from his house as an Apple customer service representative, but also teaches Spanish at West Point Elementary School, in addition to coaching.

The robotics

The LEGO Mindstorms kits were donated to the school by the Friends of Rail Road Flat School several years prior, and have gotten extensive use in the classroom.

The children learn how to use iPads to download instruction guides, then use the items in the kit to build the robots.

Students must first organize and draft their plans, using iPads donated to the class to read instructional brochures and to search Google for solutions to their issues. They then learn how to command the robots to move by using coding in class, but the programming is the advanced part of the project.

The children are only limited by their imagination. Freeman and Jayden West work on their invention of a crawling robotic spider and demonstrate how it can crawl up West’s arm. They troubleshoot together how to stop the robotic spider from reaching back into its own cords and tangling itself.


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