Science Festivals, Kiera Wilmot, and Teacher Makerspaces

The Las Vegas Science & Technology Festival ended with a bang, literally, and no one was hauled off as a felon! Unfortunately, such was not the case for Kiera Wilmot, the Florida teen who simply wanted to try her hand at actual inquiry learning. The festival offered a plethora of hands-on activities, some of which can no longer be conducted in science classrooms (alas, no more liquid nitrogen, at least not in Nevada public schools). I can just imagine the excitement in Kiera’s eyes as her experiment “worked”, because I know I saw that same expression in hundreds of children’s eyes yesterday. Even something as simple as the Rubik’s Cube evoked deep engagement and a quest for knowledge and accomplishment.

I left Cashman Center both heartened and saddened. Heartened that yes, children do get excited about science and want to learn and be challenged. But saddened because there are fewer and fewer places for such endeavors, and after reading about the reaction of Bartow High School’s principal, it appears there are now even fewer. I realize Kiera ‘went rogue’ when she created her concoction and “exploding before you look” can result in serious consequences. Having been a chemistry teacher in a public school, I feel it is we who have not held up to a code of conduct in regards to our students. I know my administration preferred good behavior, defined as sitting quietly at desks either listening to a lecture or working on an assignment, over students talking and walking around the room getting messy. So where is an inquisitive child supposed to quench that curiosity?  

Of course I have an answer to my own question, or at least a vision of an answer. A few years ago I was turned on to the Maker/DIY community. The idea of a space where children and adults could come together in a mentor relationship that resulted in actual hands-on knowledge building was exciting! I was lucky to find a hackerspace in Las Vegas – SYN Shop. After taking a couple of Arduino classes, my mind was racing with the possibilities for education; not just for our students but for our preservice and inservice teachers. I was able to learn a technology at my pace in an informal space that imposed no judgment. No grades, no having to present to the rest of the class, just playing and learning for fun. The experience has led me to wonder, what if we could provide a similar experience for our preservice teachers, particularly those who are preparing to teach elementary school and are afraid of science. The first half of my vision was born.

The second half came after meeting Stefania Druga of HacKIDemia and participating in one of their events hosted by SYN Shop. As with the LVSTF, kids of all ages were engaged and excited to learn; not for a grade or reward but simply because it was fun and engaging! I started to speculate, what would happen if the preservice teachers I now work with, as well as some of the inservice teachers I used to work with, could experience this type of informal learning space? A Makerspace where they mentor children, or learn how to mentor children, in hands-on informal learning as they co-create as a team. Where preservice teachers could experience the fun and inservice teachers could remember the fun of science! Without faculty issuing grades or administrators standing nearby with their iPads checking boxes. Without fear that perhaps the students are too noisy or messy. Where curriculum and standardized tests do not set the agenda. Just perhaps the fun and excitement that is science could filter back into the formal learning space of the public schools. Brought in by teachers who have been shown, or been reminded, of just why they wanted to become teachers in the first place. Teachers who could then help Kiera expand on WHY the bottle went “boom” and help their administrators understand the nature of science exploration.

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About Cynthia Clark

I hold a doctorate in curriculum & instruction, with an emphasis in educational technology and science education. I work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as the Evaluation and Assessment Specialist for the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. My current research interests include qualitative responses to course evaluations, both the development of open-ended items and their subsequent analysis.
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