How will the lazy days of summer affect you and your students? If you are like many teachers, you started counting the days until the end of the year long before it actually ended. But good teachers always look forward, and you have learned from experience that the first few weeks of the school year in fall generally require some remediation to get student’s minds refocused after the long break. The deterioration of skills during the absence of school is a well known phenomena among students of course, but it even includes some teacher skills that need refreshing- from the simplicity of using your ‘teacher voice’ without getting a sore throat to doing mental math without second guessing yourself.
For STEM teachers who take a personal interest in the hands on projects they teach, including everything from rockets and UAVs to robotics and programming, the summer may involve the completion of personal projects they haven’t had time to work on, or developing more advanced techniques to operate a CNC machine, or designing a unique art piece that can be printed out on the 3D printer. Maybe a project that will hone skills using the TIG welder to build an autonomous lawnmower, or just cutting out a sign with the plasma cutter. These personally compelling projects ultimately translate to better teaching, and they keep our minds fresh and skills current, plus working on our own projects gives us ideas on curriculum plans to integrate more projects into what we do.
If you are exceptionally lucky, there may be a hackerspace or makerspace that you are already a part of or can join. There, you not only have access to expensive equipment, but the social aspects are a great way to share ideas, learn new techniques or just hang out with like minded people.
And while there are more and more makerspaces being created each day, they are spaced few and far between, particularly in rural areas. And while it is an attractive option, the logistics of merely starting your own group are daunting enough, let alone the prospect of making it financially sustainable.
But what about working with what you have on campus? Is your facility amenable to having its own, summer makerspace for teachers and students? Do you have access to equipment during vacation time? Can it be open once a week either for teachers who want to collaborate and plan for the fall and/ or work on their skills (such as the biology teacher who wants to learn how to use the lathe, or the chemistry teacher who wants to mill out a set of mass standards ) or for students who want to get an early start on a new project?
Could this be the opportunity to finally network with the Art teacher and get started on that Kinetic Art project, or even start planning for the kinetic sculpture race in your community? Combating summer brain drain means these and many other possibilities.
If you have read this far, you are probably at least intrigued by these ideas. It is possible though that this just won’t work for your situation. Perhaps your campus is inaccessible during the summer break for instance. Or you are of the mindset that as soon as the final bell rings in June, you collect your things and say goodbye to your classroom until the very last, dreaded moment comes that forces you back in the fall. Admittedly this is a fresh approach to our place of work that may not be easy to implement for some and seem downright sacrilegious to others. The idea of taking a fresh look at your campus, your classroom, and seeing it as a place for doing something correcting tests, writing lesson plans, and dealing with disruptive students will help you to adjust better to the coming fall term-and make you a more effective teacher in the long term.
What will it take to make a summertime makerspace? The first piece of advice is to start small. See if you can get easy access to equipment and classrooms. Make friends with custodial staff and show them that you won’t be creating a mess for them to deal with when they have other summer projects on their docket. Next, get a coworker or two and see what you can get accomplished in a couple of weeks. Small projects are best at first. Kick around ideas for next year, and invite your supervisor down and show him/her how this can help your STEM program grow beyond the confines of the school year. It is amazing how things can snowball in a positive way once words gets out. You may find that local businesses can use services such as welding, machining or even making signs your program can offer in exchange for materials and sponsorship on future projects. There may be people in your community with an engineering or science background who will want to be a part of the makerspace in some capacity. A copy machine store may donate older machines for parts that can be used in robots and other projects. You get the idea. And at some point you will want to invite students to be a part of the picture, and let them learn and contribute in their own way.
STEM subject teachers have a unique opportunity to see our place of work as offering more than just a paycheck but a place to do and learn on our own time because we want to. Our campuses can be a resource in the off season, and making use of facilities that are usually mothballed for three months can be a good thing for the school, your STEM program, and help stop up that brain drain before it happens for teacher and student alike.