Future of Learning

A rural Montana district goes all in on makerspaces

An initiative aiming to boost digital learning in rural schools lit a fire

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In Havre Public Schools in northern Montana, it’s not uncommon for middle schoolers to arrive early. Parents need to get to work and the school building is a safe place to drop them off, even before classes start. Some students play basketball or volleyball as the clock ticks closer to first period, but for those who don’t like sports, there has been little else to do than sit on the bleachers and wait — until this year.

Now the middle school, along with two of the district’s other elementary schools and its high school, have makerspaces. Beyond giving students a new way to pass the time in the mornings, Superintendent Andy Carlson sees the makerspaces as a way to engage kids who may have been marginalized in past years because of their interests.

“The makerspace has given some opportunity for those kids to have their moment, for them to shine,” Carlson said.

Walking through Havre Public Schools this year, a visitor would likely take note of the makerspaces. They’re in four out of the district’s five traditional schools and they’re well-stocked, a set-up that might come as a surprise given that Havre is a rural district near the Canadian border, a place one might not expect to see the latest technologies. But the district’s tech initiatives recently got a boost thanks to a partnership with the VMware Foundation (the philanthropic arm of a cloud computing company), Team4Tech (an organization that connects volunteers with nonprofits to improve educational quality around the world) and the Consortium for School Networking (a professional organization for school district technology leaders).

Related: Teachers share tips on making makerspaces accessible to all

This is the second year the three organizations partnered with a rural school district to increase its capacity for digital learning and lend additional momentum to local efforts. CoSN representatives and VMware volunteers from around the world, organized by Team4Tech, descended on Havre Public Schools in August with donated hardware and software and plans for more than a week’s worth of professional development sessions.

On the infrastructure side, Havre’s schools got switches and servers, but they also got a week of strategizing and support. Teachers attended workshops on Ozobots, Strawbees, LEGO WeDo 2.0, and Micro:bit, all tools they could use in makerspaces, and they studied project-based learning strategies as well as new uses for Google applications in their classrooms. Teachers who already knew how to use Google tools sharpened their skills and those who had never opened certain programs like Google Sheets received introductory lessons.

Carlson said the value of all this support is hard to calculate. In a fairly isolated school district, he sees technology as a way to level the playing field between Havre students and those in more connected, urban or suburban schools. Now more Havre teachers have the skills they need to help fulfill that promise for students.

In addition to the concrete skills teachers picked up during the August workshops, the experience lent Havre Public Schools a sense of excitement around “making” and project-based learning in particular. While administrators weren’t sure whether makerspaces would take off this year, teachers have been quick to demand more gear, ready to build on the summer’s momentum. Their energy is transforming classrooms.

Related: A study finds promise in project-based learning for young low-income children

One teacher stopped Carlson in the hallway earlier this school year to relay how well a lesson went, thanks to the changes he made because of the workshops. The level of student engagement and the quality of their discussion was better than he had ever seen — during a lesson he already considered one of his best.

That kind of feedback about student engagement is an important measure of success for Carlson.

“That’s tough to put in a report but that means more to me than probably anything I get back on a standardized test,” he said.

The Consortium for School Networking plans to use the lessons learned in Havre and a handful of other rural schools to create resources for similar districts based on their distinct needs. Already, CoSN published a report about the challenges and opportunities of rural school districts in embracing digital learning. Soon it will add a case study about Havre Public Schools to its package of materials. The goal is to help rural districts use technology to change teaching and learning in ways that prepare students for work and life in the modern world. But this is hard.

“The most difficult part isn’t the technology and program management,” said Marie Bjerede, the head of leadership initiatives for CoSN. “It’s the people.” Incorporating technology takes a shift in mindset among educators, she said, and that can be hard to inspire.

In Havre, though, where the summer’s workshops left teachers ready to innovate, Carlson is already seeing what such inspiration can lead to.

This story about makerspaces was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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