Uplands Maker Mobile driving the importance of STEM around the state

Kids ready to make things at the Washington County Family YMCA.

The space station might have been a little unconventionally built – made from cardboard boxes, it included tunnels, windows and even a couch. But it was just part of another lesson about space travel from the Uplands Maker Mobile, a van loaded with supplies to encourage STEM learning all around southern Indiana.

The idea for a maker mobile had been years in the making, said Adam Maltese, Professor and Martha Lea and Bill Armstrong Chair of Teacher Education and Director of the Make, Innovate, Learn Lab. With schools wanting to get involved in makerspaces but worrying about the costs of investing in maker equipment, Maltese realized a vehicle could be the perfect solution. As the ideas took shape, Maltese and his team had frequent conversations with Regional Opportunity Initiatives, as the idea aligned very closely with their goals for the Uplands Region. The team worked with ROI to develop a model they were willing to fund.

Children at Bloomington Boys and Girls Club use 3D printing as a way to make a teaching tool
Boy scouts with Troop 148 make hanging plant tags using a Glowforge laser printer
Participants with Greene County 4H used laser cutting and 3D printing to create signs

By creating a vehicle that brings the equipment to schools along with individuals with expertise who can help educators use the equipment and approaches to engage their learners, we can lower the barriers to entry.

Adam Maltese

“By creating a vehicle that brings the equipment to schools along with individuals with expertise who can help educators use the equipment and approaches to engage their learners, we can lower the barriers to entry,” Maltese said. “We really appreciate that there is collective understanding that this is a design experiment where we can use the strategies we teach about to continuously try to improve the offerings.”

Laser cutting
Kids at Bloomington Boys and Girls Club use the laser cutting tool in their lesson

With the addition of Maker Education Specialist Andrew Woodard, the Uplands Maker Mobile hit the road in March, traveling to schools, libraries and other groups, though planning for each visit starts well in advance. Woodard works with sites to develop a project, training or other output that is meaningful, collaborative in its development with the site and an authentic challenge using maker tactics and design thinking. Each project lasts one to seven days.

“We differ from other mobile makerspaces in that our ‘space’ to create is found - not onboard - but rather at the host site. We deliver, train and lend at times equipment to community participant organizations so that they can ‘try on’ a version of a makerspace onsite. Projects can employ very low tech cardboard construction to designing in CAD to output either to a 3D printer, laser cutter or CNC Router,” Woodard explained.

On any given day, the Maker Mobile is filled with a multitude of materials: from paper, cardboard and recycled goods to wood, acrylic and fabric. While Woodard doesn’t really have a favorite material, he said plywood has seen the most usage based on projects.

And though schools are a common site for the Maker Mobile, its target is anyone with an interest in making, including after-school programs, clubs, coworking spaces and anywhere where the team can interact and support. The adaptable nature of the mobile allows the team to set up in areas not typically seen as makerspaces - but rather, a convenient, central or healthy space for people to congregate.

“We have set up in a barn, gymnasium, outside, and even under a tent, as well as more typical locations one would envision a makerspace. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped all of us to be more versatile,” Woodard said. “Furthermore, we provide an opportunity for organizations to test out the interest and existence of sometimes expensive tools within their own walls. Finally, through exposure to problem-based learning through usage of maker tools and tactics, participants gain both employable skills and techniques, but also develop ways to be better problem solvers.”

Maltese believes making is important because education has moved too far away from approaches where youth are frequently building and working with their hands – in all subject areas – and practical applications of knowledge kids can use in their lives now and in the future.

Rocket building
At Washington County Family YMCA, kids read about space travel and build a cardboard space station

“We think that too often youth aren’t given the chance to think about solving problems they experience every day in the world around them. We would really love to revolutionize the way education happens around the world, but we figured we should start in our local area first. The Uplands Maker Mobile is meant to be a tool we can use to lower the barriers to entry for students and educators to learn skills and approaches they can apply right away and use for the rest of their lives.”

“We’re involved in a lot of conversations about economic (re)development of this region,” he added. “While many see the goal as bringing in some big companies that can hire many locals, we think it’s more important to empower the locals, through exposure, training and education to be problem solvers and have a wide range of skills that will allow them to do whatever it is they want to do.”

Success with the project is already happening, as witnessed by the many students and adults who have participated in making projects. Maltese has hope for even more positive change happening thanks to the Maker Mobile.

“If we can be the catalyst for developing a local ecosystem that has numerous opportunities for kids and adults to participate in making, and that it becomes a normalized part of the culture around here – even to a point of no longer needing the Maker Mobile, then that will be the ultimate success,” he said. “However, we will see success in just nudging the larger community in this direction and helping to improve a few lives along the way.”