Hi MakerBridge readers! We’re the Maker Jawn Initiative; a team of artistically-minded engineers, designers, and thinkers who run maker-based mentoring programs at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Our programing focuses on experimentation, play, and interest-driven learning. This means that we receive input from students and facilitate programming based around their interests. It also means we work on a wide variety of projects that include, but are far from limited to, copper tape circuitry, e-textiles, video production, mask making, and gardening. Sustainability important to us, so we tend to use inexpensive and reclaimed materials for projects. We also believe that libraries are perfect for maker spaces! Neighborhood libraries provide one of the few safe places where diversity of race, gender, and age is respected, and that makes them a special environment for learning.
Our program is nimble. We don’t have dedicated spaces, and primarily work out of bins of materials, stashed at each neighborhood library our mentors are present in. We hope that other communities and institutions with less funding opportunities will see models like ours, and realize that a makerspace is a possibility for them. The same quality of learning (or better) can happen with inexpensive supplies, and a flexible and dedicated staff, as in a well funded space with lots of gadgets and tech. In underserved communities where access to STEAM-based education is minimal, the most important aspect of the maker movement is it’s ability to teach creative thinking and a DIY mentality. The tech aspect is secondary.
During the school year, we provide after-school programming at six neighborhood libraries in North Philadelphia, a part of the city that is 61.6% African-American and 32.5% Hispanic. Fewer than 2% of adults in these neighborhoods are employed in scientific and technical fields, with 65.46% of households earning less than $25,000 annually. We believe that this is the type of neighborhood where maker spaces are needed most. Through our programming we seek to create a dialogue about race, socio-economics, and gender within the Maker community, in an attempt change these statistics. In America, the fields of science and engineering have been historically dominated by white males, and until recently, Maker culture has been no different. We hope that our program encourages those who haven’t been encouraged before, and sparks interest in those who have been waiting for a spark.
Through an opportunity from the Institute of Museums and Library Services, Maker Jawn will be expanding beyond programming for kids and teens and will be providing multi-generational education. It will be interesting to see how programing changes when we have people of all ages learning side by side. Along with this, we’re hoping to explore new hiring practices, with the hope that we can transition enthusiastic members of the community from their role as participants, to paid mentor positions. We’re aiming for a model that will ultimately empower communities in a sustainable way. Currently, our staff and our participants look very different. Our mentors are primarily white, college educated, and from backgrounds where they’ve had access to education, support, and opportunity. The goal is for mentors to better reflect the communities our maker programming serves.
Keeping learning gender neutral is also something we strive for, and struggle with. It’s really interesting, as an educator, to monitor and keep in check your own biases towards gender norms. We’re often surprised to hear ourselves call things that girls make “pretty” or “cute”, while using other adjectives like “cool” or “awesome” for the work of boys. Some of this stuff is so ingrained, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And sometimes, maybe we do it because we think it will please the kids, which is a bit cowardly. We are so worried about losing their interest or participation, that we won’t comment when they say something gendered. And how much should an educator push their personal beliefs on their students? Sometimes there’s a fine line between prompting your students to rethink some of their behaviours and perceptions, and pushing your own moral agenda.
We try as much as we can to remain neutral unless a child is saying something particularly, harmful, hurtful, or negative. How much should we comment on our girls’ interest in princesses? And does it matter, if the way to get them to be interested in making a robot, is by making a princess robot? Even if you are keeping your space free of gender norms and stereotypes, you are still dealing with the messages kids are getting at home, at school, and from the media, which can vary greatly from kid to kid. Recently, a mentor had a 13 year old girl come in with a t-shirt that said “Jezebel: You toil at work all day for nothing, meanwhile your man is spending his money on me, and you’ll never know”. How do you deal with something like that? It can be tough and awkward to initiate a conversation around these situations.
No matter the child’s gender or background, our goal is to build confidence, take things slowly, and have students develop hard skills at their own pace. By making the activities interest-driven and providing more structure for students that require it, we can attempt to meet the needs of children with different learning styles and interests.
Maker Jawn will be blogging its experiences, struggles, and success as it pilots its new model for multi-generational learning. We think that keeping this conversation going and continually being reflective about what we’re learning and observing, and how that’s informing our program, is the best way to keep an initiative healthy. Stay tuned! You can follow along at makerjawn.org.