Today’s feature is part of a series written for the Library as Incubator Project by staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This series, Maker Jawn: Increasing Access to Creative Computing in Philly* focuses on the unique and innovative maker programs happening at that library.

*The term “jawn” is a context-dependent substitute noun that originated in the Philly hip hop scene. Jawn is used in place of basically any noun, and its meaning can change depending on what you’re referring to, e.g., “Let me get a piece of that jawn?” and “That Frankenstein remix jawn is tight!”

by Barbara Tait and K-Fai Steele, Free Library of Philadelphia


In the fall of 2013, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Maker Jawn Initiative began a project called Design It * Make It * Share It, supported by a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant. The project utilizes maker programming in four neighborhood libraries in North Philadelphia to build interest and knowledge amongst youth in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) fields, and to help participants gain key 21st century skills, such as problem solving, presentation, transliteracy, and collaboration.

There are three aspects of the project: designing, creating, and sharing. These are not necessarily separate activities, and our goal is to allow youth to choose their pathways on a daily basis. On a given day one child might only design, another might only share, and yet another might do all three.

Our staffing model is unique in that our mentors are not necessarily librarians. The Maker Jawn Initiative employs over sixteen work-study and graduate students from local universities in Philadelphia (the University of the Arts, the University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University). Their backgrounds and majors are diverse, and we have found that this creates an interesting mix of skills and possibilities. For example, we have mentors who are majoring in Industrial Design, Finance, Chemistry, and Psychology. The group meets as a whole once a week for reflection, professional development, prototyping, and general administration.

Each location operates a little differently based on mentor and library staff interest and expertise, age range of participants, and participant interest and skill level. We like to use the term “possibility” instead of “project.” This implies that while we have to have a trajectory in mind when we put supplies together for a project and determine what basic skills mentors might need in order to have that project succeed, when the box of supplies is opened on the library floor, anything can happen. Youth are trained in basic tool use, and the goal is process-oriented: get them to tinker, think, invent, and create.

To give the reader a general overview, below is a sample day at the Kensington Library (names of all participants have been changed). The Mentors introduced a possibility based on Caine’s Arcade where a boy creates a DIY arcade entirely out of cardboard boxes and tape.  The cardboard challenge is an easy starter project with low barriers to entry in terms of materials, staff training, and youth engagement. It can be done in groups or not, and children as young as four have successfully participated at Kensington.

BK, one of the Mentors, arrives around 2:30 p.m. with a bunch of cardboard boxes he’s carried over on his fold-up bicycle. He and Alexis, a volunteer, pull out scissors, duct tape, markers, sticks, and other raw materials they think might be useful for today’s “possibility”: the cardboard challenge.

As children arrive, BK tells them about the challenge, and asks them what games they want to build. Groups naturally form based on interest, and BK and Alexis split up to help different groups or individuals with design aspects. One group designs a game called Spiders vs. Obstacles where the player has to navigate an obstacle course. Their idea is to change the terrain by rolling paper along, but the paper keeps getting stuck. BK collaborates with them, and together they figure out a way to make it work using a sponge (see video). After the group gets the game working, BK encourages the participants to document their work.

Documentation, or “sharing” is an important component of the project for participants’ learning and evaluation alike. We have found that encouraging youth to talk about their process reinforces the intentionality of their designs, and also gives them practice providing step-by-step instruction. Evaluators can look at the ways youth are talking about their projects over time to gauge changes in levels of confidence and knowledge. In addition to workstudy student mentors, we have six interns from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education who are observing, documenting, and evaluating the program and youth engagement. They keep a daily observation log where they collect anecdotes, quotes, photos, and interviews with youth. The main objective is to track youth as they’re engaged in the making process, and determine an increase in skills and a change in attitude towards STEM/STEAM. In addition to this qualitative data, at the end of the grant cycle we plan to have the youth participate in a retrospective survey, which acts as a standardized measurement of what they’ve learned.

Selection from the University of Pennsylvania’s eCrafting retrospective survey.

Selection from the University of Pennsylvania’s eCrafting retrospective survey.

At the end of the day, our Maker Programming is a work-in-progress. We must acknowledge that youth interests and available resources are perpetually in flux. In response, our program and staffing must be responsive and nimble. Having weekly meetings and constant communication with library staff and mentors has been essential to managing this program, as well as being quick on our toes to change programming when it’s “not working.” It is important to reflect upon and document our own progress and process, as well as youth development over time.



makerjawnjan-7The Cardboard Challenge has been a great segue into other maker activities, such as Squishy Circuits (creating circuits using Play Doh), using the MaKey MaKey to create game controllers, and creating copper tape circuits to add LEDs and other components to their games.

In our next post, we’ll talk more about ways to incorporate creative computing into maker programs, and the different things that have happened at other neighborhood libraries.

Barbara Tait ( and K-Fai Steele ( work in Teen Programming at the Free Library of Philadelphia, focusing on library branches in North Philadelphia. Both are working artists (K-Fai in illustration, Barbara in dance) who found a creative niche at the Free Library. Barbara recently completed her MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. Through the Maker Jawn initiative, they are dedicated to increasing access to creative computing in underserved communities through mediums that make computing tactile, such as e-textiles and paper circuits.

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