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

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 4 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. 

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The Library Services and Technology Act-funded project Design It * Make It * Share It, run by the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Maker Jawn Initiative, has been growing and evolving since our last post. The project introduces youth in four neighborhood libraries in North Philadelphia to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) through hands-on, interest-driven projects. The projects fall into three categories: visual/tactile art, electronic art, and web art. In this post we’ll talk more about the kinds of projects we’ve chosen and why, as well as share some best practices that have emerged.

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In the Design It * Make It * Share It program, we have focused on three kinds of activities: visual/tactile art, electronic art, and web art. We define visual/tactile art as traditional arts and crafts, informed by digital elements. Visual/tactile art activities generally have a low barrier to entry and do not require a great degree of technical skill (the Cardboard Challenge detailed in our previous post is a good example). Electronic art includes anything with a circuit, like copper tape circuits, squishy circuits, and e-textiles. And our final element, web art, includes anything that lives on the web – digital photos, videos, music, games, and graphic designs. There is obvious crossover between these categories, but using them as a starting point has been valuable.

Electronic art projects are popular, and e-textiles especially can be a great way to engage girls in STEM learning. The most challenging part of teaching e-textiles is teaching sewing. Engaging adults who are excited about sewing and knitting is a great way to lessen this challenge. Starting with simpler projects that give basic knowledge of circuitry is also important. Some examples of this are squishy circuits and copper tape circuits. Here is a template you can use to make copper tape circuits:

makerjawn3-5Squishy circuits utilize Play Doh, insulating dough, LED lights, alligator clips, and batteries. These are inexpensive, and can be found on Amazon, DigiKey, and eBay.

Web art happens most naturally during the “share it” component of the program – in other words, when participants have the opportunity to talk about their visual/tactile or electronic art projects. Green screen videos and podcasts have also been popular web art activities. Participants have utilized iMovie and PIXLR most often to edit videos and photos, and have acquired basic skills needed to use these programs through experimentation guided by mentors. Other examples of web art include Connected Messages, game design, and music production. Participants have built knowledge of basic computer programming through “Hour of Code” workshops utilizing SCRATCH – a programming game designed by MIT, which were offered in December at Marrero by the University of Pennsylvania. Online resources like Gamestar Mechanic and Sploder that demystify programming have also been used by participants with guidance from mentors.

We have found that running larger, ongoing projects in conjunction with simple one-day projects works well in the library setting. It allows for drop-in participants to get something valuable without regular participation, and also leaves room for that infamous group of regulars at most libraries to be continually challenged to build upon the previous knowledge they’ve acquired. Additionally, it incentivizes continual participation without punishing those who can’t come every day.

We make sure that all mentors are comfortable with larger projects, like the cardboard challenge, and Connected Messages. They are presented across all of our sites, and are taken in whatever direction the mentors and participants at that site imagine. Mentors at each location have utilized their own skills and the participants’ interests to supplement the ongoing projects with other projects – Kenny, one of the mentors at Kensington, noticed how much the teens were into singing and rapping, and so helped them utilize a green screen to make a music video. The MaKey MaKey, a device that allows participants to turn anything conductive into a keyboard or controller, is especially popular. It has been utilized to produce music and create game controllers. Squishy circuits are an easy way to introduce younger participants to simple circuits. They can build a character with Play Doh and then add LED lights. Free, online resources like PIXLR (free photo editing), Sploder (free game building with physics aspects), and Club Create Remix (music editing) have been introduced and explored, as well as software such as iMovie. Other projects include e-textiles, soldering, building a volcano, kindness cards, and copper tape circuits.

Best Practices learned

1. Engage as many staff as possible to create a larger learning ecosystem and support network. 

A security guard poses for a green screen photo.

A security guard poses for a green screen photo.

Professional development remains essential to reflecting and refocusing on interest pathways, the role of the mentor, and supporting self-learning and resilience. During the course of the LSTA grant, Mentors observed that youth were sharing their knowledge and skills with several members of the library staff and community. At one library location, the youth encouraged a Security Guard to pose in front of a green screen, and then proceeded to show the guard how to augment the image to make it appear as though he was being threatened by a large, menacing skeleton. See the full story here. This led to formal half-day professional development trainings, where all staff members who work at libraries with Maker programming have the opportunity to participate in various maker activities, giving them a greater understanding of the Maker movement in terms of specific activities and tools, and enabling them to informally participate with and support youth at their libraries. When every community and staff member is willing to learn from and with each other, regardless of age, background, or fear of failure, transformative change can occur.

2. Provide professional development often, and encourage mentors and all staff to share ideas and skills. 

We do this in a few ways – by meeting weekly to check in and facilitate skills sharing amongst mentors, by providing library-wide staff trainings, participating in relevant Google+ groups and other online communities, and maintaining a website/blog to encourage reflection and sharing.

3. Make projects scalable and accessible to a wide audience. 

One challenge the project team has faced is the large range of ages at some of the sites. Everyone handles this challenge differently based on the culture at the site, the library staff’s opinions, and their own style. For example, at Marrero there are designated maker programs for teens only, and this is strictly enforced. At Kensington, none of the teens mind when younger children are around, and the Mentors are more than willing to be flexible with their programming. While older participants are doing MaKey MaKey, for example, younger participants might play with Play Doh, color a kindness card, or be read to.

Kindness card example.

Kindness card example.

The size of a business card, a kindness card is a great way to introduce a simple circuit using an LED and a battery. Participants color the front and then add the LED and the battery. Squishy circuits are a great project for younger participants, but can be extended to appeal to an older audience. For example, one Mentor reported that:

We were working with squishy circuits, and some of the older kids got bored with that, so we started trying to make the world record for how many LEDs could be lit up by one battery. The energy went back up, and we were able to light up 20 LEDs with 2 batteries.

We hope that this three-part series has been useful to you. The biggest lesson we can share is to say – don’t wait until you have everything figured out perfectly; just dive in and try some things out. The basic projects found in this last post are a great starting point. Please share your experiences, questions and comments with us by posting here, or by emailing us here.

Barbara Tait (taitb@freelibrary.org) and K-Fai Steele (steelek@freelibrary.org) 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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