In a move that will help the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) expand Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM)-based Maker space programming to multi-generational audiences, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on October 23 awarded a $500,000 National Leadership Grant to FLP in support of the library’s Maker Jawn initiative.
“We certainly haven’t finished exploration of on-the-floor Maker programming with young people, but with this grant, we decided that we really wanted to explore [whether] it is possible to do the same thing with a cross-generational audience.” Theresa Ramos, program development coordinator for FLP, told LJ.
Launched in FLP’s Kensington branch in the spring of 2013, the Maker Jawn initiative thus far has focused on developing and hosting STEAM-based Maker programming targeted at teens and middle-schoolers. During the past year and a half, grant funding from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and other sources has enabled FLP to expand these programs to several other branches, primarily in North Philadelphia.
As the project’s website explains, “jawn” is an all-purpose substitute noun that originated in the old-school Philly hip hop scene, and has since cemented itself as a unique part of the city’s dialect. The eclectic word represents the program well. Activities have ranged from introductory sewing classes to video production to complex group tech projects.
For example, with the help of a grant from the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, FLP in the summer of 2013 partnered with the University of Pennsylvania (U. Penn) Graduate School of Education and PennDesign to develop Connected Messages, a project that involved kids and teens working together to create a series of six physical murals that are connected to the Internet through an Electric Imp. Each mural has its own web page, where visitors can listen to recordings that participants made to explain their contribution to the mural, or interact with the physical murals by turning LED lights on or off.
Prior to launching Maker Jawn, FLP already offered its Literacy Enrichment After-school Program (LEAP), which for 25 years has provided K-12 homework help and subject-specific tutoring, along with activities designed to promote traditional literacy, digital literacy, and literacy in science, technology, and cultural arts. Yet while there is a degree of overlap in the educational missions of these two programs, Ramos said that these efforts were distinct, and explained that Maker Jawn aims to foster exploration and community-based learning environments.
“The difference is that it’s not top-down instruction,” Ramos said. “I think, going way, way back to old traditions, where kids sat with their parents or community members and people were making things. And you just learned by being in that community. It wasn’t that someone stopped and said ‘now I’m going to teach [the group] how to carve wood or crochet.’ You just picked it up by being in the environment.”
Also, in contrast to top-down instructional models, in which knowing or finding the right answer is typically the goal, these hands-on environments enable people to learn even when they fail, Ramos said.
“It’s like a kid who takes apart a clock for the first time and can’t put it back together,” she said. “That’s just the first part of the learning experience.”
The mix of high-tech and low-tech programming is no accident. Ramos noted that when Maker Jawn recently had the opportunity to work with U. Penn professor Yasmin B. Kafai on an e-textiles project, most of the participants didn’t know how to sew. Many young people and adults now have gaps in skills such as sewing or cooking, she explained (separately, FLP recently debuted a Culinary Literacy Center).
Currently, the Maker Jawn initiative receives significant staffing support from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, U. Penn, and Temple University. As part of a pre-existing program, these local universities pay the salaries of more than 15 work-study and graduate student “mentors” who have now been tapped to help create and facilitate Maker Jawn events for teens and younger patrons. To ensure the program’s long-term sustainability, FLP created a non-grant-dependent city employee position to oversee the students. Separately, a group of interns from U. Penn’s Graduate School of Education are observing the program and documenting engagement and results.
“We work with them,” Ramos said of the students and interns. “It’s not just ‘here’s the job. Can you do it?’ It’s really ‘what’s your interest? How can we make this work together?’”
Allowing these staff to be guided, to some degree, by their own interests is necessary. Finding people who are have knowledge of a topic and the right personality to share their knowledge with others is always a challenge.
“If you’re a video producer, it’s not ‘I make the video and you watch.’ It’s about helping an eight-year-old make [his or her] own video and be proud of it,” Ramos said. “It’s about finding the people who can do this. Finding the Makers.”
And, if the program is to be a long-term success, it will be a result of the community that Maker Jawn helps build, Ramos said, not the result of a few 3D printers or other equipment.
“The important thing about this is not an individual coming into the library and making something,” Ramos said. “Maker spaces, I think, are where you come for community, and you’re with people who share the same interests. You can start just by hanging out in this environment, and it can evolve into someone discovering a talent that they didn’t know they had…. Eventually, that can lead to a job, or a career, or a major in college. But you don’t know that until you’ve had the opportunity to be around people to find out what your interests are.”
The grant to expand Maker Jawn programming to adults is another step toward building the program into the community that FLP envisions. Ramos said that the funding will allow the library to begin exploring “whether it’s adults, families, parents with preschool children, is there a way of having that space that’s really transforming library services? In some ways, instead of looking at how to implement a learning lab in a library, the bigger question is, ‘can you turn libraries into learning labs?’”