Makerspace tech goes mobile at Virginia high school


Makerspaces are rolling out of the tech lab and into teachers’ classrooms at Northern Virginia’s Dominion High School this school year, thanks to a U.S. Department of Education challenge prize.

The mobile makerspaces represent an enlightened step forward for the high school — and a victory for technology resource teachers Josh Ajima and Terry Baker.

It was their makeover proposal that helped bring Dominion national recognition as one of 10 schools, among 640 that applied, to win the Education Department’s CTE Makeover Challenge. The contest was aimed at strengthening career and technical education programs across the United States.

In addition to some welcome visibility at a White House event last June, the challenge prize came with a $20,000 cash grant and a share of $375,000 in sponsor-supplied products.

For Ajima and Baker, the grant and equipment not only allowed them to overhaul Dominion’s makerspace. It also has given them the ability to roll 3-D printers and other fabrication tools out of the tech lab and into teachers’ classrooms, on custom-rigged carts, to help make instruction more engaging for the school’s 1,500 students.

C“Our makerspace and maker carts address the issues of finding space and scaling up, to bring makerspace to an entire high school,” said Ajima. “By reinventing spaces such as old computer labs or out-of-date career and tech education rooms, it becomes possible to start makerspaces without huge renovation costs.”

It also gives Dominion the means to bring in new, real world tools into our technology room and the classroom,” that the school didn’t have before, he said.

Until recently, the Sterling, Virginia, high school was using computers that simulated industrial processes and a station with a single 3-D printer and laser cutting tool.

The focus now is on trying “to encourage kids to solve problems” using a wider range of tools, including 3-D printers, vinyl sign making equipment, electronic repair stations and fabrication tools, and more importantly, putting those resources at the disposal of teachers to use in their classrooms, Ajima said.

“What [the makerspace program] allows us to do is offer empowering tools for teachers toward meaningful student engagement,” said John Brewer, principal of Dominion High School, in an interview with EdScoop.

“The fact that Dominion High School was selected among thousands and thousands of schools in the nation, and one of about 640 that applied, is certainly a huge honor,” Brewer said.

“It’s a testament to the expertise Josh brings to the table,” said Brewer. “He is a national and maybe a worldwide expert in meshing makerspaces [into the classroom]. He has already empowered a number of teachers to do some exciting instructional things that we haven’t been able to do previously. It expands their repertoire for strategies to engage students,” he said.

It also reflects a broader shift in perspective at Dominion, and Loudoun County Public Schools generally, which is moving beyond one-to-one learning, toward what the district calls its One to the World initiative, according to Brewer.

The fast-growing school district, which currently serves 78,000 students, is putting greater emphasis on helping students develop as knowledgeable critical thinkers and to deal with authentic challenges in the world, Brewer explained. As part of that process, Dominion is continuing to look for ways to encourage students to present their work beyond the classroom to the broader community, and maker technology helps with that, he said.

Ajima, who has worked at Dominion since 2003, says he’s always been interested in hands-on technology, and the growth of the maker movement has given him new ways to work with students.

But now he and Baker, with a newly-designed makerspace, are able to support the school’s marketing classes, for instance, allowing students to produce their own vinyl signs or print their own tee shirts instead of paying for those services on past projects.

“This allows students to actually manufacture things at cost, and sell them at a profit,” he said. It also gives students access to “a wide variety of tools they’d find in the marketplace and in the workforce to make things,” he said.

Ajima and Baker are also working with Dominion’s world history teachers, on projects revolving around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and with the school’s fine arts teachers, on a variety of projects, Ajima said.

“Our plan is to start having our first maker club to get students in after school,” he said. “And we want parents to see what we’re doing and help sustain the makerspace.”

Principal Brewer insists the program will make a difference for students at Dominion.

“How exciting it is for students to be able to use the things you’ve learned, and demonstrate that in the form of a product or artifact that you’ve made,” rather than reducing what you’ve learned to answers on a test, he said.