Research Trip Provides Insights into Supporting NWA Maker Ecosystem

October 10, 2018

Maker ecosystems grow out of a need for people to collaborate, communicate, create, and learn together. The first seeds are often planted by a small group of passionate makers and educators working to impact learning, economic development, culture, and the overall quality of life in a community by building a network of creatives with diverse specialties. The Scott Family Amazeum is working to nurture a maker ecosystem in the fertile conditions of Northwest Arkansas through a Maker in Residence Program and fact-finding trips to established maker ecosystems in other cities supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.  

On September 20-22, 2018,  the Amazeum convened a group of educators, Amazeum team, and community partners from Northwest Arkansas for a research and benchmarking trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The objectives for the trip were to explore how a creative maker ecosystem can support teachers and out-of-school educators in developing novel and impactful approaches to learning, and to learn how a culture of making is built and sustained in an educational community across varying levels. The trip provided an opportunity for networking and community building among key stakeholders from Northwest Arkansas while examining the functional linkages and impacts that occur in a well-established maker community.

From a home base at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, a leader in high-quality programs for learning PBT 2and one of the top 10 children's museums in the country, the group visited area school and makerspaces. Insightful and deep conversations with leaders of the Remake Learning Network, community partners, funders, and educators int he Pittsburgh area outlined how making impacts the Pittsburgh area and benefits students of all ages. 

Participants of the trip were excited to learn about the expansive maker education network in the Pittsburgh area and what made a meaningful makerspace. The group heard from Sunannah Chand of the Remake Learning Network, and Matt Hannigan, co-founder of the Sprout Fund on strategies for building and sustaining a maker presence in communities. The group was very impressed with the Remake Learning Network and continued to see evidence of the network’s influence on other people and places around Pittsburgh as they toured makerspaces. Talks from Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Executive Director, Jane Werner as well as Annie McNamara of Simple Interactions, provided the group with examples of impact from a perspective of looking within at the resources already available to you. In our own state, we also have an abundance of resources and a relentless passion to improve our region and the lives of our children.

A theme of inclusivity and the importance of relationships emerged from comments by the participants.

“To be successful we need to be engaging, relevant and equitable.”

“Relationships should be at the forefront of your work.”

“It takes time to intentionally built deep and collaborative relationships.”

“It takes a lot of work by dedicated people to build an impactful network.”

Visits to Avonworth and Provident Charter schools on the second day of the trip inspired the group and provided insights from both schools where students are immersed in authentic learning opportunities. It was readily apparent that these schools created an environment that inspired joy and excitement for learning. The group also about a teen program at the Mattress Factory - a cleverly named museum started by artists in Pittsburgh in 1977 - from Mattie Cannon, Teen Cooperative Coordinator at the museum. The Teen Art Cooperative program impacts the community by supporting teens in building relationships with each other and creative professionals. Teens in the program are empowered and supported in learning about museum practice as well as how to sustain a life of 

PBT 4The day concluded with a conversation with Melissa Butler, Creator of the Children’s Innovation Project and Michele King, self-proclaimed “learning instigator” from with Remake Learning. Butler spoke on the importance of thinking over stuff as the most important things for learning. She talked about the power of simply noticing - what is, what isn’t, what may have been, and what might be - as drivers for learning. King spoke of pushing the boundaries of where learning should occur. She posed an interesting question: With most people spending less than 6% of waking hours in formal learning environments, how can those environments be sufficient for preparing life-long and life-wide learners? creative practice and rise to meet new challenges.

Community members who participated in the trip found inspiration in the conversations and the environments they visited gaining a new understanding of the diversity and opportunity found in the mature Maker Ecosystem found in Pittsburgh. While the trip inspired and ignited a passion for a continued maker ecosystem development in Northwest Arkansas, it also raised new questions to be explored. How can the existing framework for an ecosystem be leveraged to impact our community? How can the partnerships created through these trips, Amazeum school and outreach programs, and the Maker in Residence Program solidify into an impactful network that adds value and enhances quality of life for everyone? Following the lead of Melissa Butler, what are the “noticings” that drive those first small steps toward the evolution and expansion of maker education in the region?

Northwest Arkansas is a place where small ideas grow and expand into innovative new practices making conditions ideal for the growth of a sustainable maker ecosystem to benefit students and the community.