Michigan Makers: Purposeful tinkering, meaningful service

By Kristin Fontichiaro

It’s 4 p.m, and most of the school has emptied out for the day. Except a few middle school students are shooting a video. A few others are tinkering with their Arduino microcontrollers, seeing if, by tweaking the code, they can slow down the speed at which their LED light blinks. A boy is showing a girl how to use a sewing machine safely, and another group is sketching out an idea for an app prototyping contest. Working alongside these middle-grade tinkers are UMSI student mentors.

Kristin Fontichiaro

Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Information.

Welcome to a typical week of Michigan Makers, one of UMSI’s service learning projects. Each week, UMSI mentors coordinate a free pop-up makerspace, planning and teaching mini-lessons that introduce middle-grade students to fundamental principles of circuitry, programming, prototyping, crafts, and digital literacy. Then we set the students loose to tinker, explore, and extend their thinking. Their work zigzags between the virtual and digital worlds.

Itís easy to think that Michigan Makers is a club about doing things or using cool tools. And it’s true that we like 3D printing and Raspberry Pi microcomputers a lot. But in reality, we’re trying to create a culture. Middle-grade students are trying to figure out who they are and where their interests fit in the adult world. Our goal is a safe place where kids are free to be geeky, crafty, and improvisational with STEM or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and aesthetics, and mathematics) activities. We want to mirror their existing interests and open a window to new possibilities for learning. We encourage collaborative, non-competitive, and purposeful hands-on exploration that results in greater skills and positive social experiences.

One of last year’s participants wrote this about her Michigan Makers experience:

In Michigan Makers, you learn differently than you would in a regular classroom. You learn about how to make an endless list of things. Makers learn how to work with programs like Scratch. They also learn about things that other makers around the world have created, like Arduinos and the Raspberry Pi.

Makers learn about other concepts like board game design, conductive clay, 3D printing, making comics, and sewing, too. With all these things, you are free to use your creativity … But it’s much more than that. Along the way, you learn about teamwork and problem solving. You meet other people who have completely different brains and ideas and thoughts, and who have the same interest in making that you do.

The graduate students didn’t teach us by handing us textbooks and assignments. They taught us by guiding us, then letting us figure things out on our own and solve problems in our own way.

The main thing I got out of Michigan Makers is a love of making. I met fascinating people. I got an understanding of how to use different programs and new skills. I also got many more ideas for cool projects I could work on in the future.


UMSI’s mission statement is to “create and share knowledge so people will use information — with technology — to build a better world.” The Michigan Makers are proud to help kids get in on the ground floor and grateful to Chuck Severance for technical support, to the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative, and to the School of Information’s Founders Fund for financial support.

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