The pun by Noelle Conover was intentional.
“Matt’s Maker Space, it’s just gathering steam,” she said.
In an educational context, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, and that’s what the project initiated by Conover and her husband, David, intends to bring to youngsters.
“Three years ago, when we first started, no one knew what ‘maker’ was,” she said. “Now, they know what it is, and they want maker spaces.”
A demonstration what a maker space can be took place Feb. 29 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, where numerous organizations set up activities aimed at allowing children to exercise their creativity while learning about STEAM subjects.
The Conovers launched the nonprofit Matt’s Maker Space in memory of their son who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2002, nine days before his 13th birthday. He attended St. Paul’s Nursery School before starting kindergarten in Mt. Lebanon School District.
“St. Paul’s is the only nursery school in this area with a Matt’s Maker Space, so we wanted to do a community event, mainly to get the word out,” his mother said. “Many people in this community have kids in elementary school, and they have Matt’s Maker Spaces. So we thought it would be something fun to bring the little ones to.”
The spaces are in place in all seven of Mt. Lebanon’s public elementary schools and both its middle schools, and the Conovers field plenty of requests to help bring the learning areas to other communities. Three new ones are scheduled to open this month, Noelle said.
“What we try to do is go into schools that are mostly federal lunch program. That way, we know there’s a need,” she explained.
Much of the success of Matt’s Maker Space is attributable to the partnerships the Conovers have developed. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh provides designs for the spaces, and other organizations participate by offering programming.
Along with the Children’s Museum, partners represented at the St. Paul’s event included Snapology, Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities, Mt. Lebanon Public Library, Artsmiths of Pittsburgh and four local nursery schools. Also, Karl Smith, a boyhood friend of Matt, was on hand to present his Dr. Sparks educational program.
Another Matt’s Maker Space collaboration has been with the Education Partnership, formerly Storehouse for Teachers, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh’s Sheraden neighborhood that distributes school and classroom supplies at no cost to students and educators in need.
“We’re going to put a maker space in there that’s going to allow teachers to see the possibilities of what a maker space could look like,” Conover said. “We’re always looking for places in need that want a maker space. The key is, they have to have champions. These teachers are teacher champions. They’re the ones who are doing all the work. They’re the ones who want to see this science and technology in the schools.”
She said the question often comes her way: “Why do you want to give to a public school? The tax dollars should pay for this.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way.
“You take a community that doesn’t have a big tax base and a community that does have a big tax base, and you get inequities,” Conover explained. “So they need private donors like Matt’s Maker Space to come in and help them get the extras.”
She looks forward to continuing to provide STEAM-related educational opportunities.
“What we’re excited about is that it’s changing the way kids are learning,” she said. “If they actually do the activity, they learn it better than if someone tells them about it.”
For more information, visit mattsmakerspace.org.