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Students learn hands-on in the Athens Makers program. (PROVIDED via Mark Lucas)

Athens Makers outreach program strives to create lifelong learners

For the past six summers, Athens Makers has given grade school students the opportunity to engage in STEAM-based interactive learning.

In past years, Athens Makers projects have included a wide range of STEAM-based activities, includng work with Arduino microcontrollers, 3D printers and PVC pipe marshmallow shooters. STEAM is an expansion of the popular STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — acronym that adds art to the list of educational topics.

The outreach program has grown significantly since its establishment and hopes to offer its services year-round once it transitions to a more permanent facility in the future.

Jen Parsons, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, is one of the leaders of Athens Makers and believes there are a lot of concepts students might not encounter all the time in a regular school day that they are exposed to in the outreach program.

“We try to come up with activities that connect with what the kids are doing in school,” Parsons said. “But we also allow them more freedom, creativity and that playful expression.”

Many of the equipment used in workshops and the help given by mentors isn’t accessible to some students at home, so to Parsons, it’s valuable that Athens Makers is able to provide those aspects for the children.

“The tools and guidance these kids get assists in them finding their own way of expression,” Parsons said. “When we have workshop-style projects, the students are definitely getting the skills they need.”

To Mark Lucas, a co-founder of Athens Makers and an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University, a huge part of Athens Makers’ success has been the overflowing amount of volunteers.

“We’re grateful to have so many community members, grad students and undergrads that say, ‘This is fun,’ and want to help and just dig in,” Lucas said. “Everyone is there because they want to be.”

Athens Makers is in the process of moving from their current space in the Clippinger Laboratories basements to what will be Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery’s permanent facility on Columbus Road. Once that transition is made, Athens Makers is planning to change their name to Discovery Lab.

“The name we chose is a bit awkward because it’s not officially a makerspace,” Lucas said. “We have a little bit of that feel, but Discovery Lab fits a lot better with what we’re about.”

The Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery and Athens Makers are looking forward to renovating the new space, but it’s going to take a while, Lucas said. 

Athens Makers is a strong advocate for teaching STEAM and not just STEM-based activities. The program does that by taking an interdisciplinary approach, which integrates the arts and humanities within the various workshops and projects offered to the students.

“We try to be as authentic as possible,” Parsons said. “Even in the real world, kids should be approaching things with that entire perspective and finding value in everything across the board, not just in math and science and not just in arts.”

It’s all about integration, and through it, Athens Makers has seen many students benefit from the STEAM-based learning.

“A lot of research on informal STEAM activities show things like increased confidence in science,” Parsons said. “Personally watching the students, I’ve seen a lot of them come out of their shells, and that’s really exciting.”

Greg Springer’s 15-year-old son, Silas, has been going to Athens Makers for the past three summers and especially enjoys making his own projects and working with different machines and experiments.

“Silas has become more detail-oriented with respect to machines,” Springer, an associate professor of geological sciences, said. “He understands they are combinations of parts that must be integrated correctly to work.”

Silas is one of the many children that has greatly benefited from what Athens Makers offers and hopes to continue to offer for a long time.

“There’s book learning, but finding something you’re passionate about and learning to learn on your own is something completely different,” Lucas said. “Being able to use all these tools to dive in and create is a whole other aspect of these kids’ education, and people who can do that are people who can adapt and integrate things.”


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