Empowering A Diverse Generation of Makers in Rural Missouri

by Ann Boes @LabRevo | 10/17/2017

Ann Boes, a retired engineer and avid maker, serves as founding Director of a rural Missouri makerspace, Lab:Revolution, the 4-H Technology Playground and Makerspace. Her organization offers hands-on learning for local children and young adults and families. An Infy Maker Award grant received in 2016 helped cover critical operational and capital expenses.

Established in rural Missouri in 2014, Lab:Revolution, the 4-H Technology Playground and Makerspace is a community makerspace for families to come together to learn, build, play, create, share and imagine using robotics, electronics, woodworking, design, art, creative and technical programming. Since our rural community’s five school districts are limited in their ability to offer making and coding experiences to students and families, our organization is committed to serving ALL youth in our region no matter which school or district they attend. We encourage children and young adults from all backgrounds to engage in hands-on learning, and we regularly offer programs to girls, low-income families, and special needs learners. Some families travel 40 minutes each way to attend our Open Shop every week. Other families wish they could come more often but cannot afford the gas.

At Lab:Revolution, our rural Missouri youth are able to tap into new resources and follow their passions as they develop new capabilities and increase their understanding of complex technologies, finding themselves the only one in their regular school classroom that has used Scratch or had any other coding experiences. We empower our participants to consciously make the transition from consumer to maker, a profound shift that inspires and sparks innovation. Participant fees make up the bulk of our funding yet many in our low-income community can afford very little. As an affiliate member organization with 4-H, any expenses for insurance, training, and background checks are covered, but we receive no additional program funding from 4-H. Despite this, we remain committed to being open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

In 2016, Infosys Foundation USA awarded us a $5,000 grant to support our Makerspace’s operations and programs. The Foundation’s operational grant made all the difference for us to continue to serve our local community this past year. It is very likely that without this life-line operational grant, our organization would have probably closed its doors last year and severely cut off our rural youth from robotics, coding and making. But instead, we were able to provide some opportunities for many local youth.

For example, Gadget Girls, an all-girls robotics team is a group of six female students regularly mentored by volunteers at Lab;Revolution. We are delighted to share that Gadget Girls went onto win a Robot Design Award in a regional competition for the third year in a row, as well as earn the top robot competition score for this past year’s competition.

One local boy, who had been on the verge of being expelled from his local school due to behavior issues, was introduced to Lab:Revolution. As he embraced the challenge of creating things with his mind and hands, the intelligence and focus within this boy quickly surfaced and the self-control he did not naturally demonstrate within a school setting asserted itself. It turns out his success working on robotics translated into newly found success in school. Since walking through the door, both he and his family have been active members of our Lab:Revolution doors. According to this family’s attorney, “Lab:Revolution saved this child’s future, expanded his world, and enraptured his grateful family. You should be proud of what you’ve achieved with each and every one of your students, but this child’s story is a life-changing event in every sense of the word”.

This past summer we held AspireIT Girls Coding Challenge for 26 local girls in grades 4-10, in partnership with NCWIT. These girls were taught app development and coding and also explored career options and wrote an app to address a social issue of their choice. One parent shared: “As both a local K-8 educator and parent I was impressed by the organization, communication and the opportunities that were presented. My daughter was engaged and learned about so many different things from coding, teamwork, and working hard. She had a wonderful time and I was grateful to have had this program so close to home, a unique experience that we don’t usually have in this area [Missouri]. The girls saw things that they might normally not experience. Even at this age, networking is key and this program opens windows and endless possibilities.”

Lab:Revolution held the 6th Annual 2017 Robot & Technology Expo, a robotics competition/technology expo/maker fair at Mineral Area College. About 200 youth participated in the VEX and Robofest competitions (from Missouri, Illinois, and even Arkansas) with an overall attendance of about 800 people. The Expo provided youth the chance to participate in a local competition, gain exposure to new technologies, participate in youth-led mini-workshops on coding, get free electronics that families can use at home, and enjoy a variety of maker activities. This year’s Expo offered a Children’s Technology Playground for the first time, providing children (ages 3 – 10) opportunities to experience squishy circuits, program various robots, build with K’nex and Legos, play with circuit blocks, code using ScratchJr and BeetleBlocks, code pictures for a Watercolor bot, and more. Lab:Revolution sponsored a Mystery Box activity at the Playground, which originated from August 2016 MakerEd training held in San Francisco, sponsored by Infosys Foundation USA. While at the MakerEd training, we met educators from the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco who introduced us to the hands-on making activity of Mystery Boxes. We brought this Mystery Box concept back to Missouri. Initially debuted at the Expo’s Technology Playground, Mystery Boxes have now become a regular activity at our makerspace.

In addition to covering operational expenses, a portion of the grant money was used to upgrade our makerspace tools including 3-D printers and a laser cutter. We secured matching funds from local business people who appreciate the Makerspace’s presence in the community. We also purchased an affordable, used laser cutter that needed some minor repair work. Without the grant, these capital upgrades would not have occurred. It was really exciting to see the youth (ages 7-14) unpack the 3-D printer kits, assemble the printers, and then troubleshoot the printing process. The kids are now regularly using 3D modeling and printing at Lab:Revolution and a monthly 3-D printing meet up and mini workshop is offered to the public.

Additional photos of youth and families enjoying Lab:Revolution events can be viewed here.

A short video which includes comments from Ann Boes on the Value of a Maker Mindset can be viewed here.