Students building a bridge out of newspaper during the Maker Academy at Red Hill Elementary School Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools

For the next three weeks, approximately 75 students from four elementary schools are participating in a Maker Academy, a design- and production-based learning initiative aimed at providing opportunities for young people to develop skills in science, math, engineering and technology.

“We believe a highly effective way to develop both critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students is through a hands-on approach that incorporates engineering and design competencies,” Albemarle County’s program director Chad Ratliff said in a media release.

Albemarle was selected as 1 of 20 host sites nationally by the California-based Maker Education Initiative, a non-profit organization that attempts to spark interest in STEM fields by promoting a learning-by-making philosophy.

Entities apply to MEI and, if chosen, host teacher consultants that MEI has trained as mentors to teachers and students, and as facilitators of the program.

This is the second consecutive year MEI has selected Albemarle, which is the only public school division in Virginia in the program.

“Programs such as Maker Ed are catalysts in developing our nation’s advanced manufacturing base, which includes engineering and design,” Ratliff added. “This can have significant implications for our economic prosperity and our global leadership.”

Albemarle’s academies will be housed at Stony Point, Scottsville and Red Hill elementary schools. Yancey students will attend the Scottsville program. Additionally, each school has two MEI teaching consultants, current Albemarle teachers and parent volunteers.

While the projects vary by site and increase in rigor as the academy progresses, emphasis is placed upon collaboration. Students are placed in teams across grades levels K-5 and are tasked with finding creative solutions to problems that require competencies in STEM principles.

“This will not be traditional teaching to a standard classroom approach,” Stony Point Principal Carrie Neeley said. “It will empower students to use their creativity and enthusiasm to go beyond that standard.”

In addition to working with students, Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said, the academy is a professional development opportunity for teachers to learn new project-based, collaborative teaching strategies.

The academy will conclude on July 25 with a display of student work.