In the middle of summer vacation, Albemarle County Public Schools still had plenty to show a group of educators interested in helping students learn through “making.”

Last week, the county school division played host to the Digital Promise Maker Learning Leadership Project, a professional development program for school districts that have demonstrated a strong aspirational commitment to maker education.

Digital Promise is a national organization chartered by the U.S. Congress in 2008 to promote innovation in public schools across the country. Albemarle County Public Schools and Charlottesville City Schools both are members of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.

The Maker Learning Leadership Project selected six school divisions from around the U.S. to pilot a new framework for implementing robust, district-wide maker education programs. Superintendents, school leaders, instructional coaches and teachers from each division are visiting several League of Innovative Schools member districts this summer.

Josh Weisgrau, maker education program director for Digital Promise Global, said most maker education initiatives take place within individual schools, and often are led by a single teacher.

“At many schools, if you lose that teacher, you lose the whole program,” Weisgrau said.

Chad Ratliff, Albemarle’s Director of Innovation and Instructional Programs, said the county school division has adopted a broad definition of “making.”

“It goes beyond 3-D printing and high tech,” Ratliff said. “We see writing, publishing, and music creation as making. It’s any use of class time, school resources, or community connections to help students actualize their own ideas.”

“Making is a way to learn, not a thing to learn about,” said Weisgrau. “Learning specific skills is part of it, but that’s a confining view of what it can be for students.”

The Leadership Project visitors observed summer school classes at Agnor-Hurt and Stony Point elementary schools and visited the CoderDojo Charlottesville summer academy at Murray High School.

Jason Barnett, an elementary school principal from Baltimore County, Maryland, said it was encouraging to see that Albemarle was “living and breathing the philosophy” he hoped his school district would embrace.

“The kind of personalized learning they are doing is pretty amazing,” Barnett said.

Ann Linson, superintendent of the East Noble School Corporation in Indiana, said she had recently overseen the creation of designated makerspaces at each school in her district.

“Our students don’t need to memorize content like they did in the past,” Linson said. “They need to learn how to apply it in a creative and effective manner.”

CoderDojo Charlottesville, tuition-free for Albemarle County students, offers daily activities in four areas of emphasis: coding, engineering, computer repair and music production.

In the engineering classroom last week, students experimented with a starter kit for Arduinos, an open-source electronic prototyping platform.

Fourth-grader Morgan Metz lined up small LED’s on a circuit board before writing code to make them flash in a programmed sequence. “I like that you can choose between different activities here,” Morgan said.

Sixth-grader Trey Corsall said he enjoyed working on engineering projects with students of different ages. He said the dynamic at CoderDojo was similar to that of his multiage classes at Agnor-Hurt Elementary.

“Older people could help younger people with stuff they didn’t know,” Trey said. “Sometimes I helped, and sometimes other people helped me.”

Jamee Dion, a teacher at Woodbrook Elementary who sponsors the school’s Maker Club, said working at CoderDojo this summer will make her better prepared to teach a combined first and second-grade class next year.

“[CoderDojo] has been an opportunity for me to refine my skills, to be an expert who is there to help the kids,” Dion said.

Ratliff said computers and the internet have given schools an unprecedented ability to create personalized, student-driven learning experiences. However, he said, this technology has not diminished the importance of high-quality teaching.

“It’s more important than ever for teachers to ensure equity and help students make meaning of information,” Ratliff said.


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.