Newark Museum’s Makerspace Puts the Art in ‘STEAM’

The New Jersey destination offers lessons that combine technology, engineering, and the arts

17 February 2017

Tucked away in the Newark Museum, in New Jersey, is MakerSpace—a hidden gem where students of all ages can design and build works of art. As part of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) movement, the museum shows the 100,000 students who come through the space annually how to code, create, and work with 3-D printers and other tools.

After an accomplished first year, the art center invited The Institute to visit. It’s one of the few such centers that offer a makerspace. Its mission is aligned with the museum’s founding director, John Cotton Dana, who aimed to open up visitors’ minds and make the center “useful,” says Sonnet Takahisa, the museum’s deputy director of engagement and innovation. Dana, who founded the museum in 1909, “didn’t want visitors to passively observe art, but to engage with it,” Takahisa says. Today students can interact with art at the makerspace by replicating a statue they saw on the city’s streets, for example, or re-creating a masterpiece from one of the museum’s exhibits.

The objects in the museum speak to the city’s history, Takahisa says. “There is so much in the way of engineering and design in Newark,” she says. “The city is full of inventors and people with ingenuity—including many IEEE members.”

HANDS-ON LEARNING

The museum offers a 16-week Young Makers course, from February to May, during which high school students work on long-term projects of their choosing. “When students dream up an idea, we start with a ‘sky is the limit’ approach,” says Ryan Reedell, manager of the makerspace. Along with volunteers, Reedell helps students develop their projects. “And then we teach them how to work within constraints,” he says. “That is part of their learning.”

The museum also brings maker workshops to New Jersey’s public schools, trains teachers how to cover STEAM activities in their classroom, and hosts and participates in Maker Faire events.

For the fourth time, the museum is participating in the annual World Maker Faire, in New York City, an event that IEEE is involved with. And the museum is set to host the fourth annual Greater Newark Mini Maker Faire on 6 May. The event is expected to draw more than 1,000 members of the maker community along with 50 exhibits, including robotics engineers and 3D-printing artists.

Through the museum’s events and activities, students not only create works of art and gain an understanding of the processes involved, they also learn about art history. Take, for example, coil pots, which are created with a method that dates back thousands of years, in which an artist arranges long, thin layers of clay, one on top of the other. The technique is similar to how a 3-D printer works. The MakerSpace has a 3-D extruder that prints with clay instead of plastic. As the printer forms a coil pot, layer by layer, students gain a sense of how the art is made, rather than just seeing the final product in an exhibit.

“Technology isn’t a replacement for how art is made,” Reedell says. “But it leverages art and aesthetics and opens up its possibilities.”

To teach students the technical concepts behind their projects, he often refers to art that predates the technology, making it easier for them to understand. When writing code to program a simple circuit, for example, one of the first concepts the students learn is conditional statements: “If this, then that.” Reedell makes the analogy to weaving a basket: “If under, then over.”

Once they understand how to program, participants can code Sphero, a transparent robotic ball that is controlled via a mobile app. They can get Sphero to make a noise when it hits a wall, for example, and turn orange when it is traveling backward. “Instead of just teaching them computer language, the students get to see what they’ve learned in action,” Reedell says.

Other activities are more theoretical. For one project, students considered how music was discovered and shared during the 19th century. “This is a way to educate students about how art was distributed before we had today’s technology,” says Michelle Moon, director of interpretation and program evaluation. “How did people determine what was popular prior to viral videos?”

TECH ON DISPLAY

Visitors can view gadgets inside the makerspace. The original MakerBot Replicator, a 3-D printer that hit the market six years ago, is already so outdated it’s now a museum piece, says Rena Jordan, manager of corporate relations.

A room filled with multicolored LEDs portrays the electrification of cities in the 1920s, coinciding with an exhibit, “The Harlem Renaissance and the City in the Machine Age.”

If you want to visit the makerspace or volunteer, or be a guest speaker, you can find more information on the museum's website.

And look for The Institute’s special report on the maker movement in September.

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