Kiwanians in Sonoma County, California, support student creativity with a one-of-a-kind classroom.
Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Curtis Billue
One of the students at Sassarini Elementary School in Sonoma, California, isn’t happy. In fact, she’s begging her teacher to let her out of her elective. Did she receive a bad grade? Experience teasing from classmates? Get reprimanded for bad behavior?
None of the above. “She’s crying and saying, ‘I want to go back to the room. I want to be in the Maker Lab again,’” says Sassarini teacher Lori Edwards.
Maker Lab is a recently created space devoted to hands-on projects teaching principles of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), and Edwards is the creative force behind it. A former toy designer for global play and entertainment company Hasbro, Edwards developed the Maker Lab curriculum, ordered supplies and transformed a no-longer-used computer lab into a vibrant creative space — one made possible by a Kiwanis club willing to take a chance on a new endeavor.
Andrew Ryan, Sassarini’s principal, once attended the school himself as a student. Having grown up in California’s wine country, he knows the area’s reputation for incredible wealth. And plenty of that can be found among the rolling vineyards and sprawling estates of Sonoma County.
But while well-heeled tourists compare vintages among wineries, sample cuisine from Michelin-rated restaurants or don “Wimbledon whites” for an afternoon of chardonnay and croquet, 86% of Sassarini students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. The money their parents earn — often made by providing hospitality services to the area’s tourists — goes toward putting food on the table and meeting the family’s basic needs, not toward school donations.
“Other schools in the area, in the region, can subsidize (student) enrichment opportunities through parent dollars,” Ryan says. “We haven’t had that opportunity.”
Ryan previously served as assistant principal at Sonoma Valley High School, which launched an engineering, design and technology academy during his tenure. One of the school district’s two middle schools features a high-tech Maker Space that serves as a feeder for the high school program. Ryan longed to start the first Maker Lab for a district elementary school at Sassarini.
“A lot of times, students don’t get a rich elective experience until secondary school, and there’s just so much lost there,” he says. “It’s such an opportunity. I felt like Sassarini was the perfect fit to tie that K-12 continuum together. And I just didn’t have the money.”
Meanwhile, members of the Sonoma Plaza Kiwanis Club were in a transition of sorts. For more than 15 years, the club had donated a dictionary to every third-grade student in the Sonoma Unified School District. But a recent teacher survey conducted by members determined that most of the respondents were no longer interested in participating. How could funds formerly devoted to dictionary distribution be better directed, members wondered?
Ryan’s dream and the club’s question were about to collide. Every August, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation hosts the Red and White Ball as a fundraiser for district schools. Ryan attended, and while there, he chatted with acquaintance Kathy Witkowicki, who is a member of the Sonoma Plaza Kiwanis Club.
Ryan recalls, “As we’re heading to the food line, she says, ‘Hey, we love Sassarini. We’re happy that you’re here, and we want to adopt you guys. Let’s do something cool.’”
That led to a meeting with club president Peter Nova, during which Ryan pitched his idea for the Sassarini Maker Lab. Nova launched an evaluation process that involved member visits to the school, multiple follow-up meetings with Ryan and discussion among club members and the board. Ultimately, the club agreed to provide US$26,000 for the Sassarini Maker Lab.
“This school doesn’t get a lot of love from the community,” Nova says. “It has the backward distinction of being behind Safeway (grocery). Anybody in town says, ‘Oh, Sassarini. That’s the one behind Safeway.’ We thought this was a good opportunity for us to give this school something it has not had. It gives the school something that it can be proud of and the students can be proud of.”
With the grant secured, Ryan turned to Edwards, who already was working at Sassarini, where she runs the Mentor Center, a program established by the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance.
“As a former toy designer, she has an unparalleled passion for and knowledge of creation and design,” Ryan says, “and she’s a big kid in the most complimentary of ways.”
Ryan gave Edwards free rein to design every inch of the Maker Lab, and she enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. She sketched a design, ordered supplies and, in a whirlwind three-week period, transformed an empty room into a STEAM wonderland.
A slat-wall panel has become a larger-than-life Lite-Brite art display thanks to backlighting and golf tees. With a magnetic wall and PVC pipes, young designers create their own arcade-like marble mazes. A Lego wall adds a new dimension to building structures, while a clothing-design corner complete with mannequins allows budding fashionistas to create couture from common household items.
Edwards coated one wall and all desktops with blackboard paint, allowing ideas and images to be freely captured during brainstorming sessions. Magnetic and kinetic sand stations and water beads offer hands-on science lessons. Bins and closets overflow with materials ranging from LED lights and copper wiring to fabric scraps and coffee filters. A showcase area allows Maker Lab creations to be proudly displayed.
“One of the things that I really believe in is the kids being able to work in all mediums,” Edwards says. “So I bring in every single material that the kids can possibly work in, because you never know what’s going to inspire a child. Because in all these children, there is some gift that they bring to the table. And my job is to discover what that gift is and then add the little pieces that allow them to expand on that gift.”
During each of the Maker Lab’s first two semesters, Edwards led 20 to 30 third- and fourth-grade students through creating circuit creatures, circuit cards, rockets, robots, motors, games and more, all based on the IDEA process. Students first identify what they will create, design it, evaluate the results and then adjust as necessary to make the final product function correctly. As they progress, participants sketch out designs and record observations in “inventor journals,” which are stored in cubbies at the end of every class.
At first, students don’t quite know what to make of their new lab and its wealth of contents.
“They’re almost overwhelmed,” Edwards says. “They say, ‘But what can we use?’ And I say, ‘You can use anything in the room. This is your room.’ And their eyeballs bug out of their heads, because they’re so taught to ‘don’t touch this, don’t do that.’ And the kids were like, ‘Wow. Thank you.’ At the end, the kids were hugging me so hard, and one little girl said, ‘This is better than my house. I want to live here.’”
Not surprisingly, under Edwards’ tutelage, students eagerly progressed through their lessons, filling up journals and turning out far-flying rockets and lovable robots. But the benefits of Maker Lab extend beyond learning STEAM skills. Edwards surveyed the first group of participants after they completed the semester. Sure, they loved the lessons and the cool take-home projects that resulted. But it turns out Maker Lab connected with them on an emotional level as well.
“It’s really incredible what a program like this can do for all kids,” Edwards says. “Not just the kids who are artistic. Not just the kids who are engineering minded. But all kids, no matter where they are. I think it’s a beautiful piece of the story.”
Reading her students’ survey comments often brought tears to her eyes, Edwards adds. Comments like “It’s the best part of the day.” “It helped me calm down when I had bad days.” “It was the best class ever.” “It helped me in real-life stress from home and school.” “I feel happier all the time.” “Thank you for making the Maker Lab and inspiring me never to give up.” And, from many students, “You can really be yourself.”
“When we are eccentric or unique in some way,” Edwards says, “that’s actually a beautiful thing. And we don’t see that as kids, because we want to be like everyone else. But in this classroom, it teaches the kids, don’t be like everyone else. Do your own thing. And that really is what we all want, even as adults. We want to be who we are.”
Those results were enough to convince Nova and his fellow Kiwanis club members to commit to an additional donation of $22,500, which will provide for the addition of a second Maker Lab instructor. That means Sassarini will be able to make the Maker Lab accessible to more students.
Ryan, for his part, is thrilled with Kiwanis’ ongoing support.
“This is truly the Sonoma that I remember from my childhood when I was a student here, when you have an organization step up and see a need at a school. They came to me and really had an open mind, which is something that’s tough to do in education, because there are usually so many strings attached. They just cut through all the red tape. They couldn’t have been more supportive of our kids.”
The Sonoma Plaza Kiwanis Club isn’t stopping with funding, however. Nova says members plan to volunteer in the Maker Lab.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s our check, and we’re done.’ This was stepping out for us. I’ve been in Kiwanis for 15 years, and I think this is the biggest (single) financial commitment that we have ever made as a club. This was a big commitment for us. So we’re proud of it and intend to keep it going.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.