Students from Highland Middle School doodle using 3-D pens at MakerPlace. | Courtesy of Kentucky Science Center

When Insider stepped into the Kentucky Science Center’s new MakerPlace exhibit, which opened Nov. 9, for a second we had a hard time seeing just how special it is. We saw a room full of kids huddled around tables, and here and there a green-coated employee or teacher pointing at something or working at the table where the kids were huddled.

On second glance, we noticed there was not a single kid goofing off. They were focused, keyed in and engaged — basically the daydream of any teacher who has ever worked with middle-schoolers.

How was this utopia accomplished? Although we couldn’t see it at first, those tables held a collection of really rad gadgets and technology. While tech can definitely catch a kid’s eye, any parent can tell you that a couple of days after Christmas, it takes more than flashing lights and digitized sounds to keep them interested.

The secret to the studious tweens at MakerPlace is that in actuality, they’re not focused at all. They are sort of all goofing off and playing around. It’s just that in MakerPlace, goofing off is what they are supposed to do.

Shayne Pry helps a student with modular robots. | Photo by Eli Keel

Shayne Pry, the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) specialist at the Science Center, explained the phenomenon after breaking away from a gaggle of kids.

“What we’re finding out is that the young adults and the kids, they want to explore. They want a space where they don’t have to have the right answer,” he said.

“Maker” is a word that gets thrown around, but when Pry described it, it’s not so much about makers as it is making.

“It’s the art of doing — it’s not really about the end product. It’s not really about a directed goal,” said Pry.

So there are no goals, no right answers, no assigned stations. MakerPlace succeeds, as does the Maker movement, by being the opposite of things kids complain about in their formal education. It also includes giving kids responsibility, even if at times it may seem counterintuitive — or even dangerous — as in the case of the soldering workshops that are offered.

“We had a 7-year-old who rocked it out,” said Pry. “If you empower the kids with that respect and knowledge, then they will treat it with respect and succeed … And that’s empowering. If something is dangerous, educate — don’t take away.”

Benjamin Neal teaches science and robotics at Highland Middle School. On the day of Insider’s visit, MakerPlace was filled with his students.

“The kids get to do hands-on activities that reinforce what we do in the classroom,” he said.

A student from Highland Middle School gets a hands-on weaving demonstration from Rachel, an educator at MakerPlace. | Courtesy of Kentucky Science Center

The space offers schools increased access to equipment and the cool tech we mentioned earlier.

“Like the microscope cameras for the drawing and the 3-D pens, those are something we would never have access to at the school,” added Neal.

At another station, students get to play with and build robots, which Pry demonstrated. The “modular robots” are a bunch of cubes that behave indifferently when combined in various ways.

“You start with power, next is the sensor, then you add an action, and then it will do something,” said Pry. “And at that point, it’s your job to investigate why it did that something and what else you can make it do.”

MakerPlace is for anyone 8 years or older. | Courtesy of Kentucky Science Center

Noticing our wide-eyed response to some of the displays, Pry explained we were also in MakerPlace’s target audience.

“It’s for ages 8 and up. So you are welcome, and I expect you to find something that you really enjoy,” he said.

We’ll probably have to take him up on that, and you should, too.

Kids and kids at heart can check out MakerPlace Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, MakerPlace is open from 10 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m. But be smart and call ahead, as the space occasionally closes for workshops or field trips.

The Kentucky Science Center is located at 727 W. Main St., and admission is $13 for adults, $11 for kids ages 2 to 12.

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.