or WT students, a confluence of rigorous curriculum, advanced lab equipment, and access to established STEM professionals creates an organic environment in which they are able to research, design, and create high-level integrated science projects – everything from an interactive exercise mat for torn ACL rehab to a pothole detector designed to make the streets safer. Now, after building and fine-tuning this experience at WT, Science Department Chair Graig Marx and Educational Technology Coordinator and computer science teacher Dave Piemme are sharing their knowledge through Design to Make a Difference (D2MD), a collaborative new program that helps fellow Pittsburgh-area middle and high school teachers improve their own Maker Education practice through an array of free resources.

“We saw a need in the local community and beyond,” says Marx, noting that while WT’s robust program evolved through much hard work, it also benefited from assistance, both from colleagues and—thanks to City as Our Campus—organizations like TechShop and Daedalus, Inc. Today, notes Piemme, “We are ahead of many schools with our approach to STEM work. They may have the money and equipment, but they may not know what to do with it. We created this group to help them build their programs.”

Design to Make a Difference revolves around product-based learning, driven by a common challenge: creating a product to benefit others, inspired by a particular theme—this year, Health and Wellness—and culminating in a community-wide D2MD Design Showcase.

“This challenge is exactly the kind of problem solving skills our students need today,” observes Chris Lisowski, Shaler Area Middle School STEAM teacher. “It’s really their first exposure to wide open, real world problem solving. They are used to handouts and being told how to solve the equation by reading directions.”

Lisowski and teachers from 13 other area schools dived into hands-on learning during professional development days focused on making, engineering, and design pedagogy. Planned and implemented by Marx and Piemme, assisted by Remake Learning (a network of interconnected organizations that ignites learning practices) and Patrick Williams (a technology teacher from Obama Academy), and hosted by the Children’s Museum and Carnegie Science Center, participants learned CAD modeling and design methods for 3D printing, collaborated on projects, and shared best practices. WT contributed Maker Bundles—a 3D printer and printing filament, glue guns and glue sticks, digital calipers, rotary tool, and hand tool kit—to many of the schools, and Creation Labs provided tech support.

Mindful of their purpose to make a difference, one project the teachers worked on involved an open source project, Utility Bands, developed by Havenlabs, to create assistance devices with interchanging parts designed to help amputees—a project Marx uses with his Research Design students to teach the design process.

“The goal is for each teacher/school to take back what would work in their school with their students, schedule, and resources,” emphasizes Marx. “The Maker Movement is not one-size-fits-all.”

Marx and Piemme developed D2MD resources to be available every step of the way, from a website and several online design and engineering tutorials, to providing troubleshooting support via email and in person at schools. Declares Marx, “We didn’t want to give anyone a reason not to participate.”

“We’ve been fortunate to collaborate with Graig and Dave during the entire process,” asserts Christina Beaufort, Library Media Specialist at Deer Lakes Middle School. “They’ve been helpful answering questions about the printing layout of the item students created, and sharing things to keep in mind when creating their D2MD project.”

Students working toward the D2MD Design Showcase created an impressive range of work. Beaufort’s students designed a comfortable classroom chair to replace traditional hard chairs. Lisowski’s students produced a 3D printed pill case for the blind and a solar-powered food cooker. Among the projects created by WT Middle School students were a device to help those with Parkinson’s or arthritis insert a key into a door, and an exercise band for those afflicted with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Upper School students combined upcycling with affordable prosthetics to devise attachments to help users in developing nations accomplish everyday tasks.

Pleased with D2MD’s results, Marx and Piemme are already planning for the future: they are eager to get more schools on board, to include WT Lower School students, and to involve more public/private makerspaces. They’d also like students to work with people to identify needs.

“I got into teaching to help students,” states Marx. “I look at this as a way of helping more students. The Maker Movement was originally marketed as a way to lower the achievement gap, but with the rush to adopt technology, it has only widened it. I thought this would be a way to level the playing field.”

“We should give back,” agrees Piemme. “City as Our Campus speaks about giving to the community. This is exactly what Graig and I are doing: sharing our knowledge, building a great cohort of teachers, and making a difference.”

“You don’t have to be special to do this,” says Marx. “You have to think your students are special. We know our students are awesome. We know their projects are awesome. That’s our secret. Be awesome. It will start small, but then other teachers in other schools will join in, and the program—and its impact—will continue to grow and evolve.”