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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

At St. Johnsbury Academy's Maker Lab, Students Learn Craft And Creativity

Charlotte Albright
Mikaela Kane and Ally Brink, ninth grade math students at St. Johnsbury Academy, test a tiny catapult for M&M's they made in the school's new maker space. Assistant Principal Jeff Burroughs says the goal is to "develop people that are craftsmen."

There’s a new kind of classroom springing up in some Vermont high schools. It’s called a maker lab, and usually features high-tech design and manufacturing tools.  

At St. Johnsbury Academy, the lab’s purpose is not to teach specific workforce skills but to foster creativity. It’s the brainchild of Assistant Principal Jeff Burroughs. He used to work at IBM.Showing off a 3-D printer and copier, a lathe and a computer-driven cutting tool, Burroughs explains how this new lab encourages creativity “not that dissimilar from what you would see in an art studio or a classroom as a writer. So, the idea with us in technical education is we are not trying to develop a specific piece or pieces for a workforce, we are trying to develop people that are craftsmen,” Burroughs says.

People like freshman math student Ally Brink.

“In class we are working to design 3-D catapults to launch M&M’s,” she explains.

Sadly, at the moment this printer in the maker lab is spitting out gossamer threads of plastic looking more like a bird’s nest than a catapult. But teachers say kids learn as much from failures like that as from successes.

Mikaela Kane, also a freshman, says making and refining her tiny catapult has taught her a lot more math than she would have learned from a textbook.

“So I think that’s really cool and I think it’s important for creativity,” Kane says.

She wants to be a dancer, not an engineer, so for her, this lab is just a great place to stretch her brain in high school. But for other young designers, the maker space could even be the first stop on a career path.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Abby Jacobs, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, used this 3-D printer to create a prototype for skis she hopes to perfect and manufacture some day. The printer is one of many tools students may operate in a maker space, a kind of hands-on classroom that's showing up in other schools around the state.

Abby Jacobs is a senior. In the Northeast Kingdom, she needs versatile skis that work well in the mixed conditions you often find on Burke Mountain — ice, powder and slush, sometimes all on the same slope. So she created what she calls “all-mountain skis.” The models are about as long as plastic picnic knives.  

“You know, some kids look at my skis and they’re like, ‘Oh, those are plastic knives.’ But they didn’t understand the exact measurements that I created and then put into this program. So it’s really an image just from my imagination into a physical thing.”

After college Jacobs hopes to start her own sports equipment company, using state-of-the-art software, equipment and materials. But the academy’s maker lab also has vintage machines. Kennemetal, one of the oldest manufacturers in the region, donated two metal cutting machines when it closed its doors last spring. Math teacher Jim Baker says he’s glad to add those relics to the new maker space.

“You need to understand the fundamentals before you can get into the really technical way we do it now,” he says.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
This equipment was donated to St. Johnsbury Academy's maker space by Kennametal, which produced cutting tools until it closed in Lyndonville in 2014.

And Baker hopes combining old and new equipment will build bridges between different kinds of students. Too often, he says, schools have placed kids who like to design with computers in a college-bound track, and others who would rather work with their hands in more vocational settings.  

Much better, he says, to build teams that can solve a problem together, in both two and three dimensions. 

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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