Community Maker Award: Noelle Conover of Matt’s Maker Space

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Community Maker Award: Noelle Conover of Matt’s Maker Space
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Have you ever watched children in a makerspace? They come alive! Especially the children who never had a chance to use their hands or their minds in creative ways. My own children, now in their 20s and 30s, love visiting makerspaces. They never had a woodshop class or sewing in school. In the 1990s, schools removed the hands-on classes, replacing them with honors and advanced placement. There was talk of replacing recess with an extra half hour of math! Kids sat in their seats all day, reciting back the same things that their classmates recited. Every project they brought home was the same as the project their sibling made the year before. And every snowman had to have an orange carrot nose! 

My children are now part of our management team at Matt’s Maker Space. They visit our 33 spaces and become children again. They marvel at the inventions of these young children and their creativity. 

Makerspaces don’t just ignite kids’ learning. They are judgment-free zones. Mistakes not only can be made, but they help kids learn. And I think that’s the human part of it. That is the human story. We’re allowed to make mistakes that we can learn from.

Who Was Matt?

I know that Matt, our son, would have just loved a makerspace. When he was ill and in the hospital, the only pastime was a craft cart that stopped by once a day to his room. He wanted to … but it wasn’t cool for a 12-year-old boy, so he passed. If that cart had been full of Lego bricks, robots, and other maker items, he would have thought that was the greatest.  

When Matt was diagnosed with cancer, the whole community just wrapped itself around us, as many communities do. Nobody can really do anything when a child is sick, except maybe feed you and do your laundry and grocery shopping. We had all that. 

Matt passed away from cancer at the age of 12. He would have been a maker. He was a tinkerer and a creator. He never built what was on the Lego box — he built what was in his mind. 

And when Matt died, everyone surrounded us with support. We spent many years trying to find ways to make meaning out of Matt’s life. And we realized that the community that helped us so much gave us the answer.

“What’s a Makerspace?”

When our youngest was graduating and we no longer would have kids in the schools, we met with the principal of the elementary school they had all attended. “Have you ever heard of makerspace?” the principal asked us. We had not. It opened our eyes to a world where our philanthropy could match our passion: We can remember Matt while helping to change kids’ lives. That was in 2016.

We told Mt. Lebanon School District that we would build a makerspace in their school. They said, “That’s great, except that we have seven elementary schools.” So our gift to one became a gift to seven, and Matt’s Maker Space was born with our donation of $175,000 to a public school system. 

Many people shook their heads when we donated to a public school system since it is not common. But we knew it was an investment that would launch something bigger. 

We associated these spaces with libraries in all the schools, based on a suggestion from Carnegie Mellon University that no one group should “own” them. Each space was able to determine their design and what equipment to include. We only asked that each space appoint a “maker” or “STEAM” teacher who would be responsible.

Each of these first seven spaces is completely unique. One focuses on “low tech” learning, using sewing machines and fiber materials; another focuses on 3D printing and laser engraving. They all focus on developing teacher expertise and not on the stuff. If you give a teacher a 3D printer without adequate training, we know it will eventually just be used as a coat rack. 

We were able to design and create these makerspaces through collaboration with Carnegie Mellon and with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, particularly Anne Fullenkamp, their senior director of creative experiences.

“I Was Supposed to Do This”

In 2017, we became our own 501(c)(3) organization. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would start a nonprofit. I had two jobs, kids, and an elderly father who lived with us.

I like to say it was the 501(c)(3) that started me. I was supposed to do this. 

Gregg Behr from the Grable Foundation gave us our first grant and he gave me my first mentoring advice. Sitting in his office, I said, “I have this story and I have this desire, but I’m not trained like you guys, what do you think I should do? And he just said, “Jump in — jump in with both feet. You have this desire to give … just follow that and let Matt’s story lead you.” And that’s really what I did. 

Matt’s Maker Space began in the more affluent Mt. Lebanon School District, but we decided to pursue Title 1 schools, which are typically underserved. We want to make sure that we’re giving to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities. 

The rule of thumb for each space is that we give them about $25,000 and we give them a wish list of what we think could go into a makerspace. It includes design services and training.

We recently awarded Mt. Lebanon School District more funds to build middle school maker spaces. Students wrote to me, saying that they were now in middle school and were looking for their Matt’s Maker Space? We couldn’t let them down. Their program is now seamless from kindergarten through high school. If a student wants to be a maker or follow a STEAM path, they are able to do it there. 

We have returned to many of our spaces to check in on them and ask if they have any further needs. We have provided training funds, programming, and equipment when needed. Once the spaces are up and going, we encourage them to work with their PTAs or to work with outside granting organizations to ensure their future.

Makerspaces in Hospitals

Makerspaces can go just about anywhere! I basically wanted to put makerspaces into
places that had touched our family, places we had experienced. One of those places was UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where
I happened to work.

In my day job, I work with pediatric cancer survivors. I started thinking a makerspace would be really cool to have in a hospital. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh had already worked closely with UPMC Children’s Hospital and they understood the environment. We worked closely with the Child Life department of the hospital, who are responsible for making sure that kids can still be kids in spite of their medical problems. 

Makerspaces can help kids with medical needs in many ways. A child facing surgery might begin working on a project with a child life specialist. He may say “I’m really scared. I’m having surgery tomorrow.” While working on the project together, they can explore his feelings. Or perhaps a child is having open heart surgery. The surgeon and the child can make a model of a heart on the 3D printer and see what the procedure will entail.

In July 2018, we opened our space there. It is staffed by a full-time child life specialist who was also a teacher. The makerspace is used by all children in the hospital as part of the creative and expressive arts program. Getting to go to the makerspace can help to achieve therapeutic objectives like getting out of bed or walking. Next year, we hope to open another Matt’s Maker Space in a pediatric hospital in Chicago.

Many people shook their heads when we donated to a public school system, since it is not common. But we knew it was an investment that would launch something bigger.

Making Can Be Therapeutic

In the spring of 2021, the pandemic was taking its toll on everyone, especially our youth. When our son was diagnosed with cancer, everybody came around us and took care of us. If Matt had suffered from depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, or had tried to commit suicide, our experience would have been quite different. And that breaks my heart. Today, so many kids have mental health problems. 

We know that making can help in a behavioral health setting. If you sit a teenager down and you say, “OK, today I want to talk to you about your feelings. Will you share them with me?” — you know that they aren’t going to say a word. But if we start working on a robot together, or we start building a cardboard bridge, we engage them and provide an opportunity that they will open up. 

The demand for mental health needs had increased at our sister hospital, UPMC Western Psychiatric, and it was bursting at the seams with new inpatient youth. We decided that having a makerspace in a mental health hospital could not only be therapeutic but would meet the increased needs of this inpatient population. With the Children’s Museum staff, we designed a wonderful space for the outpatient building. In the fall of 2021, we opened our first Matt’s Maker Space in a mental health facility. This outpatient building contains a school environment where the patients go prior to being fully discharged back to their home schools. 

This past spring, we opened a space in the inpatient hospital as well. It will serve ages 3 to 93. They have youth, adolescent, geriatric, and schizophrenic units and treat some pretty difficult cases. All of the therapists were trained at the Children’s Museum, where they went to Maker Educator Boot Camp and learned how to facilitate maker activities. They bring small groups to the space and do group therapy while they make. It is really amazing.

Makerspace: The Bridge to Healing

I found very soon after we lost Matt that people did not want to talk to us about Matt. They didn’t. But now they are interested in talking about the makerspaces. 

When a parent loses a child, the key to moving along in their grief is making meaning out of that loss. David Kessler worked closely with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist and researcher who wrote about the five stages of grief. In his own book Finding Meaning, Kessler says there’s actually a sixth stage. After you’ve been through the fifth stage, which is acceptance, the sixth stage is finding meaning. This is our way to get up in the morning after losing a child. This is what we’re doing with Matt’s Maker Space. 

We are able to celebrate Matthew and tell the world about him. We didn’t name the spaces the Matt Conover Memorial Makerspaces. We didn’t want that, but calling it Matt’s Maker Space always evokes the question anywhere we go. “Who’s Matt?”

And the story goes on. Over $1 million given, 33 spaces and equipment, teacher training and a bright hope for the future. All because of a sweet boy named Matt who loved to tinker!

—Noelle Conover

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