Maker Mart in Roanoke puts the tools to learn in students’ hands

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Maker Mart in Roanoke puts the tools to learn in students’ hands

At the Maker Mart in Roanoke, Virginia, students in safety glasses guide hissing handsaws across two-by-fours of pale wood. At a work table nearby, drill bits peel out pencil-shavings from a tube of wood, opening up holes to fit the screws for a student’s new design – a handmade chair for their classroom. Some students chatter happily about their new projects and about their days at school; others are straight-faced, locked in concentration over the tools.

Overseeing it all is Aaron Dykstra, owner of Six-Eleven Bicycle Co. and founder of The Making Foundation, a non-profit and afterschool program that opened its doors on Main Street in Roanoke in September 2016. To put it mildly, Dykstra knows how to work with his hands – an Air Force veteran of the 94th Fighter Squadron, he’s also an apprentice of Koichi Yamaguchi, a Master bicycle frame builder; a graduate of the Chicago School of Woodworking; a trained blacksmith; and a certified bench jeweler. He’s also the author of Bicycles (Made By Hand).

A love of learning, outside of school

Dykstra credits an unsatisfying experience in the education system as part of the reason he’s pursued non-traditional learning so ardently. His experiences in trade-craft, he explains, “…developed this thirst in me for learning that I never thought I would’ve had. If you would’ve told me that at 13 I would [be] ravenously researching Martin-site crystallite structures in steel because it was endlessly fascinating to me, I would’ve laughed at you and skated off on my skateboard.”

Now, Dykstra is sharing that fascination with middle-school students in his area. Originally working in his bicycle company in an industrial part of Roanoke, Dykstra noticed that local kids would come and watch him work, fascinated by the tools and dramatic sparks involved in building a vehicle. Inspired, Dykstra piloted a manufacturing afterschool program using funds from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative. The seed of the Maker Mart had been planted.

A class at Maker Mart usually begins with a few basic projects completed by the whole class, so students can become accustomed to the tools and the skills necessary to build more complicated projects. Then, their homework for the week is to figure out what they want to make on the following week. Dykstra encourages his students to bring in broken objects from home, to see if they can be fixed. It’s critical that students develop a sense of ownership over what they’re doing, instead of being told what to do by an authority figure.

 “It gets something extra out of them…” Dykstra muses. “I can’t really put my finger on what that is, but it gets a level of engagement that I think is really meaningful.”

Remaking the image of manufacturing

The projects created by students can be creative outlets and an opportunity to develop a love of learning in a non-traditional space, but the skills students are learning at Maker Mart are also some of the most-desired manufacturing skills in the job market.

“The career landscape for these kids is pretty bleak,” said Dykstra. “They’ve got a vision of being a professional musician, professional athlete, getting on some kind of contest-type show and being discovered; or being on subsidies and working for minimum wage. There’s not a lot in between those extremes. It’s like, no! If you can weld, if you can work with your hands, if you can do any of this, you can make six figures within five years, without college debt! Or you can very easily take this, go to college, become an industrial designer, and make even more!”

Engaging kids in new ways, right where they are

Of course, there’s no one solution for everyone. While some students are sincerely interested in a college pathway, Dykstra particularly wants to reach the students who feel left out of the traditional education system. Whether the students fall in love with working with their hands or not, everybody gets one critical benefit by attending Maker Mart: time with a supportive adult in the community.

 “Not every kid that’s going to come through my door is going to benefit the way that some of these cases have. We have these great big awesome work benches and I let the kids, I say, ‘Yeah, you can draw on them, we’ve got pencils and you can draw on them,’” said Dykstra. “I do that all the time in my shop, sketching out ideas and that kind of thing. In cleaning up last year I was going through and found where one student had wrote on the desk, ‘I don’t like wood shop, but I love the teacher.’”

For programs who want to emulate the success of Maker Mart, Dykstra breaks the resources required into two categories: the financial and the knowledge-based. Financially, tools can be very simple – he mentions the relatively low cost of purchasing enough handsaws, nails, screws, and raw materials for 30 students. But before heading to the hardware store, programs should reach out to manufacturers in their communities.

“I promise, in every region, there are manufacturers who do not feel like they’re getting a return on investment on the dollars they’re donating to the community in some capacity. The reality is that people really believe in this, and there are manufacturers who want to support this. It’s not hard to get materials donated. All you have to do is ask.”

For knowledge-based resources, Dykstra believes, “… that it appears to be a bigger wall than it actually is. For the most part, you have to go into it with the realization that some of these kids won’t be able to identify a screwdriver. We don’t need to have master craftsmen in here showing them really advanced stuff. Just the act of getting things together, taking things apart, working with your hands, that lesson is so encompassing. It’s problem solving and it’s soft skills, and those are the really important life skills that you need to be a successful human being.”

Finally, Dykstra encourages people to think big about what afterschool programs can do to benefit communities as well as kids.

“There’s plenty of enrichment options for kids out there, but there’s not a lot of enrichment that’s been done through the focus of long-term workforce development. I think that’s a real need in our community, in our society at large.”

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