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East Union third graders win $2,000 Matt’s Maker Space Grant

Recently, in a ceremony held at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum on the North Side, a class of third graders at East Union Intermediate Center were awarded a $2,000 grant as one of nine regional winners in the Matt’s Makers Space Challenge.  They also got a sneak peek at the museum’s newest exhibit, Rube Goldberg, The World of Hilarious Invention!   

The challenge, which was strictly for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, was to create a crazy contraption that can pop a balloon in six steps or more without any help from an adult. It was inspired by Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize winning humorist and inventor celebrated for his imaginative techniques, storytelling and inventive skills.  His eponymous and legendary machines, and those they have inspired, are all about creating a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that uses a chain reaction to accomplish a very simple task in a very complicated manner.  

East Union’s balloon popping contraption involved dominoes, clip boards, checkerboards, boxes, a toy monster truck, a paper towel role, a red solo cup, thumb tacks and tape among others.

East Union third grade teacher, Sherry Soxman oversaw the students’ project.  She entered her class into the contest because it fits perfectly with her greater philosophy of helping students learn how to work together to solve problems big and small.  “I have a regular routine with my students where I ask them what they want to be when they grow up,” said asked rhetorically?  “Their response is always ‘Awesome problem-solvers!’”  

Soxman said this contest provided an amazing opportunity for her students to explore their creativity because it forced everyone – including their teacher – to step outside of his or her comfort zone.  That, in turn, allowed the children to create their own world through their collective imagination.

“Children are so naturally creative and they might end up with 1,000 different ideas,” she said.  “That’s wonderful, but unless you can find a way to harness and direct that creativity it can cause you to lose focus and productivity.

“My greatest challenge was to provide gentle guidance to my students without interfering with the integrity of the contest and/or inadvertently stifling their creativity,” said Soxman.  

The grant is sponsored by Matt’s Maker Space and is dedicated to the memory of Matt Conover, of Mt. Lebanon.  Conover, who loved science, passed away in 2002 at the tender age of 12 after a nine-month battle with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Since then, his family has worked to give back to the community that supported and comforted them in their loss.

A maker space is a term for a hands-on place where students can use materials or computers to make crafts or use 3-D printers to solve problems and apply STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education.

According to Soxman, her class definitely approached this contest as an engineering challenge that would require planning a solution, creating something to assist in that solution, then testing and refining that contraption until it worked just right.  

“I would say they proved to be pretty awesome problem-solvers,” beamed their proud teacher.

Matt’s Maker Space, a nonprofit organization, was founded by Mrs. Conover after she saw a need throughout the community for these kind of spaces. The group has dedicated Matt’s Maker Spaces throughout their home school district and has now expanded to other area schools as well.  They are now also working with community libraries and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

At East Union, the plan is to use the grant money towards creating a Maker Space in that school.  However, plans for that space are still very much in the formative stages.

In addition to the Matt’s Maker Space grant and the special recognition that came along with it, two East Union Intermediate Center classes will get a free field trip to the Children’s Museum later in the school year.

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