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Fail And Try Again

Maker Jawn at the Free Library gets Philadelphians of all stripes involved in the maker movement

Maker Jawn at the Free Library gets Philadelphians of all stripes involved in the maker movement

Antony, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Conwell Middle School in Port Richmond, has encountered a few unexpected barriers in testing his hypothesis.

“There are several flaws,” he says about the experiment he just built, a full water bottle with two straws hot glued into it, one of which is topped with a cardboard square. “But the real problem is that this part of it isn’t glued enough.” He points to the cardboard topper, into which he has cut a hole and to which he has glued the piece of the water bottle that the cap connects to, so that he can add a cap to block the top of the straw.

Antony is not in science class, but in the McPherson Square Library in Kensington, where he regularly attends Maker Jawn, a program meant to provide the space and material for people of all ages to make things—anything. While Antony struggles to resolve his missteps, Brooke, 9, builds a doll bed using wood scraps and a drill; Reyni, 10 uses a sewing machine to make a pillow; and Zainab and Kristen, 8 and 10, draw comics while discussing their school day. Zainab is wearing a skirt she made using the sewing machine earlier in the week. They are just five of the more than 25 kids who signed in at this Monday night session.

“See the reason I come is because at home I think of all these amazing things to do, but I can’t do them without the supplies,” says Antony, who hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer.

Maker Jawn, run by the Free Library of Philadelphia, runs from 3 pm to 6 pm Monday through Thursday at most of its six locations in North Philadelphia, and from 1 pm to 4 pm on Saturdays. A Maker Mentor, a staff person with basic “making” knowledge, is always available to assist, offer suggestions, and sometimes offer one particular project. At the McPherson branch, an average of 36 people—called “makers” by staff—attend each session. The goal, according to Program Manager Sarah Winchowky, is to create “a safe place for people to tinker, to explore, to fail, and to try again.”

In the last few years, maker spaces have popped up around the city, giving artists, creative professionals and hobbyists a place to tinker and make. Maker Jawn is taking that same idea and bringing it into neighborhoods, to people who might not otherwise have a similar opportunity.

The program in its current form started in 2013, though the idea had been brewing for several years. In 2011, Digital Resource Specialists at the Free Library launched a “Teen Media Week,” funded by the Knight Foundation and hosted by computer labs through the library system with the goal of allowing teenagers to dabble in “creative technologies” such as creating GIFs. An IMLS/MacArthur grant in 2012 provided the library with the funds to build a learning lab in the Central Philadelphia location, which, with help from a national nonprofit called Maker Ed, jumpstarted the expansion of maker programming into library branches. Maker Jawn is currently supported by the National Writing Project, the Philadelphia City Institute, and NBC10.

Maker Jawn aims to create safety—a safe space to discuss and create ideas—but also a safe space for kids after school away from the danger often associated with their neighborhoods. Bryan Belknap, a Maker Mentor at the McPherson branch, says that while helping makers develop functional math and literacy skills is crucial, he also counts a successful night as one where “everyone came, had fun, and is safe.”

Belknap has a loftier goal as well: the empowerment of young people, as demonstrated through the teen bike repair program, which students have handled from idea generation to supply orders to the actual repair of more than a dozen bikes this past summer. Exclusive to the McPherson branch, students bring in their own bikes or tell friends to bring in bikes, which they then fix in the basement of the library. They keep their tools, which range from a basic tire pump to a drill, in a large donated file cabinet.

Making has long been a Philadelphia occupation—though its manufacturing days are mostly a thing of the past. In the last few years, though, maker spaces like NextFab and Hive76 have popped up around the city, giving artists, creative professionals and hobbyists a place to tinker and make. Those places tend to cater towards the same population as many of the city’s new ventures—young Center City (or adjacent) professionals. Maker Jawn is taking that same idea and bringing it into neighborhoods, to people who might not otherwise have a similar opportunity.

Maker Jawn aims to create safety—a safe space to discuss and create ideas—but also a safe space for kids after school away from the danger often associated with their neighborhoods.

Maker Jawn staff keep data on attendance and write reports on events, but much success is found anecdotally—in the triumphs of people. “One of the things we really look for for success is that individuals progress and achieve more than they did last time they were there,” Winchowky said.

One particular story stands out to Winchowky: a high school student who has been attending programming and using the space to make movies since Maker Jawn got its start nearly five years ago. For his most recent film, he wrote the script, selected the cast, created the costumes and music, and edited it all in the Maker Jawn space, and is now preparing to show the 20-minute film in a venue outside of the library.

If room to fail and try again is one of Maker Jawn’s aims, Antony, the future mechanical engineer, is embracing it. If his hypothesis is correct, when he puts the cap on one of the straws and turns the bottle upside down, water won’t come out of the other straw because air can’t get into the bottle. So far, water is streaming down Antony’s arm that holds the bottle and the ground is soaked.

“I’m hoping to improve this,” Antony says confidently. “But, right now, it’s time for me to leave.”

Maker Jawn has funding through the end of the school year. After, it will live on as part of the Free Library’s general after-school programming.

Maker Jawn

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