Grants, community partnership create hands-on learning opportunities

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 By Christy Nadalin

Lucian Sullivan, an 8th grader at Thompson Middle School in Newport, shows off the wolf sticker he made in Amie Shinego’s technology class.

“Once they do this once or twice, they are independent,” says Amie Shinego, Tech teacher at Thompson Middle School in Newport, referring to her students learning how to make stickers of their own creation with design software and vinyl cutters. The former reading specialist was tapped for the Tech position a couple of years ago, and she is grateful for the opportunity. “Down here we are all working together and learning together.”

Shinego’s monthly maker days vary depending on grade level, with 8th graders launching right into designing with Inkscape, vector graphic software similar to Adobe, while 6th and 7th graders get their feet wet with Scratch, an entry-level programming language or Makey Makey — a beginning programming kit that can be used in a variety of fun (and mischievous) ways.

Regardless of where a student starts, they will experience something all-too-rare in a middle schooler’s life: control.

On this day, Shinego’s 8th grade students are finding images online and using Inkscape to put the images into vector mode (lines only) so the vinyl cutter knows where to cut. When they have their image where they want it, they join the queue at the vinyl cutter with their design on a thumb drive. The machine does most of the heavy lifting from here. Some work with a thumbtack clearing the vinyl from the negative space and the application of transfer paper, and the students leave class with the physical manifestation of an idea that was conceived on a screen less than an hour ago.

“Discovering that they can design and make their own stickers is mind-blowing for them.”

Angel Cruz puts the finishing touches on his sticker.

It’s been paradigm-shifting for Shinego as well. “It has completely changed me as an educator.” Previously, she dictated specific tasks her students had to complete in a tightly structured environment. Now, she is practicing the art of letting go. She credits her transformation as a teacher to FabNewport, a 3-year-old nonprofit maker lab where students, educators, and community members of all ages tinker and create.

FabNewport Executive Director Steve Heath is in Shingo’s classroom this morning, before zipping across town to his headquarters at 1 York Street, where students from The Met School are taking an AP Computer Science class. Heath has star status with both age groups, getting and giving high-fives and greeting all the students by name. It’s not just because he’s a nice guy — though he is. He’s an educator with more than a quarter-century of experience teaching kids from Chicago to Boston to Rhode Island.

Heath knows how to connect with students, which is, ironically, why he left the traditional classroom over a year ago to focus his efforts full time at FabNewport. “The important thing is to connect with students in a way that has meaning,” he says. “School can be boring. We need to create opportunities where kids are liberated.”

Prior to engaging with FabNewport, the existing AP Computer Science class was basically a solid year of coding. “Even the kids who loved coding hated it,” says Heath. The Met students, on the other hand, are reading and discussing “Blown to Bits”, a book about the impact of computing innovations. They will also cover subjects like encryption and cyber security. “They won’t even start coding until the 2nd semester.”

Caroline Florence (front) and Ava Spinks, prep their sticker designs on Inkscape.

Since its founding in July 2013, FabNewport has influenced more than 3,500 people to expand how they think about problems and solutions in fun and innovative ways. More than 100 educators, like Shinego, have taken professional development courses. And FabNewport has partnered with more than two dozen schools, public libraries, and community centers to increase access to advanced technology such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and powerful computer software. Besides The Met and Thompson, partner organizations include the RI Department of Education (RIDE), public libraries across Aquidneck Island, Rogers High School, St. Michael’s Country Day School, St. George’s School, All Saints Academy, St. Philomena School, and Barrington Middle School and High School.

FabNewport also recently received a $21,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. This grant will enable FabNewport to teach K-12 teachers how to integrate “making” into their music, Spanish, social studies, and science classrooms, among others.

“It’s about getting kids on the learning curve to set up their own challenges and make their own decisions,” says Heath. “It’s coaching versus teaching.”

In addition to their upcoming Mini Maker Faire in conjunction with Tinker Bristol, FabNewport offers maker workshops and “Fab Friendly Fridays for Friends and Family” (with free fruit), AKA “Alliteration Fridays.” They offer full access to the lab from 3 to 8 p.m., coding, prompts, laser and vinyl cutting, and 3D printing. Get more details and register at,27513