CAPE ELIZABETH — As part of his curriculum this year, Jonathan Werner and his students have been working on taking apart and studying a fax machine.

But before they started, Werner had to explain what a fax machine is.

Werner’s class at Cape Elizabeth Middle School is known as I.D.E.A. Lab — an acronym that stands for “innovate, discover, explore, amaze.”

I.D.E.A. Lab is for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students that do not take band. It is held in a classroom that has been converted into a makerspace, where Werner, one of the school’s two librarians and instructional technology specialists, teaches. 

The fax machine project is an element of the class Werner calls “digital dissection,” where students take apart different machines and “figure out how (they) functioned and what the various pieces did.”

In addition to the fax, students have also smashed typewriters and examined the insides of laptops, CDs, and boomboxes from the 1980s and ’90s.

He is also seeking donations of old machinery with mechanical parts, old electronics with circuit boards, as well as wood scraps and tools with which his students can build.

Werner said there is a “hilarity” to the middle-schoolers’ fascination with mechanics, having grown up in such a digital world.

“The idea that everything worked by gears and not just by circuit board (is foreign),” he said.

Aside from just taking things apart, however, another big component of the I.D.E.A. Lab is building things.

An entire wall of the classroom is lined with shelves that hold boxes of fabric, cardboard, string, and other miscellaneous items for student-built projects.

Werner said a grant from the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation three years ago made purchasing the materials possible.

Before moving into the makerspace, he and his colleague Amanda Kozaka used a different space at the middle school that Werner said was “difficult to access” for them because of where it was located in the building.

That changed when Principal Troy Eastman was hired last year, however. Werner said Eastman came from “a culture with a really strong maker education experience,” and he encouraged Werner to research the topic.

“(He) asked me to go out and do site visits, and really get a sense of what other people were doing,” Werner said. “The more I looked at it, the more I realized that libraries are doing a lot to connect with makerspaces and make them a part of their programming, so it seemed like a pretty natural extension.”

With each new I.D.E.A. Lab class, Werner either gives the class a task, (on Oct. 22 it was to create the tallest free-standing structure using only scissors and one box), or a choice of specific materials to build something of their choosing for that period.

The lesson plan is often contingent on the size of the group, but he also sometimes does LEGO challenges with the students, or ups the stakes by having students build things blindfolded.

At the end of each lesson, every student must fill out a sheet detailing the materials used, their successes, mistakes, resources, and plan for the next class.

As part of the class, Werner said he and Kozaka stress the concept of students having a “growth mindset.” 

The idea was developed by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, and is based on the belief that intelligence or strength in a certain area can be developed over time.

“(We’re) kind of getting it ingrained in them, and getting them to think about how to be self-advocates,” Werner said. “(We teach) the power of ‘yet’ – ‘I don’t know yet,’ ‘I don’t have the resources yet’ – that sensibility has been really helpful.”

He also said seeing which kids do not respond to the educational model quickly is interesting and seems “completely unpredictable.”

Much of I.D.E.A. Lab is based around group work, but he said some students who are traditionally introverted thrive in the environment because of their “engineering brains.”

Werner, who said he has a Type A personality, also referred to the makerspace as being a “gigantic intentional mess,” but said students are often helpful in cleaning up.

He also said it is his job to give direction while still giving students some autonomy.

“As long as I can keep my zen,” he said. “How do you put a limit on limitless creativity?”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-9123 or [email protected]. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Jonathan Werner, librarian and instructional technology specialist at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, inside the school’s makerspace, where he teaches a class known as I.D.E.A. Lab. 

Werner with a slingshot made by a student in I.D.E.A. Lab out of a tennis ball and cardboard. 

A typewriter smashed by students in Werner’s I.D.E.A. Lab as part of its “digital dissection” component.