Students experimenting in Matt's Maker Space of Howe Elementary. Photo courtesy of Noelle Conover.

After their son Matt died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2002, Noelle and David Conover were determined to make a difference in his name. Matt was 12 years old and loved creating. He was a tinkerer, someone who could spend hours building things with his hands. 

So in the spring of 2016, this Mt. Lebanon couple donated the funds to create maker spaces within the Mt. Lebanon School District’s seven elementary schools. 

That’s when Matt’s Maker Space, founded and run by the Conover family, was born.

What’s a maker space, you ask? It’s a place where kids can explore STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) through hands-on challenges and experimental learning tools.

“For example, rather than just reading about electricity in a book,” says Noelle, a project coordinator for UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, “kids can play with it. They can use their hands to see how it works and have fun experimenting.”

Teachers and students at each of the recipient schools have gotten creative in utilizing the spaces. At Howe Elementary, fourth graders made self-portraits out of recycled materials. At Foster Elementary, first graders created and tested their own parachutes. And at Lincoln Elementary, kindergarten students partnered with fifth graders to build a bridge for the gingerbread man to cross.

The Conovers have also provided a maker space for the Mt. Lebanon Public Library and at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where they’ve created the first maker space inside a pediatric hospital in the U.S. 

On Sept.23, they opened their newest space at St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School and yet another is due to open at Our Clubhouse in the Strip District by the end of the year.

The fledgling nonprofit isn’t done building labs for budding Pittsburgh tinkerers, makers and scientists yet: Through an application process, the nonprofit plans to award one maker space each year to a deserving school, library or community center.

To help fund that plan, Matt’s Maker Space is hosting an inaugural kick-off event, aptly named Full STEAM Ahead. Adults can get in on the fun as they create in a maker space and “learn like a kid,” as Noelle puts it, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 4 at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Buy tickets or make a donation here.

Noelle couldn’t be prouder.

When you’re a bereaved parent, it’s really the best thing you can hope for: to have your child’s name live on through something,” she says. “We’re delighted to give back to this wonderful community and help kids develop their love of science. They can be tinkerers like Matt was.”

Jodi Tandet is a writer who's penned stories in Miami, Israel, Atlanta, and upstate New York. She lives in Highland Park with her roommate, a calico cat, and is on a mission to hike every trail and try every smoothie shop in Pittsburgh.