Be the Change: Michelle Carlson – Making the Impossible Possible, One Space at a Time

Throughout my middle school and high school years, I despised math and science classes. I knew they were important and I got OK grades in them, but I had to drag myself to every one of those classes against my own will. Then the summer after graduation I decided to take a couple of classes at the local junior college before heading off to my freshman year in the fall. One of the classes that I chose was Chem 101 in a shortened summer semester because, well, because I knew it would be over in six weeks. But something happened in that class. The instructor, (we called her Sylvia), found a way to reach me. She taught differently and we experienced things in ways I had not experienced them before. I was fascinated by the very subjects I had despised only a couple of months earlier. Four years later, (OK, maybe five or six but who’s counting) I had earned my degree in biochemistry, with minors in chemistry, math and physics. That one experience changed my trajectory.

Red Bluff resident Michelle Carlson also came to see that some things resonated and some didn’t in her scholastic experience, but afterward she did something very important. She asked, “What can be done differently?”

After a career as an information technology and marketing professional failed to keep her passion ignited, she went back to that question: “What can be done differently?” Michelle then came across the Maker movement. Though it spawned from a hackerspace culture, the Maker education philosophy is essentially that everyone learns differently and at their own pace. They get ideas from a context of experiences driven by passion. The missing ingredient for this in Red Bluff, like most rural towns, was exposure. Michelle led the charge to create a place where kids could come and learn about arts, computer graphics, coding, robotics or engineering. Instead of just sitting and listening to lectures, they set about building and creating things and interacted with other students, in collaboration. Learning in a diverse, hands-on environment allowed many to find a passion in one area or another. Passion in one area has a habit of spreading. As the passion grows kids often do better in their other unrelated courses as well. It often becomes a passion for learning. And that passion led to amazing things. Amazing enough that schools and educational systems around the world took notice and asked Michelle to consult.

Michelle’s company now actively works to integrate the Maker philosophy into schools instead of it being a separate ‘after-school’ type of program. Michelle has consulted and worked with schools, not just in Northern California, but all over the country and places as disparate as Peru and Pakistan. However, her focus is on towns like Red Bluff.  Kids in Silicon Valley and San Francisco or New York have access to many of these types of places and experiences, because there were people there with the expertise to teach it. She had expertise in a few areas and decided to find a way to bring it to her community.

So it all started with “What can be done differently?” Then it became “How can we get this done?”  Michelle’s passion and drive requires perseverance in the face of “That’s not the way we do things.” But for her, it is not about undermining the system. The goal is to find unique ways to ‘Empower teachers to empower the students’. Students who are empowered to learn in a different way just might ignite a spark that changes their trajectory.

Michelle’s goals are beyond developing Maker spaces off campus. They are even beyond building a Maker space on the school campus. Her goal is to incorporate the Maker educational philosophy in every classroom. Interestingly, even with international consulting, national accolades and butting head with the status quo, Michelle considers herself a teacher at heart. She says, “I love to do more…”. Obstacles are just hurdles, not dead ends. One can always strive to “do more”.

We are in an age where venting on Facebook has become all the rage, (and who doesn’t enjoy a good rant, right?) but very little ever changes. To “be the change” that you want to see in the world it takes more than that. Michelle identified a problem and asked herself, “What can be done differently?” She researched and came up with a potential solution. Then she had the will and intestinal fortitude to fight for it and the foresight to let it evolve. That to me is the very embodiment of “Be the Change.”

If you would like more information about Michelle’s work and/or how to utilize the Maker Education philosophy in your school check out her website

The mission of our Be the Change column is to feature community members from the North State who are actively making a difference in community life. If you would like to nominate someone who is making a difference, please write to

Michael Orr
About Michael Orr

Michael Orr is a Father, writer, reader, science geek and musician who lives, works & plays in Paradise, California

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