Kidsburgh Heroes: Noelle and Dave Conover of Matt’s Maker Space

Like most 12-year-olds, Matt Conover loved playing video games. But for Matt, the games were more than fun; they offered a needed escape from the painful chemotherapy treatments he regularly endured for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

“He used to say, ‘Run, Mom! Get me the computer!’” says his mother, Noelle Conover, of Mt. Lebanon. When Matt lost his battle with cancer after a nine-month hospital stay in 2002, Noelle says, “We never wanted another family to have to run to get the computer, so we raised money for the Matt’s Media for Kids with Cancer Fund.”

Through the fund, Conover and her family ensured that each bed in the pediatric oncology unit was equipped with a computer, PlayStation or Xbox. Over time, the effort grew into Matt’s Media Room 4 Kids with Cancer at Our Clubhouse (formerly Gilda’s Club Western Pennsylvania). And today, the project has taken on a new life as Matt’s Maker Space.

“We believe if Matt were here today, he would most certainly be a maker or some sort of creator,” she says. “This project allows us to keep his memory alive, show other families that there is a way to help grief through giving back and leave a meaningful legacy in our community.”

Matt Conover with his siblings in 2002.

Conover found inspiration through Matt’s dual passions for technology and creative pursuits. Beyond video games, her son loved LEGOs, science experiments, and puzzles. He was always curious, with a desire to understand how things are made and why they work the way they do.

The Conovers recently donated $175,000 to the Mt. Lebanon School District to fund Matt’s Maker Spaces in the district’s seven elementary schools. They made the gift through the district’s Century of Excellence Campaign, which provides opportunities in technology, innovation, fine arts and athletic programming. Each school will receive $25,000 over the next three years to spend as they choose.

Librarians at the schools received training from the staff of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, who coached them in designing spaces that maximize children’s engagement with cutting-edge equipment. The museum is one of 10 national hubs that provide resources for local schools “to create engaging, inclusive and motivating learning experiences through maker education.” The schools will fill the completed rooms with everything from 3D printers to sewing machines, programming tools, robotics equipment and craft supplies.

“What makes the project so great is that each room takes on the personality and skills of the librarian and the school,” Noelle says.

She and her family are hoping to expand the program over the next few years and are exploring partnerships with local organizations and funders to help the project grow. Another future possibility: a competition for elementary-level makers and teachers.

Though Conover is its unofficial spokesperson, she stresses that Matt’s Maker Space is truly a family affair.

“Our daughters are very involved in technology, and as women in STEAM, they are interested in eventually running the organization,” she says.

As chief technologist for mechanical products at ANSYS with more than 30 years of experience in simulation and additive manufacturing, Conover’s husband Dave sees the value of STEAM education every day.

“He is very interested in the next generation of engineers working in maker spaces as children,” Noelle says. “It will only improve their ability to create, collaborate and problem-solve.”