School Makerspaces: Why is it a good idea?

As educators, one question that we must ask ourselves whenever we encounter a new form of technology or teaching is “why?”. Why should teachers incorporate making into the classroom? Why MakerEd and not one of the many other ways of engaging students? Why should a school devote resources into building a new project? And most importantly: why is creating a makerspace right for our school? Before a school chooses to pursue maker activities---anywhere from funding a small, mobile, makercart to building a state-of-the-art makerspace---these are questions that must be answered. In this blog post, I hope to provide some resources to answer at least some of those questions.

Makerspaces are Messy

In 2013, Audrey Watters gave a talk at the ELI Annual Conference making a case for makerspaces on college campuses. There are many great ideas in her talk, one of which is that makerspaces are different from what we generally think of as “ed tech”. Many recent innovations in education technology aim to streamline education and make it more efficient and scalable. Makerspaces, on the other hand, are messy. They are not scalable like a video lecture and require much more attention than an adaptive assessment system. But, in Watters’ words, they let students learn by doing, and not clicking. Making in a makerspace is like playing in the dirt. In independent schools where students are in small classes and receive personal attention from teachers, we don’t necessarily need to streamline education. However, we are looking for ways for students to learn to solve problems, to drive their own learning, and to create technology instead of just consuming technology. A well-run makerspace, Watters argues, would allow all of that to happen. As so much of education goes online, we need to focus on how independent schools can do something different with face-to-face environments that cannot be easily replicated online.

Makerspaces are Communities

In a previous blog post, Santosh explored what a makerspace and what the maker movement are. One of the important points he made was that makerspaces are not just collections of tools, but also places to foster communities. From a recent study from Intel, a significant percentage (over 50% of women and 25% of men) of makers engage in making activities because they want to contribute to their communities through teaching or through their products. Schools such as University Prep in Seattle have makerspaces that are open to students outside of class time and have found that students use the space not only for making, but for sharing their project ideas and teaching and learning from each other. Many of our students are already makers---from the Intel study, 1 in 4 youth in the US has made things with technology in the past year---and by building a makerspace we can pull the individual, creative energy together.

Makerspaces are Equalizers

The Intel study suggests that girls who engage in maker activities are more likely to develop a strong interest in computer science and engineering. This is because “the playful and creative nature of making provides an avenue for people to engage in engineering and scientific problems that have personal meaning for them”. Public libraries across the country are starting makerspaces to provide access to both modern, powerful creation tools and safe spaces for makers to learn and explore for patrons, especially those who are economically disadvantaged or in underrepresented groups. By creating a makerspace and fostering a maker culture in which everyone is encouraged to make use of the space, regardless of area of interest or skill level, a school can provide all its students access to this engaging and effective avenue into science, engineering, and computer science. (As a side note, resources for library makerspaces, such as the ALA TechSource Blog, are often also very applicable for school makerspaces.)

Going Deeper

In this blog post I’ve outlined three big picture ideas, but I’ve only hinted at some of the research that have been done on how makerspaces can benefit students. That’s because two other people have already compiled much of that research. In chapter 12 of Invent to Learn, (available for free via Scribd) Martinez and Stager provide a great bibliography of research involving makerspaces and education in as well as some guidance on how to convince others at your school that building a makerspace may be a good idea. It’s a good read, and covers topics ranging from why it may be harder to sell a makerspace to students than teachers to how you should answer questions like “what if kids 3D print inappropriate things?”.

Do you have any experiences with convincing coworkers or administrators at your school that a makerspace is a good idea? Do you know of a good resource that I didn’t mention here? Please join the discussion in the comments or on the mailing list!