Makerspace: Some Key Concepts

4 students are sitting at a table. 1 student leading the pop-up makerspace and the other 3 are participating

Makerspace is the hot topic this year. The American Library Association is running online classes on it. The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report lists it as one of the hot up and coming topics. It is the theme for a number of conferences. Makerspace is a buzzword for remaking unused space into community involved space and extending the offerings of schools, libraries and other organizations. The skills required to conceive and operate a makerspace can be all over the map depending on the focus of the organization. But they are not calling for strictly defined skills. There are few places that even teach makerspace as a discrete field. In the spirit of the dot.coms of the last decade it is a field in development and most skills are self-taught or learned on the job.

4 students are sitting at a table. 1 student leading the pop-up makerspace and the other 3 are participatingWho is your audience?

Before choosing the space and the stuff you need to know who your audience is? Is it children, adults, a combination of both? Are they students?, student teachers?, hobbyists? crafters? Are they already makers? Local business people? Or a combination of a number of these groups? Libraries already serve a broad population depending on the type of library you may already have things in place. Obviously you can’t serve everyone at once so targeting the times the space/event is available is desirable. And, you don’t have to know it all. Each of these groups has or can develop expertise across a broad range of activities. Ideally your goal is to empower them to take the lead. It’s no longer a world of “sage on the stage” and even the youngest children have something to bring to the table—even to teach—and potentially create something new. As a practice I don’t let anyone get away who expresses some familiarity with something we haven’t offered yet. I recruit them as engineers of experience and expand the pool of expertise and enthusiasm that we can tap into.

Science, Technology and STEM

Libraries remade themselves 30 years ago when computers hit the scene. Computers were embraced and incorporated into the information and back end of the field. Like the rest of the world though, the inner delving and practical applications of the software were largely ignored except by systems librarians and IT people. The rest of us were satisfied that learning how to construct a proper Boolean argument was sufficiently high tech and alarming enough.  In schools, shop and home economics departments were repurposed into computer and technology departments. Shop tools were phased out. The push for STEM (or STEAM-science, technology, engineering, art and math) has changed the playing field in education and in some cases added additional job qualifications or opportunities to the library field. Yet, I have been watching the job postings as they come up and realize that the idea of makerspace/hackerspace is still quite new and as undefined as the early days of computers. The desired qualifications range from engineers to artists and craftspeople. The way to learn it is “on-the-job” and it is more often driven by the passion of the person than any academic qualifications. Given the creative and innovative nature of the new discipline that makes sense. It also makes it hard to figure out how to get the experience that will qualify you to do it. At some point there will undoubtedly be an authority who declares that thus-and-so degree, accreditation or certificate will qualify a person as a maker. Until then it will remain passion driven and self-taught.

Art and craft with some design thrown in

Usually the artistic field coincides with the library field in the children’s area where crayons, markers and cut paper abound. These are key tools for teachers. But it’s not just child’s play anymore as both teens and adults are also learning to expect some sort of engagement with handwork and access to technology beyond word processing.

A class of natural makers has risen out of the creative sector. Artists and craftspeople who have been “making” as a way of life are finding their way into library and school makerspaces. Sometimes these folks happen to be librarians and teachers too. Creativity and problem-solving are the hallmark of creative workers and ironically are key factors in the success of makerspaces. They are also key to developing an innovative and nimble organization.

Makerspaces require staff. In the absence of hiring a person trained in science or art developing the current staff in the ways of makerspace is the often challenging goal. When activities perceived as “creative” arise they can be the source of a great deal of stress to individuals who don’t generally engage in creative activities or think of themselves as creative. With adults there is also a fear of looking foolish if one attempts something new and untried, particularly in front of teens or younger patrons.

You don’t have to be an expert

Makerspace activities can exhibit the best in effective teaching by transforming the old ways. Too often in libraries materials and devices are “over controlled.” That is, in the spirit of making sure things don’t get broken or stolen they are locked up and non-apparent. The very nature of makerspace calls for trying and failing and sometimes breaking things in the course of innovation and experimentation. The strength of the process lies in giving up and become a facilitator or co-learner. The most empowering statement can be, “I don’t know how it works/how to do it either, let’s figure it out.” For the patron, particularly a teen or child this opens up acknowledgement that they bring their own unique knowledge and experience to the table. To the librarian it opens up the freedom to experiment, learn and not have to feel like they have to be the expert. In the case of technology, the current world is one where the children are in their medium. It’s all they have ever known and there is a base comfort level that an older staff member might not feel. While there should be some oversight when starting out engaging the user as a knowledgeable learner and encouraging them to take ownership of their learning and the makerspace will go much further to preserving the equipment than keeping it locked up. If something does get broken then that opens up a whole new area to explore—that of fixing things or repurposing them—in itself, a whole activity of makerspace that is gaining ground.

Play

To approach makerspace with a sense of play is key. The nature of play removes inhibitions because there is no judgement involved. Activities can continue as long as one chooses to engage. There can be a product or not and experimentation is required. There is no success or failure. There may be multiple attempts to accomplish something but without judgement. Failure is a necessity and a driving force.

Controlling the stuff

Makerspace generates lots of small parts. Some may be part of the equipment and some may be the result of the making. Some parts will get lost. Most replacement pieces these days can be located on the internet so losing the back door to a playmobil ambulance isn’t the end of the item. Often when staff are uncomfortable with unfamiliar items they lock them up to preserve them. To be successful items need to circulate–to be used– and even occasionally broken. There is nothing more discouraging than technology that sits in a closet, protected from the public until it is too old to be useful. The nature of makerspace incorporates the idea that things can be fixed and, in fact, fixing things is a true makerspace activity in itself. One activity might be a “fixing night” or a “repurposing” or “taking apart” activity. Makerspace moves people from being consumers to being creators. Some of that can include fixing things that once would have been discarded.

In a curriculum resource center that serves teachers in training and faculty it is important to allow the items and kits to circulate to allow the users to gain skill, bravery and familiarity so that they can present the possibilities to others with confidence. The only way to acquire this confidence is to have an extended time to “fiddle around”. People learn in many different ways but with some of the makerspace items “messing around” is the best way to develop skills or at least questions to bring back and examine.

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How to Start a Makerspace

two students sitting in the art area of the Earl Center working with glue guns and pipe cleaners

two students sitting in the art area of the Earl Center working with glue guns and pipe cleanersIt is not unusual for a library to contemplate creating a makerspace. In fact, most of them have been doing it for years in the service of children’s programming. All of the crafts and story-time and Lego contests would fit comfortably into any makerspace. Even adult programming can fit the bill when local artists or craftspeople come and talk about their work. Of course the genius of makerspace is that it is ideally experiential and allows the people participating to learn something new. This is all without the formal designation of being a “class”. The people who guide makerspace activities are not necessarily experts in whatever they are facilitating. One of the strengths of the movement is that all participants can co-facilitate. “I don’t know how it works—let’s figure it out” is the guiding phrase and one that empowers everyone and invites them to play.

How do I find out about…

Even without a dedicated facilitator, a makerspace can function using the masses of information available over the internet and an adventurous spirit. It’s often just enough to get you started. Access to an educational resource such as Lynda.com can be a plus. But websites like YouTube and Instructables.com also have a plethora of materials to guide the exploration of a new activity. There is a website called makeitatyourlibrary.org that lets you search for a project suitable for a library makerspace by time, skill level, cost and other factors.  Makercamp.com has daily and weekly projects and the blog of the Duxbury Public Library makerspace has some great in-depth tips for possible activities as well as practical examples of how to catalog kits you might develop. Another source for education and inspiration are the MOOC type resources such as EdX and Coursera which provide classes on innumerable topics for free. The information covered there is constructed more as a traditional online class but it can be a good way to gain more in-depth knowledge of a topic without a tremendous commitment or need to get out of your pajamas. The guiding principal is not being afraid to fail. Failure is part of the process and is to be welcomed as part of the learning process.

Where can I go?

In Eastern Massachusetts we have a growing number of makerspaces and hackerspaces (another way of referring to them). Libraries that have already developed them are great places to start to get ideas of what might be possible in your library and get to know the library makerspace community..

And, of course, the Earl Center is always good for an opinion or some suggestions.

A recent visit to the Hatch Makerspace of the Watertown Public Library yielded an enthusiastic environment with a mostly volunteer staff dedicated to sharing their passions with the public. The staffing model demonstrated that the people there at that particular time were experts in their areas of passion– one in fiber arts—who helped a woman new to sewing successfully make an apron; the other a jeweler and expert in the laser/CNC cutting machine, making wooden jewelry. While both had a working knowledge of the other activities possible they did not feel compelled to “know it all” and were fine referring our questions to the dates and times that people imbued with those passions would be available.

Funding one’s makerspace

Funding for makerspaces has been growing as interest and application to educational activities such as STEM and STEAM have grown. In the former presidential administration there was a very active push to make opportunities for these areas to grow because of the connection to industry and the future of jobs. The White House held annual STEM conferences on the White House Lawn for the last two years. It remains that the skills that can be learned through makerspace activities and STEM activities will continue to be very important to the future economic growth of the country. In Massachusetts the Board of Library Commissioners has been active in promoting LSTA (Library Services and Construction Act) grants both targeting STEAM (STEM with Art added) and providing an opportunity to spin a unique grant. These grants provide a way in for libraries to learn about writing grants and funds and support to get new programs off the ground as well as getting a makerspace up and running.

Resources

Software from the Autodesk company

Makerspace supply list

Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners – LSTA Grants

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The Historical Side of Makerspace

This is the first blog article in a series focused on makerspace.

Makerspace has become the current hot topic in education. Along with STEAM it often dominates technology conventions and gatherings. Where did this trend come from?

What is Makerspace?

Wires, crayons, pencils, and two boxes of the makey-makey kit on a wooden table

From the Guerilla Makerspace Project by two Harvard Graduate School of Education students who set up temporary, pop-up makerspaces in unexpected locations

Makerspace can take all forms ranging from large industrial spaces with heavy-duty machinery to a plastic box brought out for an afternoon library crafts program. What connects these extremes is the universal experience of designing and creating– with the emphasis on creating. Makerspaces are places, usually physical spaces, to create –whether hands-on objects or digital products. The making can range from something as simple as using a magnetic white board with  poetry tiles to learning how to program a Mindstorms robot to creating ooblick (a non-newtonian solid), slime (a polymer) or playdough (fun). Makerspace may or may not be predicated on STEAM principals but will generally be based on innovation, creativity and ultimately play.

Make Magazine

In 1995 Make magazine, a periodical for people who like to remix, recycle and invent made its debut. Full of articles about how to hack just about anything with a focus on developing personal “tinkering” skills it struck a chord with the more technical  and playful readers.  Makerspace was something that grew from the D-I-Y philosophy that the magazine was based on.  People wanted to be able to have access to sophisticated equipment like 3D printers (the poster child of the maker movement), CNC cutters, woodworking, welding and all the more artistic or vocational skills.  That desire drove the movement to develop shared working spaces. From this beginning the movement branched out into space and activities at community centers, schools (including kindergartens), private business and especially libraries. For libraries it was a time of disruption—books segueing to digital—space opening up in library buildings as the books left and an identity crisis in the age of Google searching. Libraries embraced this enhanced public service, opening up teen centers and community labs focused on helping people get their hands on equipment and mentoring trainings.

A Seat For Everyone

The library involvement is important to balance potential inequities indicated by surveys conducted by Make magazine that show that the main formal makerspaces events tend to be frequented and supported by white, affluent males. The embracing of makerspace by libraries and schools creates the opportunity to influence that model and opens up the experience and the positive results to a much broader community-older people, children, teens. There has been a particular drive to include girls and women as national surveys indicated that there were very few women involved in this area and a rapidly declining number of women entering the computer science field—closely connected area.

The New Comes from the Old

Like many things this, new activity has a long history behind it. Humans have a tremendous need to create. This is beautifully explained in a video (A World Through the Hands) by Renate Hiller at the Fiber Craft Studio of the Threefold Educational Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York. She uses a stone spindle to create thread, an ancient craft and is able to connect this to spiral galaxies as well as the need for the soul to make with one’s hands.

Sloyd Schools

Around the turn of the last century a system of manual instruction surfaced that was designed to move people rapidly from the farm to the growing numbers and new types of jobs brought about by the industrial revolution. There was the “Russian system” based on making a series of models divorced from everyday life. There were also the Sloyd schools[1] which emphasized making useful household objects using woodworking and sewing that progressed through an increasingly more complicated series of items which grew the student’s knowledge. It was similar to Froebel’s gifts which also had a basis in training children for “occupations.”[2] Sloyd means handwork in Swedish. In Boston the remaining Sloyd School is the North Bennett Street School in the North End. There is another at the Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, MA.  Both still teach handwork and fine carpentry.

The focus on occupations has been key in the makerspace movement. The concept has been embraced by the White House as the Nation of Makers — a way to ensure that the future employees of American industry are able to compete and thrive competitively in the world market.[3] There are also many STEAM/STEM grants being offered through various government agencies like The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and other groups.

Curriculum Resource Centers

Curriculum Resource Centers like the Earl Center were (and are) a form of makerspace focused originally on teacher training. Teachers had to produce their own materials and curriculum resource centers provided the materials and the means to physically handle and prepare teaching materials. Teaching is an ever evolving field.  Experimenting with new materials hands-on is a way of providing experiential learning  Solving problems is key to makerspace and problem based learning.  New tools such as 3D printers, once a tool of industrial production – are opening up possibilities that allow people to become creators and co-creators  beyond consumers and agents of their own problem-solving.  3D printers are being used in classes as early as kindergarten. These opportunities call for rethinking how things might be done in different ways and demands the development of a culture of constant and continuous learning.

[1] http://dougstowe.com/educator_resources/w88sloyd.pdf

[2] The Value and Limitations of Froebel’s Gifts as Educative Materials Parts I, II
Patty Smith Hill ,The Elementary School Teacher
Vol. 9, No. 3 (Nov., 1908), pp. 129-137
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/992761

[3] https://www.whitehouse.gov/nation-of-makers

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