Making the Most of Makerspace

St. Mark's School of Texas Makerspace

Psychologists and educators from Jean Piaget to Howard Gardner to Maria Montessori have documented that some if not all of us learn best through hands-on activities. Research and anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly support the claim that students learn best when they engage with course material and participate actively in learning. Makerspaces offer active, creative, collaborative and often interdisciplinary experiences in which real-world problem-solving helps with critical thinking skills and boosts self-confidence. Self-directed and based on inquiry, Maker activities foster design thinking, innovation and experiential learning, as well as social-emotional skills.

While a few programs have adopted an integrative and cross-disciplinary Maker methodology (The Sullivan Center at the Iolani School in Honolulu is a notable example,) Makerspace in an academic setting most often starts as part of a STEM or STEAM facility. “Setting up a 3D printer and having art projects that reflect some aspect of technology is a common starting point for most Maker programs,” says Doug Rummel, Founders Master Teaching Chair in science at St. Mark’s School of Texas. “The trick is keeping engagement alive as specialization drives our students to focus on a few extracurriculars in the upper grades.”

On many campuses, Makerspaces are used as often for extra- and co-curricular activities as for structured learning. Though located in the School of Engineering and integrated into the Engineering curriculum, the Deason Innovation Gym (DIG) at Southern Methodist University is open 24/7 to all students. After orientation and training, students can use a variety of technologies to create and complete projects, both personal and for classes. The DIG web page describes the Innovation Gym as an informal learning space “for students to explore, push themselves and develop their ability to struggle through ambiguity, persevere in the face of challenges, and drive towards an end result.”

The most critical question for a school considering developing a Makerspace is why. How will Maker activities will be integrated into the pedagogy and curriculum? Will the space be used primarily for STEM and engineering-focused activities, or will it be part of a more multi- or cross-disciplinary curriculum? According to Matt Dillon, Lower School Science Specialist at St. Mark’s School of Texas, “It’s not about the space, it’s about the methodology.” At St. Mark’s, the Maker ethos is introduced in Lower School, and activities become more structured as students age and are introduced to different kinds of technology. Dillon also believes that this early exposure to the collaborative process helps students learn to work together, increasing their willingness to try new things with less fear of failure.

The Science Center at the Hockaday School offers two different Maker environments serving different needs. The interconnected Engineering Lab and Shop provide both a clean space for design and 3D printing along with a fabrication space equipped with portable and stationary power tools. Across the hall, the divisible IDEA lab provides flexible space for a variety of activities on either a scheduled or drop-in basis. Integration of the Engineering Lab and Shop into the curriculum was relatively straightforward because of ongoing activities like the JETS program (Junior Engineering and Technical Society,) according to Dr. Marshall Bartlett, Chair of the science department at Hockaday. Integration of the IDEA labs was more of a challenge, since it took time for both students and faculty across campus to understand that the space didn’t belong exclusively to science. Strong direction for the space is critical, according to Dr. Bartlett. Directing operations, scheduling room use and managing supplies for the makerspace are all important, as is collaborating with other faculty on finding ways to integrate with curricular and co-curricular activities. At Hockaday, a student leadership team helps maintain the space, develops program concepts and encourages their classmates and teachers to make use of the IDEA lab.

Guidelines for creating an effective Makerspace

The scale of the space will dictate the kinds of programming possible. Tabletop scale projects created concurrently by multiple small teams have one set of space planning implications; building a solar car for national competition suggests an entirely different set of parameters for the space. Keep in mind as well that a successful program may later need to expand.

Design for Flexibility. Project scale, materials and media, team size and configuration, power and computing requirements can be different for every project, so room flexibility allows for more options. Mobile project tables make it possible to reconfigure the room as needs change. To allow for mobile workstations, electrical power can be provided by overhead cord reels as well as at the room perimeter, with wireless data everywhere. Plumbing should be located only at the perimeter.

Storage space is critical. Tools and materials need to be accessible and convenient, though the combination of mixed-age users and potentially dangerous tools requires supervision and careful attention to who has access to what. When constructed across multiple class sessions, in-progress projects need interim storage space, and completed projects need space for both display and storage.

Anticipate the workflow. Maker projects go from design iteration through prototyping to a more finished build, flowing from idea to proof-of-concept, from thinking to making. While building activities are often inherently messy, the initial collaboration and strategizing around a white board or laptop works best in a clean (and snack-friendly) environment. Good Makerspaces anticipate the workflow by providing enough separation to allow clean and messy activities to coexist without conflict.

Airflow matters. Many Maker activities generate dust, airborne particles, fumes or odors which need to be controlled to ensure user comfort and safety. Dust control for wood-cutting operations, exhaust for metal- or laser cutting, isolation and negative pressure for 3-D printers, even adjustable “snorkel” hoods for soldering require planning for specialized or dedicated systems.

Don’t ignore the Acoustics. While room acoustics are important in any learning environment, they are especially critical in Makerspaces, where tools and equipment generate noise which can impede communication. Beyond maintaining a safe and healthy environment within the space, good sound control is important to prevent noise contamination of adjacent learning spaces. The need for acoustical isolation of noisy Maker spaces is often in conflict with administrators’ desire to show off the activities and innovation inside.

Sometimes you need to work outside. For some large or messy activities or dangerous jobs like welding, exterior workspace can be extremely valuable. WiFi, power and water are important, as is convenience to the inside space for access to tools and materials.

The Maker movement is about teaching and learning focused on student-centered inquiry, not the project done at the end of a learning unit but the actual vehicle for learning. A Makerspace is not solely a science lab, wood shop, computer lab or art room, but it may contain elements found in all of those familiar spaces. Maker activities teach design thinking and innovation, creativity and collaboration, all critical 21st Century career skills. Does your campus need a Makerspace?

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal at GFF Architects