How this School Staple Promotes Creation and Innovation
What is a Makerspace?
Makerspaces have been important in the recent boom of small-scale entrepreneurial and startup ventures. In the past, products and projects could be planned by anyone with an idea, but turning those ideas into tangible realities depended on one’s access to large and expensive production equipment.
The term “makerspace” has been around for about a decade, often associated with a slew of different disciplines. Because information on makerspaces can be attached to anything from robotics and product production to papercraft and Lego building, a hard-and-fast definition can be hard to pin down. However, the beauty of the makerspace is its flexibility, and at its broadest, the makerspace concept is pretty straightforward — A makerspace is any place where people can come together to create and explore.
The type of creation and exploration that takes place in a given makerspace is flexible and largely defined by the space’s tools, supplies and the community it hosts. Woodshops, tech rooms, print shops and sewing centers are all types of makerspaces, but so are Lego-filled rooms in libraries and community center arts and crafts corners.
This meant many ideas were left unpursued, and large companies had control over creation. With the rise of makerspaces, equipped with anything from pens and paper to computers, 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, robotics tools, pruners and trowels, virtual reality goggles, green screens, design software and printing presses, individuals and small groups have been able to make stuff and learn from one another.
Because makerspaces provide the place and means to carry out different types of projects, either collaboratively or autonomously, they can be invaluable resources to students and learners of all ages.
The Benefits of a Makerspace
Makerspaces come equipped with many benefits for “makers” and their communities.
Makerspaces take learning out of the theoretical realm and allow people to learn by doing. Students can understand cell biology through virtual reality stations or bring their architectural ideas to life through 3D printing. Plus, learning to use new technology and equipment is often valuable.
Makerspaces allow students to dive deeper into concepts that have been introduced in the classroom, and they allow students to explore many topics not covered in school. This opportunity for students of all ages to learn about themselves, their interests, their futures and the world around them is hard to beat.
A large part of maker culture is finding value in the process of making, not necessarily the end product (although turning ideas into realities is a significant benefit of makerspaces), which means students are free to mess around and try out their ideas without fear of them failing. Further, makerspaces tend to be open, informal environments without the potentially stifling stigma associated with more academic settings. The act of making lets people learn without realizing they are learning.
The collaborative environments provided by makerspaces let different types of people get together to learn from and share with one another. Makers are inspired by their communities, creating tools and projects that meet community needs, and communities support makers in turn by sharing and using their creations. Since anyone can be a maker, communities can grow together and continuously share knowledge with one another.
Relaxing and reflective
Humans have a natural desire to create and put their minds and bodies to use. Many people get wrapped up in their day-to-day lives and forget that pressure-free creating can be a cathartic activity that allows them to slow down, reflect and restore their minds and bodies.
Free or low-cost
Some makerspaces have membership fees associated with them to cover overhead and supply costs. These fees can vary widely, which makes some makerspaces less accessible than others. However, many makerspaces are free or donation-based, like those found in libraries or attached to other nonprofits. One of the key components of makerspaces is providing people with access to expensive tools they couldn’t own for themselves, so most makerspaces try to keep things affordable.
Because of their emphasis on community creation and sharing, makerspaces are generally open to the public, which makes widespread and lifelong learning possible. School makerspaces are an exception as they are typically reserved for student makers. Makerspaces also have experienced makers on hand to help newer makers use and understand equipment, so the spaces can be accessed by new and experienced makers alike.
Not only do makerspaces allow users to gain the hands-on technical skills needed to use various making tools, but they also gain collaborative, autonomous, communication, entrepreneurial and critical thinking skills. The confidence that comes with making doesn’t hurt, either.
Libraries and the Makerspace Movement
Libraries are still essential components of communities: they’re free to use, safe and they promote self-learning, sharing and waste-reduction. Plus, many libraries host an array of community events and workshops, from reptile education — live snakes and lizards included — to understanding the Affordable Care Act. However, a little innovation can strengthen the relationship between libraries and patrons, making libraries spaces less about transaction and collection and more about creation and collaboration.
Archiving print materials is an important part of preserving history, but as people get deeper into the digital age, some libraries struggle to remain relevant, active parts of their communities. Knowledge and resources abound on library shelves, but even when patrons come in seeking those materials, many have already had the chance to look up the exact title they need, check if it’s in stock and have it waiting for them when they come in — no need to pore through the shelves or wander the aisles. This is a great leap in efficiency and ease of access for library users, but gone are the days when patrons and librarians had a strong, collaborative relationship, asking questions of one another to find the right book or answer.
Enter the makerspace. Libraries are excellent hosts for makerspaces. The ideals inherent to library culture — sharing, learning, exploration, creativity, community and accessibility — are also at the core of makerspaces. Furthermore, libraries already have two major makerspace roadblocks out of the way: infrastructure and community presence.
Makerspaces are meant to be community resources, not big money-makers, which makes creating a makerspace from nothing a big challenge. Because of their public funding and ability to use those funds in ways that benefit the library and its patrons, libraries are low-risk makerspace incubators. Since libraries already have a significant and welcoming community presence, getting makers in the door may be easier for them than for a new facility, where inexperienced makers might be intimidated or have trouble finding a new space in the first place.
Most importantly, libraries have a long history of bringing communities together and helping people of all ages and backgrounds gain knowledge and learn about themselves and their worlds. Integrating makerspaces into libraries provides a hands-on, interactive and future-forward means to that end.
Makerspaces on Campus
For instance, Portland Community College in Oregon has five different makerspaces across its various campuses to accommodate different types of makers. The school’s Fab Lab, which exists at the intersection of art, technology, science and entrepreneurship, provides students with laser and vinyl cutters, a 3D printer, industrial sewing machines and embroidery machines, and plans for a 3D clay printer are in the works. Students interested in delving deeper into STEM studies can take advantage of PCC’s multiple STEM spaces, which include a learning garden, virtual reality biology stations, soldering tools, flight simulators and a learning nook.
Like libraries, colleges are extremely well-suited for makerspaces. Along with existing infrastructure and the ability to receive grants and other funding for equipment and renovation, colleges have the most essential makerspace ingredient: Makers. The future’s entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, tinkerers, educators, coders and artists are found in droves at college campuses.
What these students need is a place to experiment, test and cultivate new ideas, explore and master new concepts and tech, work through problems and collaborate across disciplines. Most students can’t afford all the equipment needed for maximum exploration, and most lack the space to spread out and try their ideas. Makerspaces on campus can allow students to reach their full potential by providing the place and means for them to dig deep into their interests. These extracurricular learning spaces can bridge the gap between students’ academic and professional lives and allow them to put theory into practice.
Where K-12 makerspaces may focus on a broad concept of making, of which the benefit is less about the product and more about the process, colleges may opt for more industry-specific makerspaces to suit students’ academic and professional interests and to support their major studies.
Because access to campus makerspaces is generally included in students’ tuition and fees, students may also feel inclined to use makerspaces to explore interests and hobbies outside of their program of study. With credit costs always on the rise, many students are wary to spend money on classes that don’t apply to their degrees, so opportunities to try things out without a costly four-year commitment are highly valuable to students and essential in developing creative, well-rounded adults across disciplines.
There is an array of resources available for those looking to learn more about makerspaces, find other makers or even start their own makerspaces. The resources below can help makers get started.