November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

11 Lessons from a Maker Space­­, One Year In

1611-madeit-maker-signIn early 2016, my library, the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (OH), opened Teen MakerSpace. I wrote about the process of planning and creating our space for SLJ (“Small Space, Big Impact”). Since then, it has been more successful, rewarding, and challenging than we imagined. Now, I’ll share with you what we’ve learned—what worked, what didn’t, and how we’re moving forward.

First, let me say that Teen MakerSpace has been an unequivocal success. We see an average of 300 to 400 visits each month. There’s a steady stream of devoted regulars, plus new visitors every day. We’ve watched teens make stop-motion movies, create thousands of buttons, take and manipulate photos, play with robots, and spontaneously establish their own “museum” where they display 3-D pen creations and other items.

1. Combine arts, crafts, & tech

Our original intent was to focus exclusively on technology in our maker space, which is on the small side—around 18.5 feet by 21.5 feet. But we soon learned that our teens also want to do arts and crafts. So in addition to our iPad lab and digital media station, we have more traditional stations for drawing, coloring, tape crafts, and string art. When we can, we find ways to combine tech and crafts. We have a book-making station where we encourage teens to use technology to create memes or pictures, plus paper and an assortment of tapes to turn printouts of those images into mini-books. Alternately, we use the digital media station to create memes and photos, print them out, and use Mod Podge decoupage glue to seal them onto canvas or paint frames.

2. Keep it fresh

Initially, we envisioned our maker space as a set facility with various stations. However, we have a variety of teens coming in regularly, and they get bored sometimes. So we constantly challenge ourselves to find new, creative ways to use our existing stations and add new ones we can rotate in and out.

We also started hosting thematic drop-in events. For Star Wars Reads Day, we did Star Wars versions of our regular activities: Star Wars thumb-print buttons, LEGO challenges, and string art. Our teens helped us make Star Wars-themed props for our green-screen photo booth. During April, National Poetry Month, we had a different poetry-themed activity each week. Our drop-in program model allows teens to stop by and do these activities at their convenience.

Photos courtesy of Karen Jensen

Photos courtesy of Karen Jensen

3. Prompt creativity

We initially envisioned that “If you build it, they will come”—thinking that teens would stop by, sit down, and start making stuff. However, we found that some kids need prompts to help get them started. For example, you may give them access to 1,000 LEGO bricks, but they often don’t know what to do with them. Searching online, we found a variety of “Challenge Cards” that provide prompts. The ones we appreciated addressed LEGO activities, but we liked the general idea so much that we, along with our teens, developed cards for all our stations. Challenge Cards saying “Build a LEGO creation that flies,” or “Make a stop-motion movie using clay” give teens a place to start. If they can’t figure out what to build or what kind of stop-motion movie to create, they can draw another card.

All of our stations have inspirational, thematic books to support them. Good signage and visual examples are also key. And teens love to display their creations for everyone else to see.

4. Consider consumables

Very few of our Teen MakerSpace stations are one and done. 3-D pens require a constant supply of filament; Rainbow Loom makers need bands; and the ever-popular button-makers require printing ink, paper, and button parts. The ongoing cost of a maker space should not be underestimated. Our startup cost was around $6,000, but we’ve spent some $4,000 this year on consumables to keep it stocked and running, not including staff costs. When evaluating new potential activities, we always examine whether or not they will have consumables and how much those will cost.

5. Staffing is key

During our planning phase, the question of staffing came up a lot. In the end, in part because of staff turnover, we were able to create two part-time staff positions. These staffers, who are in the maker space starting at 3:30 on weekdays and also on the weekends, protect the library’s assets and help teens learn to use the equipment. The positions have also allowed us to create a two-tiered service model. In the mornings, the space is open and equipment that can be secured, such as the digital media lab, is available. After school and on the weekends, staff members are present and roll in carts with additional maker-space elements such as our small robots, button-makers, LEGO, etc.

Having well-prepared, enthusiastic staff has proven invaluable. They are constantly trained, and we also developed a comprehensive maker space manual to help them troubleshoot, keep inventory, and communicate with one another and the maker space coordinator. We also developed a variety of forms to track daily traffic, note which stations were popular, keep up-to-date on needed supplies, and develop rotating stations with their own comprehensive directions for maintenance and supply lists.

Having a variety of staff has also proven beneficial because each person has unique strengths and interests. One, for example, cosplays and loves video games; she connects with different teens than I might and talks to them about topics I have little knowledge of. Collectively, we’re able to successfully engage patrons and increase our reach, connectivity, and effectiveness.

6. The 3-D pen saga

Because of the cost and space needed for a 3-D printer, we opted not to buy one. Instead, we purchased 3-D pens, which are very popular. However, they’re also expensive and problematic. They’re priced at around $100 or less, but the expense ends up being much higher, because you need to keep buying filament. We’ve also gone through six 3-D pens—they keep breaking due to heavy use. Still, they’re such a hit that I hesitate to eliminate them.

If I had it to do again, I might further investigate and push for a 3-D printer. Many newer models are less expensive. Still, it’s important to note that teens need to program a design to send to the printer. On the upside, 3-D pens require no programming or additional tech; teens can just sit down and start “drawing”; and kids love them. That said, we’re still exploring the best setup for our space and population.

1611-madeit-maker-coupleofkids7. Small space, intimate conversation

After school and on weekends, our staff overhears a lot of conversation in our small maker space, and we’re often talking with students. As a result, we know more about our teens than ever before. This can be uncomfortable sometimes, especially during this polarizing election season, when people may have opposing views. Since my staff is new to working with teens, we’ve talked a lot about what is and isn’t appropriate.

I once overheard young patrons joking about how one of the teen’s best friends “raped” them over the weekend at a party. I asked several questions to determine whether someone was, in fact, raped. When it became clear that no one had been, we discussed the realities of rape and why joking about it was inappropriate and could get people into legal trouble. I had been ready to call the police and children’s services to report the incident.

On several occasions, teens have used racially charged language. We make it clear that our Teen MakerSpace is a safe space, and kids will not tease, harass, or otherwise hurt one another there. Still, teenagers have been kicked out for inappropriate behavior.

We also hear conversations about mental health. Many of our teens are struggling, and they talk about it with one another and with staff. Sometimes, they mention a parent or sibling who has challenges. Several regulars are in foster homes or have incarcerated parents. Finally, we have and overhear a lot of conversations about gender, sexual identity, and, yes, sex. One long-term patron asked that we refer to her as a different gender going forward. Many discuss being bisexual, non-hetero, or pansexual.

These conversations are a mixed blessing. Knowing so much about our teens helps us serve them well. But it has also made for uncomfortable discussions, and a few calls to children’s services and/or the police when we have had reason to believe that a patron was not in a safe environment.

8. Your budget is never big enough

Budgets are one of the most difficult things to wrestle with, and turning our teen space into a maker space has really highlighted that for us. When we set our initial goals and researched what we wanted, we quickly realized that we didn’t have enough money and scaled back. One year in, we’re still finding new things that we want to try and buy. There’s no shortage of new, amazing technology, but we have a bottom line. We also have a better baseline now to make a more realistic budget for next year.

9. Nontraditional programming works

Before our maker space, we engaged in what we would call traditional programming and public relations. We picked a day, a date, and a theme; put together a program; advertised said program, and hosted it. Wash, rinse, repeat. Now, we do nontraditional programming. That means that our small space is open for teens to drop in at their convenience. We might host thematic days, but it still isn’t a traditional program. On Star Wars Reads Day, for example, we advertised our event—but it wasn’t a one or two-hour program. It lasted the entire day, and teens could come in when they wanted. It’s a radical shift for staff. Our stats don’t consist of programming numbers for individual events, but in daily visits to the maker space. All of this requires close communication with staff to remind them of what the mission is and that we are succeeding.

10. It’s never done

We planned, we budgeted, we organized, and we opened. But we’re always tweaking our plans, finding new elements we want to add, and reorganizing. Some things worked better and were more popular than expected. Others were more difficult. But our staff is always learning, growing, and investigating new ideas. The space will never be finished—and that’s exciting.

11. It’s all about the teens

Since this is a teen maker space, it’s important that we listen to our teen patrons. That’s why we keep ordering 3-D pens, despite their failings. We listen. They frequently asked for gel pens, which I was hesitant to buy because of the cost. Once we found a good deal on a set, we got it. They found that affirming.

They also help us with various tasks. When we were making Star Wars-themed photo booth props, for instance, they not only made suggestions for characters, but they talked with staff and each other as they sat around a table to paint, glue, and make.

A young patron said that we needed a suggestion box, which had been on my to-do list. I challenged this teen to make one. Now the box, covered in duct tape, sits proudly on our counter. Aside from the suggestions we get there, kids often just tell us what they would like, and we write the request in our daily log.

Then there’s the maker space museum they started, where they ask us to display their work. It strengthens their sense of ownership in the place. Often, they post pictures of themselves in the maker space, and that’s the best publicity of all. They feel valued and affirmed, and they are our best cheerleaders.

For the most part, the space that we created was on target with our expectations. We’re still struggling to successfully incorporate some elements, especially coding, and we have learned a lot of new things, particularly regarding tech. When we’ve had to swerve and tweak things here and there, it’s been challenging and exhilarating.

Hands down, the best part is seeing the teens so enthusiastic about the space, the process, and the library. That has made everything worth it.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. This post is fantastic. How true all of this is! I am in my first year of incorporating a makerspace into my middle school library and the kids love it! We are learning a lot of these lessons mentioned ourselves. What a great resource for those investigating the concept or need affirmation. Thanks for this!

  2. I think it’s interesting how fun a maker space can be. It makes sense that schools would want to do it for activities! It makes for a fun way to learn and get creative!

  3. This whole thing sounds awesome! As a teen librarian in a small system with major space roadblocks (as in, our building is old and there isn’t any!), I’m so jealous. I immediately had questions: When do you find time, amidst staffing the space, interacting with the teens, evaluating the activities and supplies and updating them, etc., to do any of the “regular” things teen librarians do? (collection development, book clubs, working at the reference desk?) I’d love to make something like this work, but in addition to sounding awesome, it sounds overwhelming.