November 19, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

How Fair Is Your Maker Space?

All students should be able to benefit from maker spaces and maker education, which emphasize student-driven learning and foster the development of 21st-century skills. However, not all maker spaces and activities are created equal. Some feature high-tech equipment such as 3-D printers and scanners, programmable robots, mini-computers, and high-tech construction toys—equipment carrying a hefty price tag that not all schools can afford. In addition, maker space activities may cater to certain kids’ interests but not others—including dynamics that educators might not even be aware of. Plus, is self-directed learning the best type for all kids? Here are answers and ways to address these issues.

A maker space on a shoestring

How can schools with limited budgets invest money in fancy tech for a maker space? One answer: They don’t have to.

Low-cost and free options include donated equipment, recycled and upcycled materials, low-tech and no-tech options, and bargain-bin electronics, all of which can enable a high-quality experience.

Last year, the Montour School District in McKees Rocks, PA, set up its first maker space in an elementary school library in one day. Justin Aglio, director of innovation for the district, recruited a teacher and a parent to help. At 8 a.m., they began collecting materials, and by the end of the day, a maker space was ready for students.

They began inside the school, where they asked teachers to donate unused equipment and supplies. Next, they visited local businesses, including a Barnes and Noble that donated a large LEGO table.

The school also held a maker drive, sending out a letter asking parents to donate materials, from empty toilet paper rolls to unused toys. “A lot of those things we have in our space are items that they would have thrown away or were broken,” Aglio notes.

Molly Shea, visiting professor in the department of Child and Adolescent Development of the College of Health and Social Sciences at San Francisco State University, suggests working with local community organizations to get deals on items such as batteries, lightbulbs, and wires for simple electronics circuitry projects. “Perhaps you buy one fancy new technology [item],” she suggests, such as a 3-D printer. “But I would say that teachers and communities should think about other resources—[such as] the recycling center in their community—and how those supplies can become part of what they do in school.”

School maker space consultant Robert Pronovost consults with students on the construction
of a cardboard roof, incorporating Makedo tools.
Photos courtesy of Robert Pronovost

The low-tech/no-tech advantage

Robert Pronovost, former director of curriculum and instruction at Ravenswood City (CA) School District (RCSD), is now a consultant supporting schools that set up maker spaces. Low-tech and no-tech tools are sometimes preferable to high-tech ones, he believes. “A lot can be done with cardboard and duct tape and LEGO.”

When RCSD began implementing its maker spaces, one of the first projects involved creating something with cardboard, often a structure kids moved through, such as a fort or a city. Pronovost says, “Even when students were in there for 15 minutes at a time, one group would get started on it, and the next would come in and just continue building on top of the same cardboard construction.”

Pronovost says no-tech and low-tech activities support the element of discovery through play, and under an adult’s guidance, that play can be woven in with the Next Generation Science Standards. With the no-tech cardboard city, for instance, students used engineering skills to ensure structural integrity, and they exercised empathy—considering how others would use the structure and how to make it visually appealing.

Paper circuits are low-tech projects with a high learning return. According to information from the Exploratorium in San Francisco—a public learning lab for science, art, and human perception—students can use copper tape and surface-mount LEDs to make a fully functional circuit on a flat surface, such as a piece of paper. Pronovost notes that slug tape—made of copper to deter garden slugs—is a lower-cost alternative.

One advantage of low-cost, low-tech or no-tech materials is that kids can keep their creations. “It can take a bit more time to do something such as paper circuits, [but] the ability to bring it home and to engage their parents and siblings in conversation about it is more valuable than that time I’m saving by getting more easy-to-use materials,” Pronovost says.

Inclusive maker spaces

Leah Buechley is a designer, engineer, educator, and former professor at the MIT Media Lab. In a 2014 talk at the Eyeo Festival, a conference on art, interaction, and information, she presented an analysis of Make magazine and its associated community. Buechley discovered that the latter was overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy white males and the interests of that demographic. She maintains that for the maker education movement to be credible, it must appeal to and celebrate the interests and talents of the broader population, whether that means embracing activities such as auto mechanics, pottery, mashing up audio tracks in hip-hop music, or something else beyond the typical 3-D printing, robotics, and electronics. When planning maker spaces for young people, schools need to be careful to avoid the tendency of the maker movement to cater to a specific segment of the population.

An Exploratorium Tinkering Studio participant writes about his “nature-bot,” a motorized sculpture made of natural materials and simple electronics that moves and dances.
Photo courtesy of Shirin Vossoughi

Also mindful of these dynamics is Shirin Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. “It’s important to think about the how and why of those tools, and also [to] think about how the curriculum and the learning is going to be connected to their lives,” she says.

According to Vossoughi, educators can create more equitable maker spaces by reconsidering their definition of making, as well as activities, materials, and tools, in order to embrace historical and cross-cultural practices. “Rich forms of making, building, crafting, and artistic activity exist already in a range of ways within all communities,” she says. “So what does that mean for how we design making programs and activities in ways that draw on the range of intellectual, cultural, and artistic resources and experiences that kids bring to this setting?” She points to examples such as children watching or helping as a family member fixes electronics, furniture, or bikes, or engages in home repair or sewing.

Connecting old and new

Shea says that one way schools can create maker spaces that resonate with more students is to view parents and community members as experts. Those individuals may have expertise in various cultural practices of making, trade skills, or skills related to repairing or repurposing objects.

“Reach out to the parents in that community [to find] people who are already fixing things, people who are already working in a trade service,” she says. “Ask the community about their skills and things that they could do in a maker space. A lot of making originates from these practices of sewing, fixing electronics, and finding ways to creatively make new things out of things that have already been used.”

Shea has been involved with numerous maker spaces in schools and an after-school program in the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. She thinks there are a lot of ways these trade skills and cultural practices that have been going on for a long time in the local community can be connected to new technologies within a maker space. “The combination of old and new is a special way to think about making that I think can get lost on new start-up maker spaces” when people focus on buying new materials, Shea says.

She highlights sewn circuits—wearable electronics—as an activity that can connect local culture with new tech in a way that might resonate with students. Students use materials such as conductive thread and tape, LEDs, and batteries to create items such as wrist cuffs and badges that light up. “It’s not too far of a leap to start thinking about sewn circuits as connected to skills associated with repair or tailoring, but they also can be connected to new technologies,” Shea says.

Baking bread in a solar oven is another activity Shea likes. Community members with expertise in baking bread teach students about ingredients and preparation so bread will rise properly, and students take on the engineering challenge of building a solar oven. “Combining older ways of doing things with newer ways really becomes part of the magic of the space,” she says.

Student-driven learning?

While access and inclusivity are key to maker space equity, pedagogy, and ensuring that the teaching practices support all students, is also vital. As part of her research, Vossoughi found that the kind of guidance and assistance educators provide students in a maker space is critical. “It’s important for teachers to think about this as a collaborative process with students as opposed to something that students are doing on their own.”

In other words, self-directed learning isn’t necessarily the best strategy to help all kids succeed. “The tendency to focus on the transparency of tools rather than pedagogy suggests that high-quality making activities will themselves serve as the teacher within the process of self-directed learning,” Vossoughi and coauthors Paula K. Hooper, of Northwestern University, and Meg Escudé, of the Exploratorium, wrote in “Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power,” a Harvard Education Review paper. “In our view, self-directed learning can easily slip into a meritocratic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to education.”

During their research, Vossoughi and colleagues examined the moment-to-moment interactions between teachers and students. They wanted to find ways to support students as they engaged in open-ended making activities in a way that honored their individual creativity while also deepening their thinking and learning.

Vossoughi says it can help if educators have the opportunity to engage in making activities themselves—and reflect on what the process was like for them as learners.

“That can be a great form of professional development,” Vossoughi adds.

“If teachers get to make together and think about what [aspect of] the practice was challenging, frustrating, compelling—all those things they want [in] their student’s experience—that can be really powerful.”


Leila Meyer is an education and tech writer in British Columbia, Canada.

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share

Comments

  1. Isabel Castro says:

    Enjoyed this article. Where can I get a copy of “Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power,” a Harvard Education Review paper. ? Tried ILL.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Leave a Reply to Isabel Castro Cancel reply

*