Monday, February 08, 2016


Makerspace Lessons

I’m quite taken with the concept of “makerspaces” on college campuses.  As I understand them, they’re dedicated areas open to members of a given community, with lots of both high-tech and low-tech tools and materials.  I think of them as piles of oily rags, waiting for the sparks that students or faculty could provide.  Except for the fire hazard, of course.

As a concept, makerspaces provide an enticing blend of project-based learning, open exploration, labwork, and even entrepreneurship.  They’re the well-equipped garages in which ideas are born, except that they’re open to people who can’t afford garages.  They can be the playgrounds in which tinkering leads to both skill development and actual ideas.

In my college days, the closest thing I had to a makerspace was the radio station.  Once I discovered the joys of audio editing, I had a blast putting together ridiculous show intros.  (My fave was the one for the community affairs show.  It opened with a piercing scream, followed by a voiceover saying “No need to be afraid. It’s only the community affairs show…” over “Baroque and Blue,” a bouncy little instrumental.  I like to think it told a story…)  But a makerspace could allow for far more than just low-end media production.  It could allow for prototyping, sculpture, and all sorts of stuff.  For example, this piece features a great discussion of the makerspace at the College of San Mateo, where it apparently serves as a proving ground for STEAM.

But it can’t be that easy.

The article mentions that it’s hard to assess the outcomes of a makerspace in the same way that you could of, say, a class.  That’s probably true, though gate counts could at least tell you something.  If the makerspace sits empty most of the time, it probably isn’t accomplishing much.  But I suspect that the assessment nut can be cracked.  I’m more worried about unknown unknowns.

This is where I’m hoping some wise and worldly readers can offer the benefit of experience.

When it comes to makerspaces, what’s the catch?  Alternately, what’s the easy-trap-to-fall-into-if-you-don’t-look-out?  What’s the unknown unknown that only become painfully clear when it became concrete?

Okay, I ran the bike-repair coop at my grad institution, and there was a student-specific machine stop around as well.

Some thoughts:
1. You need someone dedicated to making sure people treat the equipment well, the place gets cleaned up, and the like. The student shop was a mess as nobody kept care of the tools, and I had to spend considerable time cleaning up (as a graduate student volunteer!) the bike coop to keep it in proper order, despite my constant e-mail blasts of "clean up you fools!"
2. Despite your best efforts, stuff will break continuously. It was cheap for us to replace a few cone-wrenches (~$20ish) but if someone is being dumb on a 3D printer--that's a whole different kettle of fish. What I've seen of the better places is that you have to show training on a specific item to use it, and so you'll need to make sure that there is training available.
3. Even if it's not broken, you need to make sure tools are sharp etc. for general safety and effectiveness.
4. Liability is an issue. The bike coop was covered as a student club (and we had no power-tools to really hurt yourself on). But it needs to be figured out one way or another.

Running the bike coop was probably THE defining experience of grad school for me, and was one of the best sources of learning I had for becoming a better experimentalist. It's a great investment, but don't half-ass it.
You might be interested in this story on New Life for Libraries. One of the libraries included is Olin College's library, which now has power tools available for use/check-out.
Sorry, the link is
Some other issues that come to mind:

Secure storage of projects-in-progress. If you have to get to college by public transport, carrying the project in every time you want/are able to do work on it becomes an issue, unless the project is very small. If storage is provided, then it will need to be curated: "This student is still registered, but it is 3 years since they did any work on their widget. They'll get 2 e-mails then it will be scrapped."

Final ownership of joint projects. Students may club together and build a robot, without thinking about who will finally own it.

Materials & consumables. To do anything will require consumables, that might not be affordable by the students most likely to benefit. However, if provided for free then someone will be tempted to do something silly: The wood and sheet aluminum is free? I'm going to build a yacht! Actually the could be fixed by dealing with the storage problem: Provide lockers and specify that only things able to fit in the locker can be made in the facility.

Liability: To do anything interesting you need tools that can really hurt you. Professional, experienced people today still loose life and limb to chop saws and lathes.
1. Publicity: you need to make sure that people know about the space, its possibilities, and its intended purposes (vague as they may be).

2. This goes back to the issue of keeping CC students on campus outside of class time. Most of my students have busy lives and convincing them to come to campus for office hours or tutoring is difficult enough.
At an open institution like a CC, you also need to think about people from the community who are not particularly interested in being community college students but who would really like regular access to, say, a laser cutter for their personal projects. (A cheap 3-d printer is within reach for most serious maker geeks and can be kept in an apartment. A laser cutter requires the same kind of wiring as a welder and is definitely for those with a shop or garage of their own, and a lot of extra money lying around.)

Depending on the quality of equipment available, expect to see a certain kind of person keeping "just registered enough" for access, particularly if you don't change fees for using the makerspace (most makerspaces around here that are open to the general public charge both a membership fee and a time-equipment-is-being used fee that varies by the tool in question). It's all of the same problems with having an on-campus fitness and swim center, except that there's no maker equivalent of the local Y available in most cases to logically funnel off interested community members to.
The article "Why I a Not a Maker", by Deb Chachra, gives some interesting thoughts about "makers". The link is: Her essay is more about the identity of makers and the privileging of making. I don't read it as an argument against making or maker-spaces entirely.
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