I want to go into more detail about why we’re creating a makerspace, and how it benefits student learning. For those new to the idea of a makerspace, I’ll go into a little bit of background.
What is a makerspace?
Makerspaces go by many names: tinkerspace, fab lab, hackerspace, idea lab. They are places where someone can design and create sculptures, parts, electronic gadgets, or anything other physical objects. Modern makerspaces use technological tools that are available to most people. They occur in a variety of locations such as libraries, classrooms, office spaces, warehouses and garages.
The concept of a makerspace isn’t new at all. Movie studios have always had them to create set pieces, props, and help stage special effects. The metal and wood shops that were common high schools before the 1970s were makerspaces. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage run one of the most famous makerspaces for their MythBusters show.
There are several aspects of wood and machine shops that make them impractical in today’s schools. The equipment is expensive, bulky, and not easily portable. Many shop tools–saws, drills, and lathes–are one-trick ponies. Students need to become proficient with several of them to complete a project. You need a large space and significant capital investment to outfit a word or metal shop. In addition, various safety issues with the equipment require a fair bit of training and maturity. This pretty much eliminates students below middle school from using such a shop.
Revolution in technology
Recent advances in technology have reduced or entirely eliminated barriers that prevented schools from establishing makerspaces. For the cost of a mid to high-end computer, a school can buy a 3D printer. These printers have small footprints (less than a dorm fridge), so even a classroom can have a makerspace. Low-cost electronic controllers and computers (Arduino, BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi) enable students to build robots and experiment with other types of electronic gadgets.
Another major difference between makerspaces of today and the wood and metal shops of days gone by is the Internet. Before the information revolution, school-based wood and metal shops were more like isolated pockets of activity. You made your project, showed it off to a few friends and family, and that was it. Now, with sites like Instructables, Thingiverse, and Bld3r, students can show off their creations to the entire world. They also have access to a wealth of information to help troubleshoot and refine their ideas.
Why are we doing it?
The simple explanation for why we’re starting a makerspace is that it’s a catalyst for 21st century learning. Makerspace projects need students to think creatively and critically, collaborate, and communicate. However, there are several more specific reasons why I think our students will benefit tremendously from our makerspace.
Exposure to cutting-edge technology
3D printing is a disruptive technology that’s transforming many industries. In early 2012, doctors used a 3D-printed cast to fix a defect in a six-week-old infant’s windpipe that prevented her from breathing normally. More recently, a 22-year-old woman suffering from a rare bone disorder had the top half of her skull replaced by a 3D-printed implant. Caterpillar is a major funder of a University of Southern California project to print houses and other structures. Airbus uses 3D printing to supplement its aircraft maintenance as well as create parts for new planes. There’s even an open-source project that allows you to print and assemble your own electric fiddle for about $250.
A place to fail fast, and fail often
Learning comes from taking risks and reflecting on mistakes and challenges. Unfortunately, traditional education tends to make students risk averse. Make a mistake on your homework assignment, and you’ll lose a few points. Your grade goes down. This can inject an unnecessary amount of fear and anxiety that impairs the ability (or willingness) to learn.
A makerspace is a place where students can fail without consequence. When students feel free to make mistakes, they’re more willing to take risks and try new techniques. Creativity skyrockets. Even the failure of an entire project has value. Students can hone their writing skills by documenting the failure on a blog with photos and diagrams. They also make a positive contribution to the world by helping other students avoid the same pitfalls. Learning to “fail forward” also develops resiliency, which will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Creators, not consumers
We also want to empower our students with the notion that they have much more power and control over their lives than they think. Recently, our school-wide participation in the Hour of Code, gave students a taste of the power they have to develop useful apps on their own mobile devices. We also want them to understand that it’s possible to create a business based on their makerspace creations.
Learning how to learn
Our makerspace will help our students become more independent learners. To some extent, we’re developing this makerspace by the seat of our pants. We’re not going to hold back our students until we have an answer ready for every possible question our students might have. The Internet affords teachers and students access to a wealth of information, allowing us to solve problems as collaborative partners.
Creating something that can be touched and manipulated provides a powerful learning experience. Imagine a student learning about the concept of torque in her physics course. She can print and test the strength of different robotic arm prototypes supporting a load. Tinkering with the design of a robotic arm gives a tangible experience that makes the learning stick. And while you can definitely “make” something as a programmer, the creation of physical objects appeals to a wider range of students.
Workplace environments are quickly diverging from the organizational structure of traditional classrooms. Employers now focus on soft skills such as the ability to work in teams, verbally communicate with people inside and outside the organization, make decisions and solve problems, obtain and process information. Employers also value the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work, as well as analyze quantitative data. However, traditional classrooms undervalue these qualities. Simply delivering content to students via textbooks and lectures isn’t enough to prepare students for life after college.
While Garden Street Academy has been at the forefront of collaborative student-student and student-teacher relationships since its founding in 2002, the makerspace will help build upon this style of learning. The space will demonstrate the value of peers assessing each other’s strengths and learning to dole out project tasks accordingly. Our students will also learn to rapidly brainstorm and prototype ideas, and then quickly iterate on those ideas to improve their creations.
All in all, we’re very excited about the possibilities of our makerspace, and we can’t wait to share more.