For the last decade, makerspaces have evolved from the simple incorporation of new equipment in classroom corners into full-blown hubs of innovation. As more schools choose to participate in the maker movement, the need is emerging for clearer guidelines and best practices around creating, designing, and implementing successful makerspaces. As with all innovative pursuits, it is important that every school learn how to best adopt the trend or spearhead the initiative so that the return on investment of time and money is “worth it” for both the institution and the stakeholders that it serves.
After developing a whitepaper based on research from early 2016–including engaging a group of administrators from a national conference for independent school technology leaders–we were excited to explore makerspace activity in the Northeast, to get the local pulse of the movement, and to enable cross-institutional learning. As such, MindBridge invited school leaders to join us at Sacred Heart School in Kingston, MA for a roundtable discussion entitled “What to Make of Makerspaces?” Our goal: to turn expertise and collective experience into actionable insights for guiding the growth of makerspaces. Driving question: how could their schools create successful spaces that both enhance the value proposition of the school and provide a valuable experience for students and faculty alike?
Key results from a survey delivered prior to the workshop revealed the following:
- Fifty percent of schools present had a makerspace.
- Spaces were described as: an opportunity for Project-based Learning; an integral element of the Visual Arts curriculum; an extension of learning that focuses on the future; and an add-on tool to assist with classes
- Sixty percent of schools had a dedicated faculty member leading makerspace initiatives
- Eighty percent said “Yes” to resources being available for related educational and professional development for faculty
- Seventy-eight percent had formal opportunities for showcasing students’ makerspace experiences (including newsletters, open houses and student exhibitions, competitions, social media demonstrations, video portfolios of their work, and grant workshops)
- Most schools were in the “just developing” phase of measuring the effectiveness/success of their makerspaces, with some using student and teacher feedback.
- A final, and quite interesting finding is shown in the figures below. Despite the perceived importance of the maker movement to a school’s value proposition, satisfaction with curriculum integration remained low.
The above results, along with guiding insights around makerspace structure by our team of presenters (Esin Sile, Ph.D., CEO MindBridge Partners, Keith Gillette, Senior Advisor, MindBridge Partners, Scott Roy, CTO, Carney, Sandoe, and Associates), laid the groundwork for conversation around a list of exploratory questions. Of all topics discussed, three main themes emerged: (1) The need for greater collaboration, cohesiveness, and support in makerspace development and management; (2) supporting the creative process of students, and (3) incorporating community partnerships in programming.
Collaboration, Cohesiveness, and Support
The presiding sentiment around developing a makerspace from most attendees was that the strong desire for space creation and success was not matched with a provision of adequate team resources. Resources can often be underestimated because there is lack of clarity around “what it takes” to adopt a novel initiative. However, this can quickly lead to overwhelm and frustration on the part of the lean team (or single person!) that is tasked with making it happen. Participants shared that typically such work is added on to existing tasks, and they are left wondering how it’s possible to manage it all. Even with a designated faculty member to spearhead the process, building a makerspace should be a team effort—ideally with representation across several departments.
Besides sharing workload, an additional benefit of having a committed and diverse team with multiple institutional perspectives resides in a more comprehensive integration strategy. In one school, maker programming in Grades 4-6 ensured that teachers in Grades 7-9 knew exactly what skills students were prepared to engage moving forward—a great example of how it pays to be involved.
Supporting the Creative Process of Students
The maker movement encourages a kind of learning that is more reminiscent of days of yore than what is typically provided (and expected) from today’s students. Most college prep institutions aim to prepare students with rigorous academics and full extracurricular schedules, programs aptly positioned to place significant pressure that results in not only eustress, but also distress for students. Students are “trained” for excellence. One school leader voiced: “Kids are so trained, even by 3rd grade, [that] they are waiting to be told what to do.” Several individuals remarked on a pervasive fear of failure, which is quite the challenge for spaces designed to promote independent thinking and open creation. “When the point is the process and not the end product, the kids don’t understand.”
Makerspaces provide an opportunity for schools to develop a culture of “Celebrating Failure,” which ultimately prepares students for innovative pursuits in the real world. And the aforementioned process-not-product focus places value in students’ ability to carefully document the creative process, putting the weight of evaluation only on final documentation. However, one participant noted that students really do need some form of direction. “Even if a student is a ‘high achiever,’ assume they know nothing about the task at hand. Today’s kids are consumers, not so much creators.”
As for other resources for supporting students’ creative process: the placement of a makerspace near the library encouraged an open style of learning, whereby students worked until they reached a roadblock and then visited the library to pick up the necessary knowledge. And and creative programming option that is appealing enough or more closely tied to real-world vs theoretical problems may result in excitement and engagement that far outweigh any hesitancy to “make”.
Community Partnerships in Makerspace Programming
Excitement and real-world applicability drive the final theme that emerged during workshop discussion. The potential impact of makerspaces extends far outside of institutional walls when one considers their relevance to the broader community. One school opened up space development to parent and alumni input and received enthusiastic feedback with offers to assist both on-site and in the separate capacity of helping to build partnerships with other organizations in the community.
A final consideration regarding makerspaces outside of school walls—it helps to consider the environmental impact of the tools that are used. Part of our charge as educators is to teach the next generation to “Create Responsibly” during their formative years. Methods learned and habits formed during free creation will indeed carry over into future pursuits.
In summary, to create a sustainable makerspace, it is important to create, develop, implement, and promote the space in a strategic, intentional, and systematic way. A focus on designing metrics for assessing the impact of the makerspace on teaching and learning will add to sustainability, especially in leaders’ ability to garner support from stakeholders along the way. Indeed, the forward-looking trend will be towards assessment and pedagogy as programs become more formalized.
We hope to continue the conversation around makerspaces in independent schools as the movement continues to evolve. If you’d like to bring a roundtable discussion to your school, please email us at email@example.com!