Thinking (out loud) about learning in makerspaces

I recently made an expedition to SXSWedu in Austin. I was really excited about this conference because I thought it’d be useful to me as an educator/facilitator/enabler of science and technology-based programs and projects at my library. I was looking forward to hearing new-to-me perspectives on student (or in my case teen)-centered learning; maybe I’d pick up some tips on how to help teens feel comfortable expressing their interests or how to frame  a challenging project in a manageable way or chunk it into achievable pieces. What I most hoped to do, I think, was speak with other educators about the unique challenges and opportunities of learning in a makerspace-type environment. It was a valuable experience in many ways, but not quite what I expected. (The usual caveats apply – YMMV, perhaps I picked the wrong sessions, didn’t find the right folks to network with, etc.)

As I left SXSWedu and headed for home, I reflected a bit on my experience. I was disappointed, because I had hoped to connect with experts – people who knew more than me about what I was doing. I didn’t. At a panel where I expected higher-level conversation about makerspaces and learning, I left frustrated that the conversation was ‘what is a makerspace?’ and ‘low-budget vs high-budget’ and ‘you don’t NEED a 3d printer’ instead of ‘this is what makes a makerspace special, and this is how to maximize that opportunity.’ I wanted nuts and bolts and a user’s manual, and I got Tinker Toys. As I thought more and more about what had happened, it occurred to me that if I wanted to talk about this, I ought to just start the conversation I wanted to hear. To that end, here are the questions on my mind right now, and some of my possible answers.

Question 1: What’s the best way to enable teen-initiated learning in a makerspace?

A makerspace-based learning environment is very different from the structure of classroom-based learning, and I wonder how to scaffold learning and build skills methodically in such an unstructured, come-and-go environment (or whether I should even be worrying about that).

We could provide pre-chunked modules for each tool or skill (in physical or digital format). For example, a set of Arduino-themed handout-style modules, beginning with Blink and advancing to more complicated projects. We could curate a tailored, leveled set of links to digital resources for self-directed learning, like Youtube videos, Instructables, tutorials from sites like SparkFun and Adafruit, and resources created in-house. Another option might be leveled project challenges, with resources on hand and mentors (staff and/or teens) on-site to help. For example, “program the EV3 robot to follow a line maze” with Mindstorms programming books and websites accessible, and volunteers from a local robotics team.

Question 2: How should progress be measured or tracked in a makerspace learning environment?

The first option that springs to mind is badging – digital, physical, or both. A bonus (and a drawback) of this method is the opportunity to engage an artistically inclined teen volunteer to design the badges. One major question for this method is the procedure for issuing badges. There could be an online form to fill out, though that feels disconnected and impersonal, and I know I value any chance to engage with a teen during the learning process. Staff could be the primary issuers, but that reinforces the adult-as-authority dynamic. Teen mentors could also be deputized to approve badge earning, but organizing that as a face-to-face interaction could be complicated. Would these badges stay with the badge earner, or in the makerspace? Would we need to create physical artifact to hold the badges?

Chart-based tracking is a simple, time-tested method. The information is all in one place and easily accessible, but it feels (to me) a bit internal and closed off. It could be made more accessible, however. A binder is more restricted than a Google Doc, and quite private as opposed to a classroom-style wall chart.

It could be handy to track progress on the resources themselves, especially for those teens who are looking for help learning to use a resource. Imagine a sticker on the back of a resource sheet or ‘Expert’ badges displayed alongside digital resources – the teen looking at those resources can easily see peer mentors. Privacy issues could come up here, but an opt-in system might alleviate that worry. One possible complication is the difficulty of scheduling peer-to-peer learning sessions with so many demands on teens’ time.

In addition to those questions, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the unique challenges and opportunities inherent in makerspace-based learning.

One challenge I’ve run into more than once is a complicated first foray into learning a new tool, resulting in frustration and discouragement and eventual abandonment of the project altogether, which in turn colors the teen’s view of the tool and makes it less likely that the teen will attempt to use that tool again. I hope that providing a structure for learning new tools and skills (see: Question 1) will ameliorate the problem. In discussions with others, I’ve also heard the suggestion of leaving the project as-is, in hopes that the teen will revisit it or that another teen’s curiosity will be piqued and they’ll take up the challenge. (Tangential – should projects be marked abandoned or off-limits to limit toe-stepping?)

Some makerspace materials are disposable, but many must be reused (for example, Arduinos), but being able to show off projects is important. What’s the best way to record these projects for posterity and ensure that the maker has some artifact of their accomplishment? Video clips? Time lapse photography? And what’s the best way to store and catalog these digital artifacts so that they’ll be accessible to the makers? Should they also be publicly accessible?


Caroline Mossing is a Teen Services Librarian in the Teen Library at the San Antonio Central Library.


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