Sheridan, K.M., Halverson, E.R., Litts, B., Brahms, L., Jacobs-Priebe, L. & Owns, T. (2014).  “Learning in the making: A Comparative study of three Makerspaces.”  Harvard Educational Review, 84, 4, p. 505-531.

A couple months back, I attended the IMLS Focus Convening on Learning in Libraries in Kansas City. While the actions of ideating, making, prototyping, and tinkering were clearly linked to learning, one of the emerging themes throughout the convening was the need to thematically classify the diversity of the intellectual activities that emerge within these growing learning environments in libraries. Sheridan and her colleagues extrapolate on the diversity of intellectual activities that take place in makerspaces (one type of learning environment hosted by many libraries) by conducting comparative case studies of three makerspaces: Sector67 in Wisconsin, Madison; Mount Elliott Makerspace in Detroit, Michigan; and Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Using purposeful sampling, Sheridan and her colleagues selected these three salient makerspace sites because they each have specific roles that they play in their communities. Sector67 was created by adult makers for other promising adult makers. The Mount Elliott makerspace was created to serve a community with limited resources, and Makeshop is a museum-based space that is open to all youth and families who visit the museum. The Mount Elliott and Makeshop makerspaces are most likely the closest to the maker environments found in libraries – sharing fairly similar purposes, target participants, media, disciplines, duration of projects, learning arrangements, and learning foci. Both these environments also support the fluid, sporadic, and deregulated “making” that takes places in teen makerspaces that many YALSA librarians host.

In their research, Sheridan and her colleagues found three major unifying themes in these three makerspaces that appear to be distinctive. First, these makerspaces bring together disciplines that are traditionally separate (i.e. computing happens in the same space as welding and sewing happens together with electronics), which is quintessential of an authentic STEAM learning environment.  Disciplinary boundaries are broken down, seamlessly facilitating the creation of novel work using various tools, materials, and practices. “This blending of traditional and digital skills, arts and engineering creates a learning environment in which there are multiple entry points to participation and leads to innovative combinations, juxtapositions, and uses of disciplinary knowledge and skill…” (Sheridan et al., 2014, 526-527).  Secondly, these makerspaces are a hybrid of formal learning practices (such as demonstrations, workshops, etc.) and informal learning practices (such as thinking, doing, and valuing), allowing makers to select which learning arrangements fit their style, the duration of time to spend on tasks, and pursuing ideas that can be impromptu or meticulously-planned. Lastly, each of these spaces value the processes involved in making (i.e. tinkering, playing, prototyping, etc.) and do not stress having end products that must work. These environments embrace failures, and use these failures as a springboard for the generation of the next set of ideas. The observations that Sheridan and her colleagues conducted found that makers sometimes initiate projects that do not come to fruition. However, as is often the case, remarkable and useful artifacts emerge in these making environments.

This research helps to illuminate the wide range of making practices and the types of learning that it supports. Makerspaces are community-driven and support connected learning practices, intergenerational learning, and participatory culture – making it a utopian learning environment for teens. As teen librarians initiate or expand their makerspaces to serve the needs of teens and their communities, it is essential that teen librarians find avenues to further develop or enrich these themes in their makerspaces.

Mega Subramaniam is an associate professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland where she researches the diverse role that libraries can play in STEM and digital literacy learning among underserved young adults.


learn button creative commons licensed Flickr photo by 드림포유 As 2016 gets underway you might be thinking about opportunities for professional learning. YALSA’s “Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” highlights the importance of continuous learning as a way to inform and improve practice and as a way to help others in your institution, and community, learn about the importance of the work you do with and for teens. As you start 2016 consider the following topics as areas you might focus on in your professional learning over the next year.

  • Design Thinking
    Using the process of design thinking to help teens develop knowledge in STEM, college and career readiness, and 21st century skills is something to add to your repertoire. Design thinking focuses on solving problems and coming up with solutions. In service for and with teens this kind of thinking should be embedded in everything you do. Read More →

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.

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