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Four Considerations for Schools Building Makerspaces

This post is a collaboration between Sarah Margalus and Jay Margalus.

Introduction

As I’ve talked about in the past, makerspaces in schools, particularly K-12 schools, face many challenges and barriers to success. Many of these have to do with the newness of spaces, and the lack of knowledge and awareness around what makes a makerspace successful. This leads to poorly executed spaces, and ultimately, some institutions to come to the conclusion that makerspaces don’t work.

Makerspaces tend to work well when the spaces reinforces the community’s interests and learning. Through conversations with many makerspace leaders, I have realized one of the hardest questions to answer is *Why does your institution want a makerspace?

If you don’t already have an answer to this that clearly connects the space to community outcomes, this should become your first consideration. Sometimes, even with clear visions in mind, schools experience unexpected difficulties with their spaces.  

I’ve come up with four key considerations for schools looking at developing new spaces. These can be used as criteria for administrators to ask the kinds of “known unknown” questions when dealing with vendors or other groups who are often solicited in the assistance of the development of makerspaces. I hope this helps some institutions avoid the big problems that I’ve seen while consulting with K-12 institutions on the development of these new labs.

Four Considerations

1. Practicality:  Do they meet the needs practically to what you are doing in your school?

Think of the machines, the space size/facilities support, and your school community. Each of these vectors are important considerations in the practicality of integrated a makerspace into your institution.

Machines

  • Are the machines being proposed to add to your space practical?
  • Do people want them?
  • What are the people in your institution’s community already doing, and how can the machines that you’re purchasing support that?

This is a big place where I see schools fail, as they chase after the newest fun technology instead of the most practical technology that supports digital-physical learning. Often, this is driven by vendors who are more interested in selling the most expensive piece of equipment, rather than the right one for you.

Facilities

  • How well does the available space match the scope of the makerspace? In other words, is the space large enough to house the tools, the projects that will follow, and the other equipment that the tools necessitate?
  • Is the space appropriately ventilated and/or equipped to handle vent-out (if you’re getting a laser cutter)?
  • Is the space large enough to facilitate spreading out projects and collaboration?
  • Does the teacher have line-of-sight to each student who’s taking the class?
  • Are the ceilings tall enough for better air circulation?

There are many questions about the room that you’re putting a makerspace in, and I’d strongly suggest consulting with your facilities management folks before putting one in.

School Community

  • Is the community prepared to integrate a makerspace?
  • Are your teachers prepared to support this kind of endeavor?
  • What are the steps that need to happen before you can get true teacher buy-in to use the space, develop the space, and make it successful as a community?

Oftentimes, there’s a “if you build it, they will come” attitude about makerspace. What’s often forgotten is that teachers have very little time, and therefore, it’s not practical to ask them to figure out how to use all the new technology in a space. Think about the people you have at your school, and how you can get them to the point where they have the potential to become super users of your makerspace. What is the path forward?

2. Safety: Have you considered the safety and well-being of your audience?

Related to some of the points above, but requiring its own discussion point, is the safety of a space. Vendors will often try to sell schools on expensive machines like laser cutters with filters, or large-scale 3D printers, etc, without having visited the site where the machines will be installed. This can pose a significant problem, as the machines in makerspaces may seem to be safe/consumer-oriented, but in fact, exist in the Wild West when it comes to consumer electronics.

Here are some things to look out for:

Particulates and Odors

  • Numerous 3D printers, without enclosures, in a high-density area. 3D printers can produce particulates and odors that can be hazardous/harmful to health. Have you considered the appropriate ventilation for your machines?
  • Chemicals. Some 3D printers require the use of chemicals in order to get to a finished product. Have you considered the odors introduced by these chemicals? Do you have the appropriate gloves/eyewear/eyewash stations in place to take care of these problems?
  • Lasers. Laser cutters are often sold with filters, but filters are often not practical for schools. I like to compare this to your furnace. How often do you remember to replace the filter on your furnace? Now think about a similar kind of system, but applied to a machine that could introduce harmful matter into the air your breathe.

Line-of-Sight

  • Can the teacher see what’s happening everywhere in the classroom of your space?
  • Are there fire extinguishers within line-of-sight to machines that are fire hazards?

It’s critical that a teacher can see what is going on in every nook and cranny of a makerspace, because lots of things have the potential of going wrong.

3. Costs: Have you considered the hidden costs of the equipment including filters, enclosures?

So you’ve bought your machines, but now you need to maintain them. You need to buy consumables, repair them, and continue purchasing components that ensure that regularly replaceable parts are kept new. Some possible costs:

  • Laser cutter filters. These can run out every 3-6 months, depending on material you’re cutting, and can run upwards of $1,500 per replacement. Consider getting vent out for your laser which, although a large up front cost, may save you money in the long run.
  • Enclosures. If you’ve purchased a 3D printer without an enclosure, it may need one for both air quality safety, as well as to ensure prints do not warp as they’re being printed over time.
  • Consumables. Things like 3D printing filament (or resin), wood and acrylic for laser cutters, and so forth, can be expensive. Have you considered what this cost might look at throughout the fiscal year?
  • Replacement parts. Laser cutters require tube replacements occasionally (which can be very expensive), 3D printer hot ends inevitably wear, vinyl cutters need new blades, and so on. Have you considered the cost of replacement parts based on anticipated use of each machine? Do you have a gate in place to check back in on your assumptions halfway through the year to ensure your machines aren’t down and going unused?

4. Education: Have you considered how to integrate this into your school’s curriculum?

The wrong way to go about building a makerspace is having someone else drop a curriculum on your teachers. They don’t have time for that. It is more helpful to integrate existing curriculum and maker skills  into the use of the makerspace. Outlined below is the right way to begin integrating a makerspace into your school’s curriculum.

Existing Curriculum

How should teachers use this great new learning space? One way to ease entry is to encourage teachers to do what they are already doing, but do it in the makerspace instead. To get started, ask:

  • What am I already teaching that integrates making, crafting, or digital fabrication?
  • What science lessons already incorporate engineering practices?
  • How can I extend learning about a content area concepts by asking students to make something in response to what they have learned?
  • How can I give students a chance to explore the design process as related to other projects?

Maker Skills

Teachers already do a great job teaching students how to meet learning standards. Maker skills cross content areas and fit within the making process. This means that there are not necessarily specific projects or tools that must be present within a space, but certain skills used to make projects. These skills are based on a review of learning standards across content areas and current best instructional practices. If teachers are unsure what else to teach while making projects, they can start here and imagine what students could learn within the makerspace.

  • Questioning. Often teachers ask the questions, but students benefit from learning to ask questions as well. Imagine teaching students to ask things like,
    • What does this do?
    • What do other people have to say about this?
    • Why is this important?
    • How do these ideas fit together?
    • What if I changed this part?
    • What are other people doing in their designs?
    • Why does this look this way?

These types of questions support learning in reading, research, design, engineering, and computer sciences to name a few.

  • Clarifying. Clarifying is a useful skill in reading, but it is also helpful when taking aim and setting goals for a project, empathizing, and clarifying success criteria for a project. They can also clarify learning and refine understanding following a project or experience.
  • Systems thinking. Students learn about parts of systems, what each part does, how each part fits into the larger function, and explore what happens when different parts are changed.
  • Reiterating. Makerspaces provide a natural environment for trying and then trying again. This is an important skill that can be tricky to teach in the classroom due to time constraints. Many science experiments, engineering challenges, and reimagined art projects call for iterating again and again. This learning lends itself well to the writing process, or anytime a revision process can be used to improve a final outcome.

I hope this blog post is useful to teachers and administrators looking to build makerspaces. If you’re one of these individuals, and are looking for assistance, please reach out to me here. I work with schools, libraries, and other educational institutions to build makerspaces that are practical, safe, cost-effective, and, most importantly, meet the educational needs of your institution.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Personal Statement 2019

I don’t like to brag too much about the stuff that I do, but every year I need to write a personal statement as part of my evaluation at DePaul. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve accomplished in the past year, and feel like this letter accurately reflects most of the professional work I’ve been up to.

So, if you’re one of the folks wondering what it is that I do these days, check it out.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Makerspace / Maker Resources

I often get asked: What are some resources where I can learn about makerspaces in higher education, in my K-12 institution, or just in general? So! Here’s a short list of things I’ve collected, written about, and read over the years that I’ve found particularly influential:

  • How Tinkering and “Problem Making” Are Shaking Up Higher Education – I wrote this article for Make a few years back, but think it still holds up as a good reference for the educational/curricular side of making in higher ed.
  • Chicago Makers – I originally built this resource solely to give people in Chicago a stronger idea of how to get involved in making in our fair city, but it has since also grown into a compendium of books and resources that I find useful in the maker community. Of particular note, and influence for me, is Tim Ingold’s Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture.
  • Stanford’s d.school put out a book called Make Space, which is a really good crash course/index on different things you can build to facilitate creative collaboration in spaces like makerspaces.
  • I went to the very first International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces a few years back, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the whitepapers that come out of the conference, and have collected them all into Google Drive. You can find them here.
  • MakerEd put out a “how to build a makerspace” playbook several years ago that’s still a pretty good reference. The only caveat I would put in there is that every makerspace is different, and you should primarily listen to your community when it comes to what kind of things you should buy to support them.
  • I cannot stress enough how influential Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism has been on my philosophy about making. Particularly, the ideas around objects, their qualities, perception, and the nature of things (including people). Some good literature in that regard: Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism, Ian Bogost’s Play Anything and Alien Phenomenology, Ingold’s Making (referenced earlier), Ian Hodder’s Entangled, and the (surprisingly good) fictional book Ventus.

You can also, of course, always reach out to me for a quick chat or to come speak about these things. To do that, contact me here.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Fun Mural Idea

I was inspired by this collaborative mural at ASTC 2018 that invites people to chart their unique career paths using colored yarn to connect various milestones. So much so, that we decided to put one together for the Idea Realization Lab this year. Updates to come after we build ours.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

5 Best Posts on the Blog for 2018

Brief thoughts on these posts:

  1. The makerspace budget worksheet, by far, has brought in a lot of traffic to the website. Looking forward, I plan on developing a more interactive model that helps people make purchasing options that fit their needs.
  2. My writing on alternative platforms, badges, and the philosophy behind the design of these things, collectively, form the most popular content on this website. This tells me a lot about the kind of writing that works best for my style, as well as audience interests.
  3. Productivity posts, how-to posts, etc. perform well when I write them, but I don’t particularly enjoy doing them. Still, it might be useful to share how I develop and curate systems that help me disseminate information, share knowledge, and organize my thoughts.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Four Problems with an “Out-of-the-Box” Makerspace Solution

If you’re a school administrator or teacher who’s been hearing a lot about makerspaces, or if someone in your school is excited about building them, the big first question is: where do I start? And unfortunately, often the answer is to seek out a pre-packaged solution that claims to give you all of the equipment and furnishings you’ll need to get started. Even more unfortunate: there are plenty of companies out there willing to sell you this.

I see this problem a lot because I’m often called in after the fact to fix the problems that these companies dump on unsuspecting schools. Let’s break down the issue by first talking about what makerspaces are.

First and foremost, makerspaces are communities. They are places for collisions of knowledge, backgrounds, and expertise to happen. Makerspace communities are of the people, and both politically and through intentionality, they should support the place they exist in. If they don’t support the community they’re in, they’ll inevitably fail.

Makerspaces are also places where knowledge emerges through the engagement with tangible objects. Places where groups work together on projects and learn more about each other, the world around them, and their environment. And yes, there’s also some mix of high-tech in them.

Notice the tools are intentionally de-emphasized in my working model of what these spaces represent. A makerspace isn’t just the stuff in it, and yet maker education companies are incentivized to focus on this erroneous model driven by profit (i.e. How do companies make money off of makerspaces? By selling you expensive machines, furniture, and other solutions). Here are some of the problems that emerge from this approach:

  1. The space goes unused. Because you dropshipped a makerspace into a community without consulting educator needs, student needs, and community needs, you’ve probably purchased a bunch of things that nobody asked for. If education should address community needs (and it should), then so should the tools we use to educate. I’ve been in spaces where a school was encouraged to buy a laser cutter when all they needed was a vinyl cutter (a cost savings of over $5,000 in this instance!), and where a business recommended the purchase of an expensive 3D printer that went unused because they were too complex.
  2. The space doesn’t support curriculum. Many of these makerspaces businesses also purport to have a curriculum that supports the use of their machines. Never mind that the people who often write the curriculum aren’t educators, the main problem with this is that: (a) schools and teachers are already overburdened with curricula, and (b) the tools shouldn’t drive the teaching, but rather, what’s already happening in the classroom should drive the use of the space. Teachers have less time to scrap what they’re doing in the classroom and start anew. What they do have time for is integrating what they’re currently doing in the classroom into these spaces. That’s where my wife, Sarah Margalus’, work comes in. Sarah is an educator and makerspace organizer who has thought long and hard about these very problems.
  3. Teachers don’t use it. This is closely tied to 1 and 2. Which space do you think will be more successful? (1) A makerspace that’s built by administrators and outside institutions, then dropped into teachers laps with the request to start using it, or (2) A space that was built with the advisement of your teacher stakeholders, and that supports what they’re currently doing, while adding in some of the benefits of maker-centered learning. My bet’s on 2 all day.
  4. Safety is ignored. Literature is beginning to suggest that tools like 3D printers, laser cutters (even with filters!), and so forth have the potential to cause more harm than we recognize. To address these concerns, certain environmental safety and facility safety needs need to be met. But if I’m trying to sell you machines that could imply more costly building projects (putting a hole in the wall for vent-out, ventilating 3D printers properly, and so forth), do I have an incentive to tell you this? Of course not. And so begins the hidden cost circus as you retrofit your makerspace to make it safe for students and educators.

In the end, money is wasted, machines go unused, and possible hazards are introduced. Yes, it’s enticing to think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to your makerspace needs out there. It would be really nice if you could want something, and the perfect solution could appear. But imagine if you took this approach with your kitchen: if you let someone else design the kitchen space, buy all the tools for you, and then handed it off. What problems do you think might emerge?

My bet is the same ones that emerge from dropshipped makerspaces.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Particle Makerspace Program

Particle has a cool makerspace empowerment program that supplies kits to makerspaces, free of charge, to tinker with their platform. I really like some of the things this company does (including this cool Particle for Good program). From their website:

The Particle Makerspace Empowerment Program supplies local Makerspaces with hardware, special discounts, and dedicated support, all free of charge.

If accepted, your Makerspace will receive a package of free Particle hardware in the mail including:

  • Two Particle Photon Maker Kits

  • Four Particle Photon Kits

  • A unique Particle discount promo code

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Another great month! Here are the Idea Realization Lab November updates.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Great post over on Hackaday about 3D printer safety.

I’ve been warning folks about this problem with 3D printers forever. Anything that burns things creates some kind of a gas that you should avoid inhaling. Especially when you start talking plastics.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that aerosolized plastic is harmful to breathe, but the sheer magnitude of particles detected in this study is worth taking note of. If you don’t already, it might be good to run your 3D printer in the garage or at least in a room that isn’t used as living space.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Free Professional Development STEAM Workshops for Educators

More info here.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus