Hands-on Learning

8 Design Steps for an Academic Makerspace

student using a 3D printer

If you build it, will they come? That is the question many schools have about finding room on campus for a "makerspace."

The just-released 6th annual New Media Consortium Horizon Report K-12 Edition listed makerspaces as an emerging technology in the year-or-less adoption timeframe. "Makerspaces are increasingly being looked to as a method for engaging learners in creative, higher-order problem-solving through hands-on design, construction, and iteration," the report noted.

That sounds great, but what is the definition of a makerspace, and how do you launch one? As Dale Dougherty, one of the founders of the maker movement, has said, a makerspace might share aspects of shop class, an art studio, science labs and home economics. It could focus on electronics, robotics, woodworking, sewing, laser cutting, programming or any combination of those.

Before enthusiastic school technology leaders start drawing up blueprints for their makerspaces, there's lots of planning that needs to take place, said Russ Jarowski, director of technology at Miss Hall's School, a private school for girls in Pittsfield, MA, who has been involved in the development of several makerspaces over the last 10 years, including at University of Maryland-Baltimore County. It won't help to build out a space if students don't show up and if parents don't support it, he said. "Also, unless its purpose is aligned with school culture and values, it will not succeed," he warned.

Speaking at the annual ISTE Conference in Philadelphia June 29, Jarowski detailed eight steps to work through in the creation of a successful child-centered academic makerspace.

1. Purpose: First, make sure it is clear to you and the school why you are building a makerspace: It should be for the promotion of hands-on learning and collaboration, Jarowski said.

It also should be interdisciplinary, so hopefully teachers from multiple academic disciplines will get involved. Give them a lot of time to work and experiment.

You must make decisions about its scope. Is it part of a class? An after-school activity? Will it encourage entrepreneurship among students as they build prototypes?

Jarowski recommended drafting a written plan, charter or manifesto. "Develop your elevator pitch that you can deliver in 30 seconds," he said, to explain what the makerspace is to the board, administrators and potential donors.

2. People: Think through who will use and support the makerspace. Who is going to keep up the equipment?

"You need to identify the stakeholders," Jarowski said. "Parents are important because they can bring expertise they can share. He noted that in Western Massachusetts, where his school is located, there are several plastics manufacturing plants. He took students to a plastics manufacturer and showed them what a high-end 3D printer can do.

"You don't have to be a technology expert because there are communities online that will help you," he said. But you do have to realize that when you buy 3D printers, they will break and get clogged extruders and you have to have someone willing to work to fix the equipment.

"Involve students in every step of the planning," he suggested.

3. Curriculum: What makes it an academic makerspace rather than an adult space, Jarowski said, is that it motivates children to discover new skills and knowledge. Students can read research papers and perform interviews on the topic they are addressing. They can write up status reports about what problem they want to solve.

"Without this component, we see a lot of failures," he added.

Jarowski also said that teachers could find interesting lesson plans that involve makerspaces online.

4. Equipment: Part of planning will be deciding which tools to support. Most involve electronics and 3D printers, but some just offer sewing. Many have microcontrollers, laser cutters and soldering supplies. Other supplies might be hairspray, acetone, wires, cardboard and filament, as well as Legos.

Jarowski warned against buying anything online that seems extremely inexpensive because they are likely to be knock-offs of dubious quality and offering no support. Buy things with enough lead time to figure out how they work before introducing them to students, he suggested.

Safety is important, too, so you must also budget for goggles, gloves, aprons, lab coats and a fire extinguisher.

5. Location: Where in the school to put a makerspace is an important consideration. Some schools use an existing classroom; others are using part of their library.

"Media specialists love this stuff, so it is good to get them involved, Jarowski said.

On the other hand, some aspects of makerspace work make a lot of noise and may not mesh well with other uses of the library. Another option is to make the space mobile or cart-based and move it from class to class. One school he described sets up a makerspace on a pop-up basis once a week right outside the cafeteria. "Also, an area to display student projects is important," he said. It helps the students develop a sense of pride.

6. Funding: Is it a new budget item? Or could different departments come together and share budgets to create or maintain a makerspace? Are there grants available? Consider seeking donations from the private sector, Jarowski said. Perhaps a plastics company could buy a 3D printer for the school, he added. He also recommended reserving up to 20 percent of your budget for maintenance and additional supplies. "You could build a basic academic makerspace for $5,000 or less," he estimated.

7. Setup: Jarowski said many people ask if a makerspace is a classroom or a workshop. His answer is that it should be both, or a synthesis of the two. But he said several considerations should go into the physical setup.

  • You should have both high-tech and low-tech areas, and clean and messy areas, with separate workstations for different types of activities.
  • Don't carpet the space because carpet is hard to clean, he said.
  • Make sure you include whiteboards so students can work on problems together.

8. Promotion: It is important to showcase student projects, prototypes and designs, he said. Keep cameras around to document their efforts and include them in the social media and blog of the school. Hold open houses and invite parents, he suggested, and host a mini-maker fair of your own. Jarowksi also strongly recommended including the news media. When a story appeared in the local paper in Western Massachusetts about his school, within days he had 200 phone calls asking about the makerspace.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.