Makerspaces: What they are, and what they might mean for the university system


by Aubrey Wigner, a graduate student in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology


The STGlobal Conference is an annual graduate student-led event for presenting in-process or recently completed research. During our panel titled, “Education and Technology” at this year’s conference, there was a great deal of discussion on how to engage students with science and engineering, as well as what the goals of that engagement should be. Do we want education that churns out better human calculators or is there something more we’re looking for in our training of scientists and engineers?

For my colleague, Gabriela Gonzalez, who is not only a PhD student in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology but also a leader in education outreach for young Latina women, education in science and engineering is a means to equality and empowerment. For my research, my goal is to gain a better understanding of how we can improve engineering education through project-based learning, community interaction, and hands-on experiences with technology. One weakness in many current engineering curriculums is summed up nicely by the quote below.

Today’s engineering graduates need to have strong communication and teamwork skills, but they don’t. They need to have a broader perspective of the issues that concern their profession such as social, environmental and economic issues, but they haven’t. Finally, they are graduating with good knowledge of fundamental engineering science and computer literacy, but they don’t know how to apply that in practice

– Mills and Treagust, 2003, Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

In short, while we are in general turning out great human calculators, we are not creating team members for problem-solving in a complex world with concerns that bridge the scientific, social, environmental, and economic realms. My research focuses on investigating one possible solution for providing education to confront these multifaceted issues. One perceived solution to this problem is the integration of Makerspaces into the university. Makerspaces, in this context, are shared workspaces where students have access to high-tech and low-tech tools, such as laser cutters, 3-D printers, electronics kits, woodworking supplies, and metalworking tools. In addition to serving as the locale in which project-based learning could occur, Makerspaces would also offer a space for students to engage in self-directed projects, entrepreneurial ventures, and even tasks as seemingly mundane as fixing their own high tech possessions when they break. The skills that could be gained in Makerspaces could be an important value-added service to our current engineering educational model.

Of course, many questions remain on how we might proceed to design and integrate Makerspaces within the university system. What matters in these spaces— is it all about having high tech tools, or is there a community aspect that facilitates deeper learning? Should these spaces be open to all students on campus or only those taking a relevant class? Does each school need their own place, one for art, one for design, another for engineering, or should we encourage the cross fertilization of ideas by having spaces open to all? Is this something the university should directly fund? How can these spaces be formulated so that they are welcoming spaces for students across gender, race, and social class lines?

The answers to these questions aren’t known yet in a precise and rigorous manner. My research from here will investigate how Makerspaces are being integrated into ASU, what the social and technical challenges are, and how we might design equality of access to the early forming phases in making communities. Fortunately, ASU is a great test-bed for investigating these questions. Currently, ASU has many labs on its campuses that possess the tools of a Makerspace. Some of these labs are science-based, others come in the form of sculpture studios, Digital Culture fabrication labs, and 3-D print shops. Additionally, at the Polytechnic Campus, there is a model for the schoolwide engineering Makerspace. The Polytechnic Startup Labs is open to all students and has tools, materials, and expertise on hand for helping to build nearly any project a student or group of students might be interested in pursuing. Furthermore, ASU as a whole has partnered with Tech Shop, a California based for-profit Makerspace, and opened up a shop in Chandler where students can take classes, access tools, and make their ideas grow.

STGlobal offered a great chance to share this initial research concept with other students as well as university faculty members. What the outcomes of integrating Makerspaces into college campuses may be remains to be seen. However, these spaces are coming to a town, and possibly a campus near you. While my research in this area is just beginning, rest assured, As We Now Think will be hearing more from me as best practices for Makerspaces are revealed over coming years. Stay tuned and get ready to dive into some hands-on learning.