A Makerspace of Need

I’ve been struggling to write out a clear and concise vision of the ThinkLab. Every attempt has been thwarted by my attempt to explain all the details that have led me to the conclusions that I have come to. As you can imagine this does not make for clear and concise writing. So, instead of writing one blog post that works through everything that I’ve been thinking about over the past year I’m writing a series of posts that will help clarify my thinking around different areas. I hope bounding my posts to particular aspects will help me hit that publish button and get me to a point where I can say “This is what I want to come out of this space”.

Blinking LED photo gif taken by Shannon Hauser

When it comes to the most recent explosion of interest in making and DIY  (what has been called the “maker movement’) there have been certain kinds of making that have been more heavily focused on. Activities such as 3D printing, robotics, microcontrollers, drones, etc are the types of making that have been prominently featured as representative of the maker movement. Libraries and schools everywhere started buying 3D printers and little programmable boards. There were clearly defined consumable products that were considered important to have in a makerspace. Currently the makerspace I manage has many of these things (3D printers, 3D scanners, arduinos, robotics kits), but we also have sewing machines, e-textiles, and crafting materials.

3D printed articulating fish photo taken by Shannon Hauser

It isn’t hard to see what happens once you start to privilege certain things as “making” inside a movement. A quick google search will easily turn up criticism that details the problematic nature of this privileging in major publications like Make or at Maker Faires. To be fair Make magazine has done a bit better over the last couple years of being more inclusive of what counts as making. Yet, there is a persistent idea that a particular kind of making happens in makerspaces.

A while back I read this excellent post by  Kim Jaxon titled “Connecting Making, Designing and Composing” that really helped me connect the pieces on things I felt were problematic about teaching making. In the piece she notes that the recent trend in teaching people “design thinking” or the skill of “making” has the same pitfalls as assuming that the freshman comp class teaches students how to be writers. As if the skill of writing, once learned, was something that you had and can be used in any situation. Anyone who is trained in a discipline will have developed a certain way of writing that is appropriate for their field. What works for a creative fiction piece is not the same thing that works for a research biology paper, or, “writing is not writing is not writing”. A quote:

…my concern is that we are about to follow the same path with design and making as we have with the teaching of writing: we talk about introducing “design thinking” and “making” to students in general, instead of asking what it means to design like an engineer or use design like a graphic designer or ask what design problems look like to a physicist, all of whom talk about design, and the role of design in meaning making, differently in their respective fields.


While there can be a lot of overlap in approaches between disciplines to design problems there is still the reality that these approaches are emergent from the discipline and aren’t some rules handed down from above. There is no, “Though shall empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.” written in stone to be obeyed by all (although it is a pretty good guideline for a lot of things). It seemed presumptuous to me that I could come in to a discipline’s space bearing arduinos, sewing machines, and 3D prints telling them how they would all become makers now. No, I was introducing them to a particular kind of making, which, could be useful to them, but was certainly a paradigm of making that comes with a set of underlying assumptions.

Soldering Away photo taken by Shannon Hauser

Obviously, at some point in forming a makerspace you have to define a scope of services because a space can’t be all things to all people, but in making these decisions about the space I have to acknowledge that there is a whole world of possibility and I am choosing particular kinds of making. I want to make sure that the choices I make are thoughtful and aren’t necessarily driven by what the maker movement thinks is the important tech to have. So, how is one to decide what kinds of making to support? And then how does one go about learning to be a maker in all these disciplines? Another quote from the piece:

Like many of you, I will continue to be a champion for doing, making, tinkering, and composing ideas and artifacts. At the end of the day, design and making could be exactly the trojan horse we need to infuse constructivist pedagogies in teaching and learning. An affordance of a maker space is also its potential for breaking down disciplinary silos: a maker space can bring together a variety of disciplines and make explicit the kinds of problems various disciplines can solve, and more importantly, highlight the interdisciplinary approaches to meaning making and problem solving. As we take this step toward design and making in schools, my hope is that we keep an eye on the messy, recursive, and disciplinary ways we make and design.

I’m firmly of the mind that making and makerspaces can be as wide ranging as one can imagine. Therefore a makerspace should work with people in the community they serve to figure out where there are unmet needs around making and consider whether it can help support those kinds of making. It can be an in depth as working with a faculty member to learn how to take arduinos to the next level and training up tutors to help students complete complex projects that require numerous sensors and lots of coding. Or it can be as simple as noticing that you have an activist student body that often goes out to protest so maybe it would be beneficial to them to keep a stash of poster board, stencils, and paints on hand so they can make their signs. Is that not making? And imagine the conversations that could happen in a space where students are creating protest sign. Being open to possibilities in the space can mean that different kinds of makers will cross paths and who knows what might come out of that kind of cross-disciplinary interaction? I’m still working out how one manages something that can be so wide open and how to prepare student tutors to help others in this kind of space, but I think it is possible. There will be times I have to say no to things, but I want to say no for the right reasons. It is my hope that I run a makerspace that will do it’s best to find ways to help people make things or if I can’t help them point them to the places that can.

Painting Blues photo taken by Shannon Hauser.

I wonder if I could make it myself…

I’ve been trying to find a way to begin to talk about my latest job change in the library. I have this ongoing problem of wanting to write all encompassing narratives (it all started when I was 5 and I fixed my mom’s stapler) that ultimately prove to be too overwhelming to finish writing.

So, in my attempt to keep it simple I want to tell you I recently finished making something for my cat.

More specifically I made a cat scratcher pad. One of those cardboard things you can buy at the pet store that encourages your cats to claw it rather than your lovely furniture. I’ve bought a couple in the past and it always seemed to me that it consisted of cardboard pieces glued together and wrapped in some paper. It didn’t seem too complicated and one day I thought, “I wonder if I could make it myself?”. I brought my cardboard to our makerspace, the ThinkLab, and utilized a box cutter, a hot glue gun and some duct tape and out came this:

The things I do for my cat...

It didn’t turn out as neat and even as one I’d buy at the store, but it seems fairly solid. I’ll be taking it home later today to see what the cat thinks of it. The cat scratcher pad isn’t anything that complicated or elaborate but in attempting to craft my own I had to think through the process of cutting and gluing it together and as I went along what might make it more structurally sound. I’m sure you are wondering why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with my new job?

Well, in the library we’ve had a makerspace since about 2012 and in that time it has fluctuated in its use and has been making its way along with support from outside faculty and staff as well as the head of the library and library staff. It has lacked a sense of continuity though, as any space would that was being supported by people who had other jobs they had to do, and in the past years has struggled to be a place we kept staffed on a regular basis. Earlier this semester several library staff came together for a meeting and out of that came the decision that I would spend a percentage of my time managing the ThinkLab. I’m grateful to colleagues in the library who have willingly taken on pieces of my old job so that I’d actually have the time to give the ThinkLab a shot.

Now that you have that background back to the cat scratcher pad. Why do I use this as an example of something I created in the ThinkLab? Well, besides being humorous it gets to the heart of what I see the ThinkLab being and it all starts with the simple idea, “I want to try and make that”. Your project doesn’t have to be complicated or even work in the end. The important thing is that you start taking the thoughts in your head and making them in to something real. What excites me most about the space is not the 3D printers, or the robotics kits, or the sewing machines (although all of that is great) it is the opportunity to make something and probably even more importantly break something (the head of the library, Rosemary, is fond of saying that our tagline should be “We’ll help you break things creatively!”). I’m lucky that I work at a university that places great value in our students being creators of all kinds and I’m looking forward to the ThinkLab contributing to the mission of our institution in creating students that think thoughtfully about the things they produce and about the importance of being actively engaged in the world. There is more I can unpack about the pedagogy of makerspaces and certainly I plan to write more about it as I work on programming for the space over the summer, but for now I have to head home and see what my cat thinks of my handy work.