Making for All: How to Build an Inclusive Makerspace

Making for All: How to Build an Inclusive Makerspace


The Maker Movement has crept into the consciousness of schools in the past few years. For some, it’s a wake up call that over-tested, over-scheduled young people are not going to become the creative, enthusiastic learners we all hope to nurture. For others, it’s a personal reconnection to our collective, deeply-felt human impulses to create, invent, and shape the world. Makerspaces, genius hour, design thinking, and other frameworks can help make these ideas come to life in classrooms, libraries, museums, and community centers. But are these innovations accessible to everyone, to every child?

Leah Buechley is a former MIT associate professor and inventor of a wide range of “maker” technologies that merge high-tech and craft traditions. She has called for a move beyond robots and competitions to include a wider range of tools, traditions, and people. The Maker Movement should not just be about rich white males and the toys they can build and buy. In schools, this move to inclusion seems obvious. Who would not agree that all children should benefit? However, there is a feeling that you need expensive equipment and massive remodeling projects to truly join the maker revolution. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

There are a number of organizations working to bring the empowerment of making to a wider range of people, not just in the US, but around the world. The FabLearn Fellows, a project of the Stanford Transformative Learning Technologies Lab, is a group of 18 educators who work in a variety of schools, community organizations, and museums around the world. Their blogs and posts offer a wide range of the hows and whys of successful projects that include and empower.

One of these Fellows is Susan Klimczak, the education organizer of Boston's Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program at South End Technology Center @ Tent City. The goal is to create a safe and creative space for high school and college youth to use a design engineering process to imagine and create a better and more just future. These young people do not just participate, but learn to teach and share their new skills with others, building a self-sustaining community and culture. Susan shares strategies for community participation and youth empowerment, which echo many other makerspaces that focus on inclusion: Empowerment isn’t something you DO to people, it’s something that happens when people do powerful things that matter to them.

Another FabLearn Fellow, Roy Ombatti, is the Outreach Coordinator at the Nairobi FabLab. Roy is involved with a project to solve a problem of small fleas called “jiggers” that infest poor communities and can cause foot deformities. They infect people who live in unsanitary conditions through bare feet. The project, “Happy Feet,” teaches people young and old, to make and design their own shoes through 3D printing, creating shoes that can fit any foot, healthy or otherwise, and preventing further outbreaks. As Roy says, “It is evident that the solution to jiggers cannot be just shoes. The crux of the problem is poverty and so something needs to be done to address this directly. I hope to do this through the maker education. With continued support and uptake, I see the shoe centers serving as small-scale/mini FabLabs where the youth are taught skills and introduced to making. With these skills, the youth will certainly have a better chance at life as they not only feel like they are part of the solution, but they are also empowered to do more…much, much more.” Roy is also working to bring down the cost of 3D printing by making the plastic filament raw material out of recycled plastic.

The days of waiting for a handout, or a company to make what you need, or grants are over. People are using maker technology to shape their own lives and make changes that matter to them and their community.

Nettrice Gaskins, an artist and educator who is the Director of the STEAM Education Lab at the Boston Arts Academy, writes and speaks about this subtle shift in power that makes all the difference. In Recontextualizing the Makerspace: Culturally Responsive Education, she argues “for a redefinition of technology and technological processes that include engagements by groups underrepresented in the DIY/makerspace/hacker culture movement.” By creating spaces and events that are culturally responsive and culturally situated, they serve as catalysts and agents for change within a community, rather than remaining objects of change by others.

The idea of inclusion is not only important for community organizations or schools serving underserved populations. Every makerspace should be aware of their capacity to serve all people: children and adults, all genders, all backgrounds, and those who are interested in the arts, engineering, or both. Even in the best-resourced maker environments, there should be constant vigilance about the assumptions that are made about the people who might want to use them.

To create inclusive experiences in schools, educators should consider these factors:

  • Empower students not just to be passive objects of the lessons, but to include them as allies and advocates for making things that matter to them.
  • Culturally responsive, situated, and relevant doesn’t mean asking students to write hip hop lyrics about the scientific method. But it doesn't mean ignoring hip hop either. Seeing cultural practices in a maker light can open doors and blur the lines between teachers and learners.
  • Sensitivity to surroundings. Research shows that girls react to surroundings that reflect stereotypical “hacker” culture by denying that they are interested in science and engineering. If you aren’t sure what vibe your classroom or makerspace is communicating, ask some kids.
  • Reduce competition. Both overt contests and more subtle competition, like competition caused by a lack of adequate materials and tools, can reduce participation of girls. It can also be a barrier for beginners and students who don’t see themselves as “technical.” The competition aspect raises the stakes to a level that is too risky for students to jump in and try something they may actually enjoy.
  • Don’t advantage one kind of building over another. Robots are cool, but the same technologies of micro-controllers, sensors, motors, and lights could make smart clothes, a useful invention for an elderly aunt, or better still, something no one has thought of before. Provide incentives, multiple on-ramps, praise, and glory for all kinds of making.

There are many, many examples of makerspaces, both community and school-based, that work to empower everyone, not just those who want to build robots. Creating these experiences means that everyone can benefit from the learning that happens when hands-on is combined with heads-in. Makerspaces should be about empowering people, all people, to experiment with ways to make sense of the world, to make the world a better places, and to make meaning in their lives.

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