Despite all the press makerspaces receive, not all are successful. Oftentimes when schools create makerspaces, excitement builds for the first few weeks as students create and explore. But as time passes, students lose interest, and the makerspaces languish silently, gathering dust. The tools that filled those makerspaces — big and small, expensive and reused, high-tech and no tech — waste away, a constant reminder that the schools' investment was all for nothing.
An autopsy reveals the cause of death: "They didn't really plan and create a makerspace that's authentic to their community," said Laura Fleming, library media specialist at New Milford High in New Jersey, and author of Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School.
But it doesn't have to end this way. By following four steps, education leaders, students, teachers, parents and community members can work together to plan vibrant makerspaces that go the distance.
1. Understand your learners
Each school has a unique DNA made up of students with different interests, so a makerspace that's designed for students who create art in New Mexico may not work for students who hike in the mountains every week in Colorado. While school leaders talk a lot about student-centered learning, not many of them actually ask students what they like to do for fun on the weekends, what kind of hobbies they have or what they're interested in, Fleming said. Instead, they ask other district leaders what tools they bought for their makerspaces and buy the same things.
"Without the voice of a learner, you really just have a bunch of stuff in the corner," she said. "It's their voice that gives the space meaning."
She recommends asking questions to find out more about who students are, either informally by walking up to them in the hallway or formally with an online survey. The answers will help shape the makerspace so that it will be authentic to a school's community.
2. Assess existing programs
To justify a makerspace, district and school leaders often want to know how the learning that happens there will tie back to the curriculum and content standards at each grade level. This step in the planning process is the perfect time to address those questions.
By looking at what's already happening in formal classroom learning environments, education leaders may find areas they thoroughly cover, as well as holes they need to fill, Fleming said. Then they can pull themes together that connect with and enrich what they're already doing.
For example, a high school already focused so much on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that its students were overworked, under pressure and would have hated a STEM-themed makerspace. So they created a health and wellness theme instead.
"It's really not about the technology, it's really not about STEM or any of those things," Fleming said. "It's a unique learning environment that encourages tinkering, play — and the key is open-ended exploration for all."
This open-ended exploration allows students to decide what learning adventure they will go on each day, which they can't do in most classrooms.
3. Consider global trends and best practices
The planning team should look at what's happening in the world around them. Oftentimes, hot topics that make the news don't make it into the curriculum that's taught in class. But they can be quickly incorporated into makerspaces.
When drones first took off in the news, Fleming mixed them into her makerspace under the theme of flight. She's also pulled in wearable technology and molecular gastronomy themes.
4. Develop, update themes
Frequently, makerspaces lose student interest because they have the same themes for years on end, Fleming said. If there's nothing new to draw students in, they won't come. But by going through this four-step planning process at least once a year, the makerspace team can keep the space fresh and sustainable so it will draw students back over and over.
Themes also allow students to go deeper with their learning. For example, a theme that includes engineering, design and architecture will be richer because it pulls together different types of materials, guest speakers and literature to support it. In an unthemed environment, students would just play with LEGOS and miss out on opportunities to design something differently.
A unique makerspace
By using this planning process, three different school districts would come up with three different makerspaces that don't look anything alike. Some will have a large budget and some will have no budget. Some will have big tech tools including 3-D printers and laser cutters; others will have paper and string. Some will be in libraries, and others will be in hallways or spread out all over campus. And that's the beauty of makerspaces — they can be created on any budget with any material in any place.
"There is no one right way to do this," Fleming said. "It's all about doing it in a way that works best for your school community."