Four Problems with an "Out-of-the-Box" Makerspace Solution

If you’re a school administrator or teacher who’s been hearing a lot about makerspaces, or if someone in your school is excited about building them, the big first question is: where do I start? And unfortunately, often the answer is to seek out a pre-packaged solution that claims to give you all of the equipment and furnishings you’ll need to get started. Even more unfortunate: there are plenty of companies out there willing to sell you this.

I see this problem a lot because I’m often called in after the fact to fix the problems that these companies dump on unsuspecting schools. Let’s break down the issue by first talking about what makerspaces are.

First and foremost, makerspaces are communities. They are places for collisions of knowledge, backgrounds, and expertise to happen. Makerspace communities are of the people, and both politically and through intentionality, they should support the place they exist in. If they don’t support the community they’re in, they’ll inevitably fail.

Makerspaces are also places where knowledge emerges through the engagement with tangible objects. Places where groups work together on projects and learn more about each other, the world around them, and their environment. And yes, there’s also some mix of high-tech in them.

Notice the tools are intentionally de-emphasized in my working model of what these spaces represent. A makerspace isn’t just the stuff in it, and yet maker education companies are incentivized to focus on this erroneous model driven by profit (i.e. How do companies make money off of makerspaces? By selling you expensive machines, furniture, and other solutions). Here are some of the problems that emerge from this approach:

  1. The space goes unused. Because you dropshipped a makerspace into a community without consulting educator needs, student needs, and community needs, you’ve probably purchased a bunch of things that nobody asked for. If education should address community needs (and it should), then so should the tools we use to educate. I’ve been in spaces where a school was encouraged to buy a laser cutter when all they needed was a vinyl cutter (a cost savings of over $5,000 in this instance!), and where a business recommended the purchase of an expensive 3D printer that went unused because they were too complex.
  2. The space doesn’t support curriculum. Many of these makerspaces businesses also purport to have a curriculum that supports the use of their machines. Never mind that the people who often write the curriculum aren’t educators, the main problem with this is that: (a) schools and teachers are already overburdened with curricula, and (b) the tools shouldn’t drive the teaching, but rather, what’s already happening in the classroom should drive the use of the space. Teachers have less time to scrap what they’re doing in the classroom and start anew. What they do have time for is integrating what they’re currently doing in the classroom into these spaces. That’s where my wife, Sarah Margalus’, work comes in. Sarah is an educator and makerspace organizer who has thought long and hard about these very problems.
  3. Teachers don’t use it. This is closely tied to 1 and 2. Which space do you think will be more successful? (1) A makerspace that’s built by administrators and outside institutions, then dropped into teachers laps with the request to start using it, or (2) A space that was built with the advisement of your teacher stakeholders, and that supports what they’re currently doing, while adding in some of the benefits of maker-centered learning. My bet’s on 2 all day.
  4. Safety is ignored. Literature is beginning to suggest that tools like 3D printers, laser cutters (even with filters!), and so forth have the potential to cause more harm than we recognize. To address these concerns, certain environmental safety and facility safety needs need to be met. But if I’m trying to sell you machines that could imply more costly building projects (putting a hole in the wall for vent-out, ventilating 3D printers properly, and so forth), do I have an incentive to tell you this? Of course not. And so begins the hidden cost circus as you retrofit your makerspace to make it safe for students and educators.

In the end, money is wasted, machines go unused, and possible hazards are introduced. Yes, it’s enticing to think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to your makerspace needs out there. It would be really nice if you could want something, and the perfect solution could appear. But imagine if you took this approach with your kitchen: if you let someone else design the kitchen space, buy all the tools for you, and then handed it off. What problems do you think might emerge?

My bet is the same ones that emerge from dropshipped makerspaces.