Seven Mistakes of MakerSpaces

If you’re like most American schools, there’s a good chance your school has not had a MakerSpace or a Shop classroom or a Home Economics classroom in a decade.  Many school administrators recall shop classes or home economics — but have virtually no idea what goes into running one or starting one up.  They often think it’s a matter of putting a lot of tools into a largish classroom, and leaving it at that; or giving a teacher (or librarian — some libraries are starting up MakerSpaces now, too) permission to run a program: up, up and away!

But when a school is starting a program from scratch, it’s likely to forget a number of critical points of view.  We’ve identified seventeen ways that MakerSpace programs don’t get enough forethought in American school programs — and we’ve identified a a number of possible solutions to those problems, as well.  Not every solution is going to work for every institution, of course. But knowing what solutions to pursue can be helpful.

Here are the top seven of our “MakerSpace Mistakes” that administrators usually get blind-sided by:

  1. Liability vs. Best Practice
  2. Professional Development
  3. Curriculum Scope and Sequence
  4. Gender Friendliness
  5. Hardware Store Time
  6. Visual Thinking
  7. Mission Creep

Let’s look at these briefly.

  • Liability vs. Best Practice:  It’s easy for schools to get caught up in the question of liability when there’s an injury in a MakerSpace. But it’s better to establish goals for best practice ahead of time. It’s better to dedicate the time and attention to think about your MakerSpace’s First Aid procedures, and the correct procedure for various pieces of equipment, when you’re not in emergency mode.
  • Professional Development: It’s easy for schools to saddle the “MakerSpace Teacher” with a wide swath of responsibilities for the space.  But if your school has spent thousands of dollars on complicated and potentially-dangerous equipment, you owe it to your staff to make sure that they know how to use it.  You expect your teachers to master your online course software and grades-posting software; why aren’t you also planning for them to become proficient in the sewing machine or the drill press, too?  Build in the appropriate time and expectations for your teachers to train on your expensive equipment; don’t leave it for the MakerSpace Teacher alone.
  • Curriculum Scope and Sequence: Most MakerSpaces have to start out slow.  Your institution likely has students who have never been given much chance to handle sharp objects in school before, and now you’re introducing CNC machines and 3D printers that can cut or burn.  Yet as your MakerSpace students and teachers grow in proficiency and confidence, you’ll find that the MakerSpace can be a source of school-wide disruption.  Plan for it, at least a little, by focusing on curriculum development every month for at least the first five years.  Frequent course adjustment will be necessary.
  • Gender Friendliness: MakerSpaces often tend to skew toward robotics, programming, and carpentry, and girls can feel left out.  Work on developing a gender-friendly in-school curriculum and after-school program with a range of activities designed to appeal to both boys and girls. Expect that all students are going to learn to saw a board, build a robot arm, sew a lunch bag, and knit a scarf. Doing so helps ensure a greater crossover of students — girls to robotics, boys to sewing and knitting.
  • Hardware Store Time: A MakerSpace teacher often spends as much time browsing for parts as she does teaching students to assemble them.  During one particularly hard week, I had to visit six different stores looking for the right motors for a project when an online order’s delivery was delayed several days.  Another time, I spent ten minutes browsing for the three different lengths of screws that a student needed to finish a project safely.   A MakerSpace teacher needs built-in time in their work-week to go off on shopping expeditions for parts, tools, and materials.
  • Visual Thinking: Schools and libraries tend to privilege the written word and mathematics over other methods of understanding the world. But drawing and visual thinking are critical tools for the designer — Charles Darwin diagrammed the process of evolution twenty-five years before he could explain it in words; and Thomas Edison sketched a lightbulb seven years before his team knew what all the parts had to be made of.  Any teacher at all can teach visual thinking skills — visual note-taking, sketching, drawing, doodling, cartooning, and so on — but they have to know and understand why and how to privilege it.  See Professional Development, above.
  • Mission Creep: Your MakerSpace should wind up at the center of a lot of different parts of your school and its curriculum.  The MakerSpace students and adults may find themselves running an ad hoc theater tech shop, a series of support projects for your core curriculum, be an important part of your encore curriculum, run an after-school program, and provide additional layers of everything your school does from graphic design to computer programming (if it doesn’t wind up there, you should ask yourself “why not?”).  Your MakerSpace should, over time, become a humming machine at the heart of your school.  But be careful: don’t let your staff or your equipment run at 110% — it’s a great way to break the program. Make sure that you identify the program’s mission, and keep it from spiraling too far from that mission.

For ways to avoid these and other mistakes, contact us.