The term “maker space” is getting a good deal of attention lately, especially in education environments. In fact, maker spaces have been part of a trend that began over a decade ago. The idea of making things, of course, is not new, but the concept of incorporating physical spaces within learning environments designed to foster greater cross-discipline collaboration and problem solving through creating things has just begun to really take hold.
At its heart, the term maker space is about collaboration. That is, bringing people and ideas of diverse backgrounds and disciplines together to generate ideas and solve problems. Having spaces that facilitate those goals is critical, especially in the modern learning environment, whether for young students in a K-12 setting or college students in a higher education setting.
Our firm focuses on a few primary aspects of what makes a successful maker space, and the factors that influence our conscious design decisions. These aspects include offering flexible environments for collaborative work; bringing diverse disciplines and industries together; and fostering opportunities for creative ideation and problem-solving through the act of making things.
Space for Flexible Collaboration
Whenever we think about maker spaces, the actual space itself is critical. Having a space that can be different things to different students means that it should be a welcoming, neutral space with many different opportunities for use.
In the K-12 setting, a flexible space may take the form of a wide corridor with classrooms on either side. The corridor might be used both for circulation – so that students and faculty can move through it and across it – but also as a collaborative and instructional space where multiple students from different classrooms can work together or alongside one another.
Flexible spaces in both K-12 and higher education settings include large tables or work desks with casters so they can be moved around, as well as high-top tables or bar seating for head-down concentration over a laptop. Lounge seating and couches offer space for more informal discussion or casual group ideation. The goal of this varied “palette of postures” is to accommodate individuals as well as groups; deep concentration as well as lively discussion. In the higher education setting, it’s important that the space feel neutral and approachable rather than controlled by a single degree program or discipline. A consistent food source – a snack bar or vending machine at the very least – never hurts, either.
Opportunities to Bridge Different Disciplines
Even in the K-12 setting, a key component of a successful maker space is the opportunity to bring together multiple ideas or learning styles. For younger ages, this might be a space where visual learners as well as auditory learners have the ability to learn and create in their own ways. It might also mean working with puzzles to better learn reading skills, or working on building letters into words while literally building a tower of blocks. Maker space are used to bring different concepts together from different disciplines to show students how and why things work together, which gives them the ability to develop and synthesize solutions. Having a space to create, be messy and find connections between subject matter is a big part of the K-12 maker space concept.
In the higher education setting, this concept takes shape in bringing together students of different degree programs or majors. For example, we are designing the Entrepreneurial Space at Williams Village at University of Colorado Boulder to be a gateway maker space, where underclassmen can wander in on their way to or from the dining hall right next door. The 2,000-square-foot space offers a neutral, approachable environment for meeting others, sharing ideas with upperclassmen and even visiting with professionals and business owners from the surrounding community. At its heart, the space offers a place to learn the protocols of collaboration – how to interact with others to solve problems – as well as gain mentorship and even hone their enterprising spirits for future business ideas.
Tools to Develop Creative Solutions
Another common thread in maker spaces from the K-12 setting to higher ed is that they provide tools for learners to turn concepts into something physical.
At Roots Elementary school in Denver, we designed a maker space as a section of a larger room. Here, students as young as kindergarteners begin to learn traditionally advanced concepts like geometry and physics by building things, be it a tower of blocks using different shapes, or building a bridge from one student’s desk to another. At younger ages, the tools they use don’t need to be sophisticated: Legos, building blocks and even paper can all be used as tools to solve problems and create physical solutions.
As students grow, their tools become more advanced. High school and even middle school students may have access to 3-D printers and laser cutters. Devices and machinery become more advanced and specialized as they advance to college. Whether students are building an actual device or coding a computer program, the maker space will have the flexibility for students to explore many different avenues of “making.”
Maker spaces in educational settings help students learn how to work together, support one another, and bridge different disciplines when it comes to solving problems. Student makers may work on their own, but the opportunity to collaborate with new people, forge connections and develop new ideas together are key pathways to producing creative, viable solutions. At a younger age, the option to continue learning in a dynamic, fun way outside the traditional classroom can spur excitement and creativity. As time goes on, maker spaces have the power to help students customize their learning processes and even their degrees, encouraging students to see beyond their immediate major and take their education into their own hands during college and beyond.
Published in the September 2017 issue of Building Dialogue.