When engineers have access to campus makerspaces, they can be more creative, more inspired, and more comfortable with failure. Can these spaces be more inclusive, too?
By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor
Today’s university students were preschoolers when the iPhone first came out. High-speed internet was the norm. Google. Group text messaging. Snapchat. Digital tech was everywhere. This is the first generation to grow up with knowledge literally at the tips of their fingers. But that digital access came at a cost.
The art of tinkering was lost. The concept of taking apart your lawn mower and putting it back together was retired with the dial-up modem. The infusion of the computer into everything made technology more sophisticated — and also harder to build or fix on your own. At the same time, being book smart was celebrated over being savvy in your garage workshop. It became easier and easier to become disconnected from the inner workings of the devices all around you.
But the maker movement has sought to change that. And it grew up right alongside these students. It was a resurgence of hands-on learning, not just from books, the internet, or YouTube, but by building something with your hands. To take an idea and create something you can hold. To encourage anyone to be an inventor, an innovator.
The roots of the maker movement can be traced back to the mid-1990s in Europe, where the first “hackerspaces” emerged. Hobbyists and computer programmers got together to reverse-engineer technology to do things it was not designed to do.
This concept expanded to include designing and making new things as well. By 2005, Make magazine, founded by Dale Dougherty, became a home for the burgeoning movement, launching a publication that celebrated the DIYers, the tinkerers, the engineers, the crafters, and the designers.
And with it the idea of celebrating all things handmade became more popular. Companies responded with open-source technology and helpful tools such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and OpenROV, allowing makers to create more complex products.
From 2005 to 2014, the maker movement grew substantially and, with Etsy and Kickstarter, became even more mainstream.
And the idea of a shared space for makers — the makerspace — emerged.
The makerspace blueprint
When the maker movement was in its infancy in 2002, a 3D printer cost roughly half a million dollars. By 2009, you could buy a MakerBot for less than a thousand dollars. A laser cutter cost about $2,000 and a vinyl cutter a few hundred. These digital fabrication tools are the backbone of the maker movement, and their accessible pricing meant that for a relatively small investment, a makerspace could easily be stocked. Manufacturing equipment that used to take up entire buildings could be represented in closet-size corners or even on desktops.
Research universities were among the first institutions to embrace makerspaces, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opening one of the first in 1992. By 2005, MIT had rolled out a network of makerspaces called Fab Labs (short for fabrication laboratories). And as the equipment became even more affordable, makerspaces began popping up at many universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, and libraries.
Initially, in the higher education arena, these spaces were born in engineering schools. But as makerspaces nurtured broader maker communities and the shared experience of making, the value of an interdisciplinary space took hold. More intentionally created spaces that were university-wide, central, and welcoming to the entire campus became more common, though engineering students are typically the most frequent users.
Makerspaces by their very nature are jam-packed with both low-tech and high-tech equipment. The 3D printer and laser cutter are the centerpieces. Vinyl cutters, sewing machines, and paint bays are typical. Woodworking areas include traditional tools along with modern ShopBots and digital tools that help makers precisely cut, drill, or machine parts robotically. Many universities have migrated their machine shops and other fabrication equipment. Also common: waterjets; welding tools; audiovisual production equipment; 3D scanners; and electronics equipment such as microcontrollers, soldering kits, CAD/CAM computer labs, and now virtual and augmented reality tools.
Marlo Dreissigacker Kohn, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and associate director of the Product Realization Lab — its marquee makerspace — describes this ability to shift between technologies without any barriers as a key part of the maker movement. “It’s the maker mentality to go between processes and use different tools, even using traditional machines in more flexible ways.”
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland opened a makerspace as a pilot program in the basement of an engineering building in 2012. As they tested student participation, equipment, processes, budget, and even hours to be open, they learned that interest was incredibly high. The university converted a 50,000-square-foot (4,645-square-meter) storage building into a seven-story makerspace. Sears think[box], promoted by the school as one of the largest makerspaces on a university campus, opened in 2015.
“First and foremost, we saw [makerspace users] are learning way more than we ever expected them to—everything from design manufacturing, computational tools and materials, and things we expected. … But they’re also learning about the culture of the space, ingenuity, improvisation, learning to fail, and resourcefulness.”
– Julie Linsey, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, Georgia Tech
But it isn’t enough for makerspaces to simply make tools available. Straightforward pathways to learn how to use those tools — and examples of how to leverage multiple tools and materials to make a prototype — are required to welcome and encourage new and repeat users.
Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, provides all incoming students training in its main makerspace, The Shop, within their first few weeks on campus.
A culture of curiosity
Unlike the machine shop of yesterday, makerspaces are known for being open, welcoming spaces. Those machine shops were often noisy, dirty, exclusive spaces where you had to enter with a drawing of what you needed fabricated. Makerspaces have shifted the focus to self-directed spaces for learning.
The spirit of a makerspace is that of doing, of being active, jumping in and trying things with a can-do attitude and openness to spontaneity. They are energetic, highly collaborative spaces almost always bustling with activity.
“It’s a culture of curiosity,” said Ainsley Buckner, director of prototyping, art, and community engagement at Case Western Reserve’s Sears think[box]. There, users regularly ask one another simply, “What are you working on?”
“Even if they have nothing to contribute, just asking creates community,” Buckner said.
Kohn of Stanford echoes the joy she sees when people make something together in a community. “Having the ability to work with other students and see what other people are doing and how other people are solving problems differently — students really prefer to be doing the work together.”
Daniela Faas, Ph.D., associate professor of practice and director of fabrication and laboratory operations at Olin College, says a major component of a makerspace is not denying any user anything. Whether it’s the student in the materials science class who is making a cheese knife out of cheese, someone working on a Valentine’s gift, or a student who wants to try the rotary laser cutter, all use is encouraged. “A lot of it is just the sense of not saying no,” said Dr. Faas. “But instead, saying, ‘OK, that sounds interesting. Have you maybe thought about this?’ And then how can we support you to do that?”
Where students take the lead
A common theme across many makerspaces is how much of a lead students have taken in both their creations and operations.
Georgia Institute of Technology’s Flowers Invention Studio is entirely student-run. Begun in an underutilized mailroom that students cleared out and stocked with a drill press and other tools they needed to work on their capstone design projects, it has grown to a 7,000-square-foot (650-square-meter) space and is run by a student executive board.
At Stanford, 23 graduate students staff the Product Realization Lab, serving almost like resident assistants who help students and play foundational roles in creating the culture of the space.
“It’s been important to us to make sure we’re creating a staff that are not just technical experts, but people with empathy, creativity, and curiosity, who are here to support the students through their learning experiences and journeys,” Kohn said.
Olin College, too, staffs The Shop with 20 student assistants. Using students to help other students in makerspaces “breaks down the barriers, and you can interact with a peer much differently than with a staff member,” Dr. Faas said.
The makerspace benefits
A makerspace can help spark an interest in STEM or the arts, or simply in learning as a whole. It can catalyze an entrepreneurial spirit or even help launch a new business. (In fact, Sears think[box] has helped launch more than 200 startups and counting.) Or it can be just plain fun for many students.
Julie Linsey, Ph.D., a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, conducted research on what makerspace users actually learn. “First and foremost, we saw they are learning way more than we ever expected them to — everything from design manufacturing, computational tools and materials, and things we expected, such as prototyping skills. But they’re also learning about the culture of the space, ingenuity, improvisation, learning to fail, and resourcefulness,” said Dr. Linsey. “We also see a lot of self-directed learning, resilience, and grit.”
“It has definitely improved my ability to design things well and to be able to design things realistically,” said Julianna Carreras, a junior engineering major at Case Western Reserve and student worker at Sears think[box]. “Thinking about how you’re creating things has definitely helped me become a better engineer. And making those things that I designed is very intriguing for me; it’s helped me realize that I love to design and make things as an engineer.”
The value of failing and nurturing creativity
“When I first started making things, it definitely hit me harder if I had a misstep or something like that,” Carreras said. “But now it’s more of a learning experience, and I’m not as upset about it.”
Carreras now feels more comfortable failing, especially if it involves her own project. She sees it as a way for her to become more familiar with the tools and understand how best to use them.
Buckner believes failing builds more confident, honest people. “I think people tend to not want to try something or lie about their mishaps because there’s a negative association with failing or messing something up,” said Buckner. Sears think[box] encourages a culture of embracing failure within their student technicians so they can encourage the same with users.
Failing also helps teach patience. Sometimes a user wants to jump to making something in wood, Buckner says, but you have to help them scaffold their learning, so they start in cardboard first. Then they can test their design and not be disappointed if the first iteration doesn’t work.
This acceptance of failure is a big mindset shift from classes, says Ian Charnas, director of innovation and technology at Sears think[box]. “If you have six classes and you have five A’s and one F, that’s not considered a great semester by a number of people,” he said. “But in our innovation center, if you have five failures and one success, which many entrepreneurs do, that’s considered terrific. But that can feel wrong to someone who is used to classroom grading.”
Makerspaces are essentially creativity factories: offering up all the equipment, space, and like-minded individuals to help you create anything your heart desires. At Georgia Tech, Dr. Linsey has also done research on the connection between makerspace users and creativity. “We know students that are more involved in the makerspace tend to be better at generating ideas,” she said. “And it’s probably because they see lots of different examples of things you can do.”
Kohn sees a natural connection between the designing and physical creation of things and the nurturing of creativity. “By having access to new tools, materials, and processes, people build up their toolbelt to creatively apply these new ways of doing things. It just naturally gives people a lot more capacity for creativity, because they know how to do all these different things and can think about different ways of using those things.”
The tie to curriculum
Initially, many spaces were created intentionally separate from coursework. Over time, however, colleges and institutions began aligning makerspaces with the curriculum. Connecting the two introduces more students to these spaces and gets them trained on the tools.
Students receive class prompts that apply course lessons, but the use of the makerspace allows them to make decisions about what they want to do and gives them the freedom to explore, try, and experiment, explains Kohn.
And the makerspaces allow the curriculum to prioritize hands-on, experiential learning earlier in their programs — a shift many degree programs have been trying to make.
The modern engineering curriculum has become jam-packed with mathematical modeling and theory, rather than experiential or practice-based lessons. This means that many engineering students have not engaged in actual design-and-build experiences until late in their programs or even until their senior capstones. The rise of makerspaces has helped to change that.
At Case Western Reserve, all first-year engineering students take a foundational engineering course, which requires them to visit Sears think[box] to build different aspects of their projects.
“We see in the literature on learning that everybody, but especially young women, gain an advantage — perform better and have better knowledge retention — when you can apply what you’re learning in the class to something concrete,” said Charnas.
And the value of the makerspace on curriculum flows both ways. “I definitely apply things I’ve learned in think[box] to my own classes,” Carreras said.
At Olin College, Dr. Faas teaches a class on design for manufacturing. Students are taught various mass-manufacturing skills. Dr. Faas teaches them the theory of injection molding, but then she has them actually go through the process themselves: Each student makes a bolt on a CNC machine.
“They actually have to create a product, so then there’s a physical manifestation of what they’re learning,” Dr. Faas said. “They’ve actually gone through the process of making from zero to that final plastic piece. So it’s not just abstract anymore.”
The nurturing of pride
Carreras had never been in a makerspace before touring colleges. But she had always been a maker, growing up crocheting and making handmade gifts. “Being at think[box] and having all these machines available to me, my first thought was, ‘What can I make for my mom?’ Essentially I wanted to make gifts for my family and be able to say, ‘This is something I made and I’m proud of it.’”
Indeed, pride seems to be a common element that students feel about their makerspace creations.
Carreras made her mom a keychain in acknowledgment of how she always lost her keys. She also joined the robotics club, which met in the makerspace, and got more and more involved, eventually becoming the club president. In her junior year, she also became a student worker at Sears think[box] and spent her downtime thinking about projects she could make with the equipment.
“Pride really translates to the making of a physical object,” said Carreras. “You’re designing something, you’re putting in all this work, and seeing it come out and physically be in your hands is a surreal experience, because you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I made this. It came from my head and my ideas, and now I’m holding it in my hands and I’m able to show it to people.’”
“Thinking about how you’re creating things has definitely helped me become a better engineer. And making those things that I designed is very intriguing for me; it’s helped me realize that I love to design and make things as an engineer.”
– Julianna Carreras, junior engineering major and student worker at Sears think[box], Case Western Reserve University
Makerspaces and inclusivity
For all their benefit, makerspaces, while known for embracing inclusivity as a core value, are still not immune to the same lack of diversity found in the larger engineering field.
“Unfortunately, the research shows that the broader culture comes into the spaces; they are not as diverse, not as welcoming as we wish they could be,” said Dr. Linsey.
A 2021 study published in the International Journal of STEM Education looked at how university makerspaces impacted student users’ senses of belonging and self-efficacy. It found that after a semester of makerspace use, students had an increase in feelings of self-efficacy in terms of design, innovation, and technology. They also experienced an increased sense of belonging with the makerspace and within engineering.
The increases were true for all racial and gender groups. However, male students had higher average scores across all three types of self-efficacy. And white students’ average innovation self-efficacy scores were significantly higher than students who identified as Asian, foreign, multiracial, or Black.
Another study, published in 2018 in the International Journal of Engineering Education, looked at ways university makerspaces can better support the inclusion of undergraduate women and conducted interviews with women students and makerspace leaders.
Seeing other women in the makerspace was described as an important indicator of feeling welcome. Seeing peers, student workers, and leaders who were also women was a way of role modeling their acceptance into the community.
“Representation matters,” said Dr. Faas. “I think you want to come back to a space that you feel comfortable enough to feel emotionally and physically connected to.” Dr. Faas says at Olin, they focus on centering the makerspace around inclusivity first, not their collection of machinery and tools. They look for empathy skills in the student shop assistants they hire and require them to take bias and LGBTQIA+ safe space and inclusivity training.
Of the 16 shop assistants working at Olin’s makerspace, seven identify as female, five as male, and four as transgender or gender nonbinary. They provided pronoun and identity patches for them to voluntarily put on their aprons. All workers chose to add a pronoun patch and seven used an identity patch.
These simple steps allow first-time (and repeat) users to know that it is an inclusive space. In reflecting on how these small changes have affected the makerspace culture, one student noted: “We’ve been able to see a transition from it being a bit more of a hardcore mechie- or male-dominated space to a very open learning space for students here.”
Another tactic women users noted valuing were clear ways to prove they have the technical skills needed through some sort of official credentials. In this way, “male peers would be more likely to accept them as fellow engineers.” Otherwise, they shared, it occurs too often that on group projects, the women students are assigned the writing parts and the men students do the building.
“We do need to be very intentional about getting all of our students into these spaces,” said Dr. Linsey. “And I strongly believe progress is being made in these makerspaces. Because it’s very promising for women, especially when these spaces are well designed and the culture is intentionally influenced … and sometimes it’s breaking down their past experiences to say, ‘No, there are better ways of doing these things, and you’re welcome here.’”