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Spotlight on Makerspaces: The Newest Movement in STEM Education

Spotlight on Makerspaces: The Newest Movement in STEM Education

Not long ago, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States was known for its emphasis on reading textbooks, memorizing information, and taking multiple-choice tests. However, when the number of students choosing STEM majors, graduating with STEM degrees, and starting STEM careers began to decline, leaders in government, education, and the tech industry wondered what could be done to reverse this trend. Studies were undertaken that showed promise in more interactive approaches to STEM teaching and learning, and changes began to be made.

Now, some of the most effective ways to teach STEM concepts involve hands-on activities. These activities are often problem-based, interactive, student-focused, collaborative, integrative, and flexible. Such hallmarks of effective STEM education overlap with the principles of the maker movement, a community-based initiative dedicated to active learning. Now, evidence of the maker movement in the form of makerspaces can be found in schools around the country. Read on to learn more about this latest influence on STEM education.

History of the Maker Movement

Make: Community logo

The launch of Make: magazine in 2005 is considered by many to be the start of the maker movement. Soon afterward, in 2006, the first Maker Faire was held, an event that highlights new handmade innovations. Both the magazine and the ongoing Maker Faires are known for promoting hands-on activities that teach new skills in areas such as technology, science, engineering, art, performance, and craft. Possessing a focus on problem-solving, the maker movement is dedicated to imagining and fabricating new products designed to address real-world issues.

Today, Maker Faires are held worldwide. Due to the plethora of Flagship Maker Faires, Featured Maker Faires, Mini Maker Faires, and School Maker Faires, nearly everyone should be able to find a Maker Faire nearby. In 2019, over 250 Maker Faires are expected to be held across the globe. Meanwhile, Make: magazine continues to produce six issues per year filled with project ideas and tips. The maker movement appears to be alive and well 14 years after its inception.

What Defines Makerspaces

Developed as part of the maker movement, makerspaces are places where people can come together to work on handmade projects. They are stocked with tools and materials that makers may find useful. There is no set list of supplies that makerspaces need, with tools and materials often selected based on community interest and cost. The size of makerspaces can also differ, again depending on interest and budget.

Makerspaces sometimes have themes depending on the interests of the communities where they are located. For example, a tech or robotics makerspace might include computers, 3D printers, circuit boards, wires, and microcontrollers. A makerspace with an engineering focus might include hand tools, small power tools, wood, metal, and welding equipment. Finally, a crafting makerspace might include fabric, thread, yarn, sewing machines, colored paper, glue sticks, and scissors. On the other hand, some makerspaces are more general in nature and provide opportunities for all of these specialties to coexist.

No matter what the theme of the makerspace in question, all makerspaces need cabinets, storage chests, benches, tables, seating, and adequate lighting. In addition, all makerspaces need people to organize the space, keep inventory, maintain cleanliness, and ensure the security of all the materials and the people using the space. Finally, makerspaces are collaborative in nature, so all makerspaces need people to participate in the creation of self-designed and self-directed projects. While some people might use the spaces to focus on individual projects, they should be prepared for input from others who are using the space at the same time.

Makerspaces in Education

Due to the emphasis on hands-on, project-based, collaborative problem solving in makerspaces, many educators find them to be a good fit for STEM education. To learn more about the usefulness of makerspaces in STEM education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a grant in 2018 to study makerspaces in college STEM programs. Currently in the midst of two years of research, the University of Central Arkansas faculty member who is serving as the principal investigator for the grant has not yet published the results. However, the research project is based on case study information from six different makerspaces in undergraduate engineering programs. Furthermore, data from a national survey of makerspaces affiliated with college-level engineering programs will be used in formulating the results.

This nationwide NSF-funded study is just one piece of evidence pointing to the widespread existence of makerspaces in education. According to Make: magazine, California alone has 24 makerspaces affiliated with community colleges in that state that are funded through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. Furthermore, in 2019, 60 School Maker Faires have been held so far in the United States, with even more School Maker Faires held around the globe this year. With evidence like this, it seems clear that the popularity of makerspaces and the maker movement will impact STEM education for many more years to come.