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So You Want to Build a Maker Space, Now What?

Exploring the possible roles of maker spaces in our communities.

Making has always been a process celebrated by society, and looked upon as an adventurous feat only achieved by the wild ones, the deviants. It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t have many of the technologies and benefits we enjoy today if it wasn’t for those “makers” who devoted their patience and drive to experiment, fail and create that which was once unfathomable.

With new technologies and means of production more accessible than ever, making is becoming less of a romantic endeavor, and more of a necessary skill that has the potential to empower and transform new generations: A skill that is essential to 21st century education.

Multiple efforts to bring making into public attention have bloomed in recent years, from the rise of multitudinous maker fairs and traveling exhibitions, to the establishment of high-end maker spaces with every kind of power tool you could wish for. Yet these initiatives are only scratching the surface of the changes needed to bring experiential learning into the classrooms and homes of all people.

Museums like San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Colombia’s Maloka and Switzerland’s Technorama, have been creative leaders in inspiring people of all ages to discover and love the act of making. Other community institutions such as publicly and privately funded maker spaces and community libraries across US cities have also been instrumental in this movement.

While much of the conversation has centered on setting up successful maker spaces to impart key skills like self-organized learning and creative problem-solving, little conversation has been had about the broader role that these institutions could play in our communities.

With these spaces becoming potential catalysts of public engagement, opportunities exist for them to be contextual to the specific needs, opportunities and challenges of their local communities, assuming a role that will foster their systemic development and growth.

A vision for Seattle’s Tinker Tank

With the creation of a relatively new maker space called the Tinker Tank, Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is optimally positioned to explore these opportunities. The Tinker Tank is an experimentation and learning space that has been successful with teaching kids and their families maker activities like how to build rockets, make circuits, and create their own operation games. As with many maker spaces in their early stages, the Tinker Tank has mainly focused on setting up the foundation for the program and getting it up and running. However, at this point in their roadmap, the time has come to create a vision for how the space should evolve over the next five years.

Artefact and the Pacific Science Center collaborated together to explore these questions of identity: Who do we have the opportunity to be? How should we impact learning? What community outcomes should we strive toward?

Defining a strategic direction

Our goal was to align the vision of a multidisciplinary team into a consistent, agreed upon approach. Using our tried-and-true design thinking methods like empathy building and brainstorming to explore different potential solutions, we were empowered to investigate multiple directions, considering a broader range of ideas and options.

After a highly interactive workshop with science center stakeholders, our team defined three strategic learning and community outcomes that a maker space could offer. Each outcome demands varying resources, efforts and focus on the unique roles that the maker space could play within a community.

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Outcome: Making as whole-self learning
Creating spaces for emotional well-being and transformation

To create a space that supports whole-self learning, the focus must shift to more personal interactions and learning processes between staff and tinkerers. Here there is more demand for a higher degree of intimacy, and we need to shift the emphasis from technological learning outcomes to personal ones, such as building empathy with situations beyond one’s immediate context.

Activities like this one, which encourages children to envision a more human-centered approach to difficult situations, would be the norm. In order to decide which personal outcomes to focus on, the maker space’s staff would need to be trained on social-emotional learning skills, and be ready to learn about the needs of emotionally underserved community members in order to address them.

Outcome: Making as entrepreneurial learning
Creating launch pads for new careers and passions

Imagine if the Tinker Tank could become a community hub for young inventors to gather, where they were provided with the necessary tools, support, and advice to develop their ideas. In this approach, strong relationships with local entrepreneurship support networks become key to success. The Tinker Tank’s staff could serve as connectors to fellow entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors. Here, activities would be more focused on finding specific problems to solve, and rapidly prototyping, testing and creating them with potential users.

Outcome: Making as institutional learning
Creating laboratories for new learning methods

This approach would require the space to assume a strong thought leadership position within the education community. As a key influencer, the maker space should partner with experts to measure the comparative success of making against traditional methods of learning, while providing actionable recommendations for local teachers to start advocating for change in their schools. Activities would include developing experimental design afterschool programs that validate the impact of these methods for students and their families.

Making as an extension to the overall mission

After a highly dynamic design thinking workshop, and through a deep understanding of the emotional and functional needs of their intended audience, the Pacific Science Center’s executive team wanted to ensure that the Tinker Tank’s mission aligned with the mission of the science center – to provide a safe space for kids and their families to grow and transform through the act of making. Creating a space that could become a catalyst for whole-self learning best aligns with the science center’s organizational mission to create deep personal relationships with their visitors. Future activities, resources, and measures of success will be evaluated through this lens and the science center works through the next evolution of the Tinker Tank.