Strategic Directions | Feature

Rethinking the Makerspace

A Q&A with Kyle D. Bowen

"We have to realize that the technologies our students will be working with after graduation and beyond haven't been invented yet. But the fluencies they develop now will serve them for a long time."  — Kyle D. Bowen

When you consider the opportunities and challenges surrounding a technology offering on campus, do you focus on the specifics of that technology, or on its impact? Here, CT examines the impact of makerspaces with Penn State's Director for Teaching and Learning with Technology Kyle D. Bowen.

Mary Grush: Are we beginning to see new ways of thinking about makerspaces in education as they become more common at colleges and universities? They seem to be getting a lot of attention right now — what should educators be considering as we go forward?

Kyle Bowen: Makerspaces have become an increasingly popular development at colleges and universities. This is an exciting movement for sure, because these spaces are providing students with access to technology and facilities that may not have always been available to them.

The spaces introduce some challenges as well. Not everyone is comfortable with the popular notion of making. The idea of building a physical product can be intimidating. And combined with the technical skills needed to use the equipment, or to begin to construct your idea — all this can place the idea of making just out of reach. In addition, these spaces have historically been found inside of very specific colleges and departments (engineering and technology in particular) that make use of these kinds of tools — in effect placing an unintentional limitation on access to services.

What we've seen, though, is that the opportunity for students to be creative is what's really important. And from that emerged a new idea, a new way of thinking about makerspaces not so much focused on the space and the technology, but rather considering the fluencies that can be developed inside these areas.

Grush: Is makerspace fluency different from technical or digital literacy?

Bowen: Yes, with fluency, there is an important distinction. When you think about digital literacy and different types of literacies, the very idea of literacy focuses on what it is and how to attain it. In fluency, we are talking not only about what and how — it's also when you apply this kind of thinking, and why you apply it.

Maker fluency is a combination of different types of activities — creativity, collaboration, solutions development… The opportunity here is to develop, inside our students, these types of maker fluencies so that they can be applied as part of coursework, as part of entrepreneurship, or as part of undergraduate research. These are ways students can develop 21st century skills that enable them to solve problems now and in years to come.

Grush: Would maker fluencies be helpful to all students? How might institutions approach this question?

Bowen: The idea for institutions is to build on the best parts, the most exciting things happening in their makerspaces and make them more accessible to students of all types, from any program.

This will in turn provide opportunities for faculty to begin to introduce these types of activities as part of the learning process. Faculty can now assign invention as homework, and get students thinking about these skills and how they are of value. 

The bottom line is that students will begin to apply maker fluencies in many different areas now — but they will also develop abilities they can draw on long term, to solve problems far into the future.

We have to realize that the technologies our students will be working with after graduation and beyond haven't been invented yet. But the fluencies they develop now will serve them for a long time.

Grush: Where are we on the evolutionary growth path for makerspaces?

Bowen: To this point, makerspaces have largely focused on providing access to facilities and equipment. What has been historically considered highly technical, specialized equipment may now be somewhat more generally available, but the challenge remains, that many of these tools really are very technical in nature. To make effective use of them requires at the very least training, and often some technical skills as well.

So that model has its applications in specific technical disciplines, for sure. And these spaces will continue to be a fixture for such disciplines, just as they were even before the term "makerspace" was coined.

What's changed now is, the thinking about how to get more students involved. Because, even if you don't have the technical skills, the benefit of engaging in this type of creative solution development, and doing that collaboratively, can have a lot of value regardless of your discipline.

Grush: But aren't there more tools now, that are making it easier to design and build with less technical background?

Bowen: Yes, that's true, and it will help with creating more diverse engagement going forward. In the past year or so, a lot of maker technologies — and certain maker tools — have matured to the point where they have reduced the barriers to entry. We can look, for example, at MakerBot and how it has simplified 3D printing. And new technologies like 3D scanners that can help students create their models. We can also look at technologies like those from littleBits, a newer company that focuses on electronic building blocks from which you can create machines that connect to the Internet of Things, or you can apply sensors to a wide variety of materials. Finally, we can look again — more traditionally — at Legos, which have been the staple building toy for so many years. With the sum total of all these raw materials, if you will, and more to come, more people can finally begin to build their ideas.

Grush: Where are makerspaces headed in the next two years?

Bowen: I think makerspaces will begin to diversify in terms of the types of services they offer. If you talk about makerspaces today, it largely conjures a vision in your mind of a collection of equipment, some of it very advanced, some of it not too advanced. But we're going to see an evolution where there's a diversity of ways people can engage in this type of making activity.

The long term success of these types of programs is to focus on not just access to tools and access to the facilities, but rather what the fluencies are, that are being developed inside these kinds of spaces.

Grush: Will we see engagement with a wider array of disciplines?

Bowen: Absolutely. Maker fluency is so important because it combines together a number of different ideas in ways that we've not seen before. The technology really enables this, and it does so, inclusive of a wide variety of disciplines.

A lot of the maker spaces historically have been focused on technology and engineering, or STEM disciplines. But we can see that the maker fluencies that have emerged have application in the liberal arts, writing programs, medical education, teacher education… So, in ways not previously possible, all types of students can be drawn to engage in this.

Grush: By "all types of students" are you including online learners?

Bowen: It's important to point out once again that the makerspace isn't just a facility. This has implications for online learning. Increasingly, makerspace technologies are network devices that can be accessed from anywhere. So we have an opportunity to explore another of the long-term benefits of the makerspace environment — its application to online learning.

Grush: Going forward, do you think makerspaces in general will be broader, university-wide resources — maybe centrally located in the library or the learning commons? Who will own them, and who will support them?

Bowen: A key part of successfully growing these types of services is centralizing, or bringing together, openly available spaces, where students can both get access to tools and get the help and support they need. The best way for institutions to accomplish this is through partnerships between technology organizations and the library. The library, after all, has a long history of providing collaborative spaces.

At the same time, I think there is a really great opportunity for IT to begin to help reduce barriers to entry; to begin to offer and support these technologies — and to support the faculty and students using them. Supporting a "maker mindset" isn't simply putting out yet another tool that faculty and students have to learn. For our faculty to create these new moments of learning, they need to know that students will be supported. Supporting makerspace technologies may offer IT some new challenges, such as those presented by applications that connect new machines to the Internet. What happens when student inventions (not run-of-the-mill smart phones and laptops) are connected to the network? But for IT, that's likely going to be part of providing maker spaces that are discipline-agnostic and inclusive.

Grush: Finally, what are the most powerful examples you have of the way makerspaces change the learning experience for students?

Bowen: I'll mention two: First, a student from any area who has an idea should be able to produce — regardless of their technical skills — a prototype of their original invention. We want them to be able to pursue that, and to be able to think creatively about new ideas that solve problems. When we offer makerspaces, we have this in mind.

Second, as we integrate maker activities into coursework, we will need to develop new forms of assessment. For example, the act, and the process of creation itself could be the outcome. Rather than assessing the successful creation of a finished product or prototype, we could be offering the student the chance to fail, time and time again as they approach a difficult problem creatively… that type of activity in itself directly aids the learning process and builds a mindset that our students will carry forward after graduation. 

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