It’s the eve of a new school year, and as I put the finishing touches on plans for our new maker class and interview grad students about their interest in joining the Michigan Makers team, I’m thinking a lot about what comes next.
Michigan Makers, which works with upper-elementary and middle school students, has been puttering along for three years now. As we enter Year 4, it’s time for us to think seriously about what comes after Making 101.
How do we extend beyond activities that give students an introduction to a variety of possibilities and gently move them past puttering and into more intentionality? (And should we be?) We have succeeded in slowing kids down so that they enjoy the process … but are we now holding them back if we don’t further challenge them? And if we are, is that OK, because we are meeting a socioemotional need, or should we go further? It’s easy to look at a room of busy kids and think you’ve reached your goal … but what if they’re merely treading water because they don’t know where else to grow and we need to be stepping in to nudge them forward?
When working with underserved populations, do we have an extra responsibility to leverage making beyond puttering? I ask this because I wonder if in makerspaces in well-resourced communities, students have the skills, budget, and world view to more aggressively pursue bigger projects on their own. Underserved students, with less access to materials, resources, Internet connections, and more may not. How do we prioritize?
Much of the library-based maker movement comes from the, “If you build it, they will come” approach (apologies to Field of Dreams). Creating a space and a culture is so important. That being said, is that enough? I find myself asking awkward questions like, “Are our less-advantaged makers puttering because puttering is what they need at the end of a long, hard school day? Or because they and/or we aren’t sure where they go next?”
Finding that balance between hosting a safe place and leveraging that culture to propel folks forward seems to get tougher as time goes on. I think we’re not the only folks in this position … it’s something I hear talked about behind closed doors and especially in makerspaces organized by folks from non-STEM disciplines. In our staffing this year, we really got serious about adding staff whose skill sets did not mirror our own as a first step in thinking about Level 2 skills, and clarifying next steps is my top priority.
I think another challenge for school- and library-based makerspaces that we’re not sure about is how to scale beyond one-off activities. Go to the shop at a Maker Faire and you see how many kits are designed for individual, not group, use, and no school or library can afford a class set of challenging kits. A library colleague of mine says their maker programs need to cost $2/less per person in order to be viable. That naturally limits what can be made, especially given libraries’ practice not to charge for events. You can do Arduino exercises in a library workshop, but if they have to return the materials when the class is over, then there’s a natural limitation there. There can also be a time challenge in scaling up complexity. There’s a big difference between printing a Thingiverse keychain and taking on 3D modelling when it comes to making at a communal scale. It’s pretty easy to print 30 keychains in a day for your 30-student class. But teaching 3D modelling is a real challenge, and printing 30 custom designs, each of which may take multiple printings, can’t be done in a group. So taking a movement that started as a loose-knit group of individuals funding their own making and shifting it into a larger group in a non-profit session is a challenge.
Each maker year brings new challenges and opportunities, and we are grateful to have IMLS funding for the Making in Michigan Libraries project to allow our team to expand and explore these issues. This year, I’m setting “Making 102” as my goal. What’s yours?