A Framework for Making Makerspaces Work

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Institute for Museum and Library Services, has released a report sharing best practices and guiding principles for makerspaces.

Research into the meaning and value of maker learning has been a focus of The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh from the first steps they took to start developing ideas for MAKESHOP in 2010. In the years since, MAKESHOP has become a national exemplar among youth and family makerspaces and the Children’s Museum has emerged as a leading voice for the thoughtful and informed advancement of maker learning.

This summer, researchers at the museum released a report, “Making + Learning in Museums & Libraries: A Practitioner’s Guide and Framework” to share what they’ve learned about the principles of makerspaces with museum educators, librarians, and others working in informal learning institutions.

Peter Wardrip Learning Scientist Peter Wardrip / Photo: Ben Filio

A collaboration between the Museum and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the report provides museum and library practitioners with a flexible framework and resources to support learning through makerspaces and maker programming. Dr. Lisa Brahms, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Director of Learning and Research, and Dr. Peter Wardrip, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Learning Scientist, conducted more than 50 interviews and site visits to library and museum makerspaces across the country.

We spoke with Peter Wardrip to learn more about what they’ve learned through the project, and how educators and others are developing their own applications of maker learning principles.

How did this collaboration between the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (CMP) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) come about?

Peter Wardrip: IMLS is the federal funding organization for museums and libraries, and they were beginning to get a lot of proposals for makerspaces from libraries and museums and didn’t feel there was a clear consensus on what needed to be in place to create the conditions for learning within a museum or library. So they felt there was a need to develop a framework for the field, and the CMP is recognized nationally, if not internationally, as a leader in maker-based learning experiences. And we were an early adopter of having a makerspace, but also an early adopter of having research to study learning in makerspaces. So those factors contributed to bringing together the museum and IMLS.

What questions were you exploring in your research?

PW: We were really interested in identifying the key components for creating conditions for learning in a makerspace. We really wanted to identify what the “secret sauce” was. A really neat facet of MAKESHOP here is that we have highly skilled, experienced, full-time educators who facilitate the experiences, and so my research is interested in teacher learning as it relates to supporting those experiences. I’ve been really impressed by the ways in which our educators support learning in MAKESHOP. And we are also interested in investigating how maker-based learning experiences are implemented and supported in schools.

What is your background, and what led you to this project?

PW: My PhD research was at the University of Pittsburgh, in learning sciences and policy. My research focused on project-based learning, data-informed instruction, and on digital badges as well.

The fact that I had experience with project-based learning provided some alignment with doing research on learning in makerspaces. And I was excited to broaden my perspective on out-of-school learning experiences like libraries and museums. I’ve always been an active user of libraries and museums but to think of them as learning spaces—it was an exciting opportunity to learn more about them.

What are the key takeaways from this report?

PW: One highlight is that there’s no one way to do a makerspace. I think sometimes people create a makerspace with a 3-D printer but we also saw really fantastic, ambitious makerspaces that didn’t have a 3-D printer at all, or their 3-D printer was in the back room, not being used.

Another is the importance of facilitators, of people. I think so often makerspaces get attention for the amazing machinery that learners use and the outlandish products that they create. But the people that are facilitating those experiences and helping manage and troubleshoot are hugely important.

The other takeaway is the importance of being really clear on what your learning goals are and starting with those goals from the beginning. There are lots of reasons why a museum or library would have a makerspace. It’s very important to be really clear and to put the learning goals first. Time and time again, people either told us that’s what they did and that was really helpful, or, more often, we heard people say, “We wish we would have done that, because we had to backtrack.” A common experience that we saw was visiting a makerspace that when they started, they had lots of really expensive equipment: vinyl cutters, laser cutters, 3-D printers. And when they began to realize that they didn’t really need all of that equipment, they realized that they actually needed more cardboard, more yarn, more micro-controllers, or something that aligned more with their values and goals.

How do you hope that educators and practitioners will use this publication?

PW: There are two types of users that we had in mind. There is the new user, the person who wants to create a makerspace. So we have tools in the publication (and on our website, Making + Learning) to help them think about why they want a makerspace, what kinds of materials might help support their vision, and things like that. The other user is someone who has a makerspace already, but might be at a point where they can take stock of what they’re doing and generate a vision, if they haven’t had time to do that yet. Our hope is that both of those types of users can use the tools in the publication as a way of refining or developing their makerspace to offer a more intentional learning experience for their learners.

This publication is certainly not a prescription and we have tried to emphasize that diversity of makerspaces, that there’s no one way to do a makerspace. But thinking about your vision and the role that people and materials can play in your makerspace may serve as guideposts for developing a makerspace.

What are the next steps for you and for the Children’s Museum with respect to this publication?

PW: Mostly it’s a process of getting the report into people’s hands. We have a massive open online course (MOOC) and people can access the MOOC at Making + Learning. Moving forward, I think this provides us with groundwork for thinking about working with museums and libraries. We have a project right now funded by IMLS to develop an observation tool to identify evidence of learning in museum and library makerspaces. And that’s partially informed by this work, by many of the practitioners saying, “We need something to make claims about what’s going on, and show that it’s not just fun, but there’s learning going on.”

Published July 28, 2017

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