Start small and go from there: a Q&A with Lou Karas
Lou Karas helps educators think through starting maker spaces, avoiding mistakes, and keeping their maker spaces growing.
As Director of the Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University, Lou Karas assists educators throughout West Virginia and Pennsylvania establish their own makerspaces. She maintains the Center’s own makerspace and loans out a wide array of technology resources to help educators get started. We talked with Lou about the challenges faced by educators new to making, common mistakes, and what you really need to make a makerspace work.
What kinds of advice do you give to teachers and others who are interested in starting a makerspace?
I try to get educators who are getting started with maker learning to think about what it is they want to do and why they are starting a makerspace.
You can also go and see what other people have done. Take tours of other makerspaces. What’s worked for others? What hasn’t? But I’d add that educators should do this understanding that there’s no “one size fits all” in this kind of work.
I recommend that educators start small, start with what they have, instead of jumping in and saying, “Oh, we’re going to create this space and we’re going to buy all these things.” Instead, try it out on a smaller scale. That can mean not feeling like they have to jump in with a 3D printer right away, but focusing on things like upcycled and recycled materials, or tools and people who are in the community. In the rural schools that I work with, the maker movement may be new but crafts like making quilts and woodworking have a long tradition in those communities. Those are great assets for teachers trying to start a makerspace.
And then even as you start small, be thinking about it as a work in progress. Maker spaces are constantly changing, and as an educator you’ll constantly be adding things and changing things.
Besides “stuff”—equipment, tools, other gear—what are the critical components necessary in starting a makerspace?
I would say the critical component is an engaged adult. It could be a teacher, principal, volunteer—someone who is willing to make these opportunities happen in the school and to introduce making to kids and work with them is sometimes, I think, even more important than having all this stuff.
If a school is determined to have a more technology-based maker space, such as a Fabrication Lab, it’s crucial that schools get the training and professional development for whoever is going to be staffing that space. You need someone who is the point person, who’s going to do the troubleshooting, help manage the supplies, deal with equipment when your 3D printer breaks down.
What are some common mistakes in setting up a new makerspace? What do people fail to do, or don’t think about until a problem arises?
There are teachers who start makerspaces because making is a hot topic right now. Or because there are funding opportunities available. Again, I think it’s really important for sustainability to ask “Why do we want this? How is it going to be accessible?”
We used to have computer labs, where the computers were in a room, you’d go there for a particular class, and teachers had to sign up to access it. And I’ve seen that become a challenge with maker spaces being created the same way. Today, while schools may still have computer labs, you also see laptops, iPads, and other computers everywhere. Computers are a tool, not something that is special and isolated. So that is another mistake that sometimes comes up, is when making gets isolated.
How do you respond to teachers who may not think of themselves as makers, or as creative?
In working with teachers and teacher candidates who fit that description, supporting them in the shift toward making is key. It’s important to show them that they don’t have to be the expert in everything, and they can engage in the same trial and error that students engage in when they’re making. That’s such a powerful message.
Teachers who come to visit my makerspace comment that they enjoy bringing children to the center because children don’t often have the opportunity to play and just explore. And the teachers will say, “I never thought about doing that in my classroom.” Sometimes it’s important to give adults, too, the opportunity to play and make and explore so that they are then more open to simply allowing things to happen when they’re working with children.
Sometimes the obstacles are more concrete, like finding ways to support teachers in getting comfortable working with materials. They’ll say, “My classroom’s going to be a mess,” or “I don’t have the storage space,” or “I don’t have money to buy lots of things.” So if I can give them a bag of materials to get them started, or suggest they reach out to other teachers, or to their neighbors, asking them to put aside cardboard, masking tape, things like that, that is all a help to getting past those obstacles.
And again, I would add just thinking about why you need a makerspace. And it’s okay to start small. When you’ve had it for a year or two, you can add things, move things, change things.
A big part of the challenge, too, is getting from a place of thinking about a makerspace as all this extra stuff piling on top of you to realizing that making can be a new way of accomplishing your goals. So “How can I make this work with everything I already have to do?” can change to “How can I use this to accomplish what I have to do?”