by Casey Anderson, Adjunct Faculty & Digital Technology Coordinator
As part of the National Week of Making, I travelled to Washington DC to participate in Make Schools Alliance, a meeting of more than 13 representatives from Colleges across the U.S.. Each attendee represented a unique take on a shared interest: fostering a space for hands-on education via emerging technologies. I was particularly excited to both present ArtCenter College of Design’s recently published report surveying Maker Spaces in Schools of Art and Design (by Elise Co and Ian Besler, funded by Intel Labs), as well as discuss my experience running the MDP/Making Lab as an example of the unique opportunities afforded by running such a lab at ArtCenter.
Hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the conference was held in a marble-walled room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), a beautiful building neatly hidden next door to the White House. Various members of the OSTP team stopped in throughout the day to discuss their department’s specific mission regarding the promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education across the nation, with a particular emphasis on increasing underrepresented populations therein. Maker spaces, they emphasized, were a key tool for sustaining, and improving, STEM education as well as broadening the populations they serve.
Following presentations by representatives from OSTP, the conference launched into short reports on a variety of topics including: Making Maker Spaces, Designing Maker Curriculum, and Building Community. Each participant represented a unique approach to Making, and the emphasis throughout the day focused on fostering and serving the community of a Maker Space. Lisa Camp (Case Western Reserve University) went so far as to define Maker Spaces as fundamentally opposed to the kind of disciplinary silo-ing that is common at a college.
This Maker-Space-as-anti-silo sentiment was echoed by reports regarding the benefits of sharing tools and resources across spaces or labs at the same institution. Rather than spreading resources too thinly, knowledge sharing between spaces frequently resulted in an amplification and improvement of the overall educational experience provided by the institution. Similarly, many presenters reported success with operating a Maker Space explicitly as a meeting or collaboration space for groups with divergent practices, again leading to a broader, more inclusive community.
The general conception of community throughout the conference was broader than “members of a particular department,” or even “members of a particular college,” frequently stretching past the walls of the institution and into the surrounding community. As emphasized by Randy Paris (OSTP), the local community around a college can provide unique opportunities for augmenting curricular approaches. These “outsider” contributions can then be brought back to the college community, establishing a dialogue between conventionally separate groups. Maker labs, he emphasized, can establish more of a commitment from the community at large by allowing any interested person to use the lab facilities. By allowing for such open access new perspectives naturally bubble to the surface.
Malleability was also emphasized as a critical component of a Maker Space. The lack of a pre-determined mission for a Maker Space was held up as a feature across virtually all representatives present. Maker Spaces do best when they can respond to the specific interests and needs of the community the space serves, as opposed to a top-down, pre-determined, static vision. This results both in a less generic lab but also one that can continue to evolve as the interests of its users changes.
The day wrapped up with a variety of longer, simultaneous breakout sessions. I attended one focused on Diverse Users and Safe Spaces, lead by Amy Vecchione, Deana Brown (both from Boise State University), and Quincy Brown (National Science Foundation Programs at Tribal Colleges and Universities), in which techniques for fostering and supporting a more diverse community in a Maker Space were discussed. Vecchione shared strategies she uses at the Boise State University MakerLab to both promote diversity as well as create an environment that is safe and comfortable for new community members. For example, Vecchione described a Raspberry Pi driven slideshow kiosk that loops through photos of community members working in the lab. When a new member arrives, Vecchione casually takes a photo of them, which is then pushed to the repository of slideshow images. The kiosk allows new users to immediately appear on the display as community members, emphasizing a welcoming atmosphere.
Ultimately, the Make Schools Alliance Meeting was an important way to discuss and confirm successful strategies employed in Maker Spaces at the College level. I was pleasantly surprised to see that programming strategies which have become important features of the MDP/Making lab were echoed at other institutions. Similarly, the numerous stories regarding establishing and fostering long term connections across disciplinary, and institutional, divides made the power of a Maker Space come into focus. Maker Spaces are not only a site for technological education, but also a place to foster and augment an institution’s relationship to the people and places it serves.
Casey Anderson runs the Making Lab in Media Design Practices, and teaches a number of courses and workshops. He is an artist working with sound in a number of media, including composition, improvisation, electronic music, saxophone, text, and installations. He co-founded, and co-edits (with John P. Hastings and Scott Cazan), the Experimental Music Yearbook, owns and operates a wave press, and is a core member of Southland Ensemble.