Digital Makerspaces and the Library Analogy
3D printers, vinyl cutters, soft circuits, CNC machines, and laser cutters are exciting to bring into formal education, and many schools are adding these digital makerspaces and fab labs at a rapid pace. Though these digital fabrication technologies have the potential to transform student learning, it is imperative to take a thoughtful approach before investing in equipment and technologies. When working with administrators and other stakeholders in the beginning of makerspace planning, I like to use the library analogy.
Consider the digital makerspace in your school as a library, where the tools and technology available in the space are the "books" of the traditional library. Students in your school use the books for learning different things, sometimes they are learning to read, but they are also learning about history and biology and the phases of the moon. The books available in your school library should reflect classroom learning, as should the technology in your space. Expanding on that analogy, here are five things to consider for school-wide integration of your new digital makerspace.
In a school-based library, the books that line the shelves are different than in a community-based library. Look at the titles of the books at your public library and then compare them to your school library. Sure there will be some overlap (specifically in the kids or young adult section); however, not all of the books in a community library should be in an educational library, and the same is true for makerspaces. Not all digital fabrication equipment is helpful or even appropriate for a school program, so be careful not to just buy the same inventory you see in a public or a university-based digital makerspace.
The books in the school-based library support what is happening in the classroom. Teachers should be able to advance their lessons in the library and students should be able to support their classroom learning with library materials. Students should also be encouraged to dive deeper into the bookshelves if they show a particular interest. The tools and technologies in your makerspace should meet this criteria as well, giving both teachers and students opportunities to expand classroom learning.
All classes should have access to the library in school. All too often in educational makerspaces, I see that the space is reserved for a technology elective, a specific STEAM class, or a gifted class. Imagine this scenario within a school-based library and you can start to see some problems. Technologies in the space, like books, can and should be used by everyone in the school to learn whatever content they are learning at their own level. Makerspaces, like libraries, should be integrated into the entire school, not relegated to one or two classes, and this concept needs to be addressed and embedded in school culture.
A librarian is essential for the sustainable function of the library. A librarian knows the content of the shelves, can help teachers find books and plan lessons around the books, and can support students who are extending their own interests. A librarian also assesses the needs of the school and orders new books, replaces damaged ones, and generally keeps the space organized and welcoming. In a school-based makerspace, this role is essential to integration yet is often left unfilled. A makerspace, like a library, can't sustain itself very long without care and maintenance and support for users of the space.
Teachers need to know what the library has to offer their classes. In preparing a lesson, the teacher can incorporate library books that support learning and inspire students. Without knowing what those books are and how they relate to the subject matter, a teacher will not use them and the same is true for 3D printers or lasers. In a digital makerspace, it is more challenging to reach all of the teachers with this content, and thoughtful professional development is necessary. Ongoing trainings, demonstrations, lesson development, and time to explore the technologies are all essential for teachers to have a good understanding of how the technology can support student learning.
This library analogy helps spark discussions among stakeholders in the planning phase but can also be used for schools assessing their current strategy in makerspace integration. It's a concept that resonates with educators, administrators, parents, and even students. After all, most of us understand how a library functions and its potential, let's work to embed the same understanding and appreciation of school-based makerspace to offer opportunities to all learners.