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The Frivolity of Making

Makerspaces have been widely embraced in public libraries and K-12 schools, but do they belong in higher education? Are makerspaces a frivolous pursuit?

When I worked at a public library there was very little doubt about the importance of making and it felt like the entire community was ready for a makerspace. Fortunately, many of my current colleagues at Indiana University are equally as curious and enthusiastic about the maker movement, but I can’t help but notice a certain reluctance in academia towards making, playing, and having fun. From the moment I interviewed for my current position I’ve been questioned about my interest in makerspaces and more specifically, my playful nature. I’m not afraid to admit that I like to have fun, and as librarians there’s no reason why our jobs shouldn’t be fun (at least most of the time). My mom is a nurse and there are plenty of legitimate reasons why her job isn’t fun a lot of the time. But it’s not just about me or even librarians. In higher education we constantly question if it’s okay to have fun.

Things like 3D printing and digital fabrication are an easy sell in higher ed, but littleBits and LEGOs prove slightly more challenging. I recently demonstrated the MaKey MaKey, Google Cardboard, and Sphero robotic ball for 40 of my colleagues at our library’s annual “In-House Institute.” My session was called “Intro to Makerspaces” and consisted of a quick rundown of the what and why of the maker movement, followed by play time. I was surprised to see how receptive everyone was and how quickly they got out of their seats and started playing. As the excitement in the room grew, I noticed one of my colleagues sitting with a puzzled look on his face. “But, why?” he said. As in, “why are you asking me to play with toys?” A completely reasonable question to ask, especially if you’ve been working in higher ed for 40+ years.

For starters, we know that learning by doing can be very effective, but that’s only part of it. Tinkering with littleBits does not make you an electrical engineer and it’s not supposed to. Tools like these are meant to expose you to the medium and to spark ideas. Cardboard is a great introduction to virtual reality, MaKey MaKey opens up the world of electronics, and Sphero is a much friendlier intro to programming than a blank terminal window. Many of these maker-type tools are marketed towards kids, but I’m convinced that adults are the ones who really need them. We need to be reminded of how to play, tinker, and fail; actions that many of us have become completely removed from.

Making is also a great opportunity for peer-to-peer learning across disciplines. The 2015 Library Edition of the NMC Horizon Report makes a solid argument for makerspaces in libraries: “University libraries are in the unique position to offer a central, discipline-neutral space where every member of the academic community can engage in creative activities.” I refuse to believe that our music students are the only ones who can play music or that our fine arts students are the only ones who can draw. The library offers a safe and neutral zone for students to branch out from their departments and try something new.

Interacting with new technologies is another key selling point for makerspaces, and the best makerspaces are a blend of high-tech and low-tech. Our very own MILL makerspace in the School of Education has 3D printers alongside popsicle sticks and pom-poms. It’s tough to be intimidated by the laser engraver once you’ve seen a carton full of googly eyes. This type of low-stakes environment is a great way to explore new technologies and there are few instances like this in the modern academic institution.

So are makerspaces frivolous? On the surface, yes, they can be. Sometimes playing is nothing more than a mental break, but sometimes it’s a gateway to something greater. I’d argue that we owe our students opportunities to do both.

There are tons of resources about makerspaces out there, but here’s just a few of my favorites if you’re eager to learn more…


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  3. A concerned reader

    It seems here that this is a question of intentionality. The tools you selected were designed for children’s exploration, so your colleague’s, “Why?” question makes sense. Most academic makerspaces/studios are designed to support students’ academic and personal work with professional materials, whether those are classic shop tools, animation, sound, and video tools, 3D printing and other prototyping and fabrication tools, or even the key duplication tool Rutgers has. Not all tools are right for all spaces, so bringing children’s tool into a space for adults poses some natural questions. Your ability to answer those questions — and there are many potential right answers — will determine your maker initiative’s long-term sustainability. For example, if your goal was to lower colleagues’ stress or build collegiality or as an intial jumpstarting of creative thinking or activity, then children’s tools can be a really delightful way to get them to step outside the day-to-day routines of the job. If the objective is for adults to use these tools to innovate the work they do, then scaffold activities like these so you explicitly connect them to the pathway/journey you want them to take, and that will help get them there. If your goal is for them to innovate and prototype and make new products, then align these activities with the kinds of tools and materials inventors need. Penn State is using littleBits to help students have a grounded context for technical writing, so there can be tangential choices as well. It’s unclear whether this set of activities is a means to an end or the end itself. I hope you will, in a future blog post, clarify your goals and expectations for these tools.

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