Designing Equity-Oriented Makerspaces Part I: Interrogating the Equity Challenges in the Maker movement
Angie Calabrese Barton & Edna Tan
Makerspaces and Equity
Achievement and interest gaps remain in engineering for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Even when students are academically successful, many still see engineering as disconnected from their lives and pursuits (Tonso, 2007). African Americans make up only 5% of the engineering workforce in the US, a statistic that has not budged in decades despite reforms in STEM education. Persistent lack of interest in engineering also impacts opportunities for STEM-informed civic engagement (US Dept. of Ed. 2012).
At the same time that these inequalities persist, the “maker movement” has taken form. Makerspaces have begun appearing around the world since 2006, in museums, libraries, schools and community centers. They are intended to be places where people come together to design and build authentic, personally meaningful projects. They promote creativity and enthusiasm about new technologies, and encourage learning through building and play, such as figuring out what one can do with everyday materials and high-tech tools.
The maker movement holds great potential for engaging young people in engineering in ways that formal schooling has not. Engaging in making can support youth in learning engineering knowledge and practices, while also developing an identity in engineering. Underrepresented youth often have greater successes in out-of-school STEM than in school settings (Harvard Family Research Project, 2009), due, in part, to how these environments value learning outcomes more consistent with learning in everyday life such as identity development and multi-modal practices – outcomes that align with the maker movement.
However, the maker movement has largely been an adult, white, middle-class pursuit, led by those with the leisure time, technical knowledge, and resources to make. Even the desire to reach a broader audience through the growth of free community-based makerspaces at public libraries, users of these spaces tend to be white adult men. The discourse and practices around makerspaces have not taken an explicit equity focus.
Halverson and Sheridan (2013) argue that the maker movement is made up of three main pillars: making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities. We suggest that we must also consider the “table top” to these pillars (that is, the design of the education programs and/or opportunities made available within the makerspaces) if we are to attend broadly to equity issues within and across the maker movement.
Below we highlight the major challenges to equity in the makerspace movement. In a part 2 to this post, we will further outline one design approach which seeks to address these challenges.
- Culture of makerspaces. The types of do-it-yourself projects, and the main tools made available, have tended to focus on metals, woodworking, electronics and robotics. These fields in the professional realm, e.g. electric work/mechanics/robotic and electrical engineering, have traditionally been and currently still are, white male dominated. The knowledge base and cultural tools officially made available in these space privilege an historically masculinized practice. While we believe these fields (and the cultural tools associated) need to be opened to all people, we are cognizant that simply providing access in a makerspace to these tools may not, by itself, shift the culture of makerspace practice. It could be too simple to assume that such free, open-access would naturally translate into a flatter, more explicitly youth-centered power hierarchy.
- Affordances and Access. Makerspaces are intended to be spaces where individuals can engage in creative, cross-disciplinary design. They value the practice of bricolage, or creating things from a diverse range of tools and practice that happen to be available in-the-moment – which include the cultural tools and practices that individually unofficially bring to this space. It is up to the individual working in the makerspace to figure out how to bring official makerspace tools and resources together with their ideas and experiences, to make something. The possibilities are exciting, but accessing the possibilities can prove challenging if one is not accustomed to either these tools or a culture of making.
The allowable forms of bricolage in any given makerspace, which includes the cultural repertoires of practice that individuals bring to that space, take shape over time. As people populate the makerspace, and leave imprints through the enactment of novel practices and the production of artifacts made public in the space, a narrative around what it means to make (identity), what one can make (the making process), or who is allowed to make (maker community) all take form. We wonder, how one might gain enough confidence and authority in a makerspace to shift how tools, experiences and ideas are cobbled together towards potentially transformative ends? For example, if one has never used a power tool before, how do they learn to become expert in nontraditional uses of the tool? How might one know that it is acceptable to do things completely different? Who models these new practices, when and for whom? Generally, in makerspaces, there is an expectation that one should come to the space with a problem to solve, which can come off as something only “smart” (or “white”, “male”, or “other”) people do. That the vast majority of maker magazines and how-to guide books are written by white men or at least reflect a white middle class way of approaching things further solidifies this problem space.
- Modes of Engagement: Solo practice. Makerspaces have been designed to promote collaborative activity on specific projects. Partnerships are not required, assigned or monitored, but allowed to emerge naturally as individuals discuss projects and ideas while working in these spaces. At the same time, makerspaces are individually or personally motivated. One has to be in the space and reach out to other people, often strangers, to foster the kinds of partnership possibilities imagined by the makerspace movement. The purposes of collaboration are also typically towards individual gain (e.g., an individual or small group construction artifact) rather than a collective good. Thus, while makerspaces are fundamentally about sharing ideas and tools, what can easily remain privileged is the individual idea and do-it-yourself project.
- (Sustained) engagement. Makerspaces vary greatly in the nature of participation they engender. Some focus on offering workshops, while others are mainly drop-in places. Some serve large numbers of people on a one-time basis, while others are geared towards repeat visitors. Few host sustained programming that bring the same combinations of people together over time. The affordances of the more informal drop-in approach are that youth can “try out” the identity, practices, culture of a maker before deciding to commit to be a regular maker. However, youth may give up easily when things do not turn out as planned during a tinkering session, and miss out on developing problem solving skills and expertise that comes when they persist. They miss out on experiencing the “essence” of making –which is to experience the importance of failure, problem solving and persistence in making something. They also miss out on developing their science and engineering knowledge that may help them to make more robust designs.
Harvard Family Research Project. (2009). The role of out of school learning. Retrieved from Harvard University, Harvard Family Research Project: www.hfrp.org.
Tonso, K., (2007). On the Outskirts of Engineering. Learning Identity, Gender, and Power via Engineering Practice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
US Dept. of Education. Office of the Under Secretary and Office of Postsecondary Education (2012). Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action. Washington, DC.