The Makerspace Movement: Sites of Possibilities for Equitable Opportunities to Engage Underrepresented Youth in STEM

Angie Calabrese Barton, Edna Tan & Day Greenberg

Large gaps in achievement and interest in STEM persist for youth growing up in poverty, and in particular for African American and Latino youth. Within the informal education community, the recently evolving “maker movement” has sparked interest for its potential role in breaking down longstanding barriers to learning and attainment in STEM, with advocates arguing for its “democratizing effects.” What remains unclear is how minoritized newcomers to a makerspace can access and engage in makerspaces in robust and equitably consequential ways.

Our research team has been studying how makerspaces might support sustained engagement for minoritized youth as well as the forms of engagement that seem most salient for sustained engagement. Our findings to date suggest that sustained, mutual engagement matter to youth because it provides opportunities to learn and re-mix STEM knowledge and practices with what one brings into the makerspace can make possible more robust designs and more expansive possibilities for becoming in making. Our work also suggests that greater opportunities to build social networks in support of STEM learning increases youths’ mobilities among a range of learning arrangements, opening up new forms of learning and becoming.

We propose three ways in which sustained mutual engagement is supported. 

  1. Learning within the tension: Purposeful playfulness and just-in-time content/practice learning. If makerspaces are to help ameliorate inequality in STEM, then opportunities need to exist for youth to develop robust knowledge and practice within the domain. At the same time, one of the very assets of a makerspace is in how it supports young people in making in ways that are creative, playful, and personally relevant. Sustained and mutual engagement allows for both playfulness and deepening understanding to co-exist, and for the emergent tensions to be productive spaces of learning. We have found that designing and making available “just-in-time learning resources” to support deepening understandings of STEM knowledge and practices is central to this equity concern. We have also found that sustained engagement provides more and varied opportunities to play around with the tools, resources, and ideas available in the makerspace, in ways that open up mastery of these tools in both traditional and nontraditional ways – and for traditional and nontraditional purposes.
  2. Broadening the range of maker identities for minoritized youth. As people populate makerspaces, and leave imprints through the enactment of novel practices and the production of artifacts made public there, a narrative around what it means to make (identity), what one can make (the making process), and who is allowed to make (maker community) all take form. Youth benefit from an expansive view of what it means to become a “youth maker”. Some of the youth in our study come to the makerspace with no explicit interests in making, at least in its traditional forms. However, many end up staying because the enterprise of making is woven into other salient areas of their young lives – afterschool hangout space, spending time with friends, access to the internet and computers, and snacks.
  3. Unpacking “community” in a community-based makerspace for youth from minoritized communities. In seeking community-based partnerships, we recognize the significance in housing makerspaces in physical and figurative spaces where the youth “rule.” We have learned from our long-term partnerships that there are specific affordances that support productive hybrid STEM identity work for under-represented youth, when such programs are housed in these community spaces. These spaces are shaped by youth culture – their ideas, ways of relating, interests and desires. How youth move in these spaces significantly shapes how they engage in makerspace activities.

In our next blog post we describe how and why these forms of engagement are equitably consequential.

This entry was posted in Engineering, Equity, Identity, Making 4 Change, Youth Makers and tagged , , , on by .

About Angela Calabrese Barton

Angela Calabrese Barton is a professor in teacher education. Her research focuses on issues of equity and social justice in science education, with a particular emphasis on the urban context. Drawing from qualitative and critical/feminist methodologies, she conducts ethnographic and case study research in urban community- and school- based settings that targets the science teaching- learning experiences of three major stakeholder groups: upper elementary and middle school youth, teachers learning to teach science for social justice, and parents engaging in their children’s science education. She also engages in curriculum research and development that links nutrition and science literacies in the upper elementary and middle school classroom.

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