Equitably consequential practices in Makerspaces: Contact zones for equity in making
Angela Calabrese Barton & Edna Tan
For national making week, we want to continue our focus on equity in making & makerspaces. Over the past 15 years, we have followed youth across the spaces of home, school, and after school across the middle grades, following some of the youth into college. One goal of this work has been to make sense of youths’ pathways into/out of/through/in STEM, and use to our understandings to co-design (with youth) for pathways that are equitably consequential. By equitably consequential we suggest that learning and becoming are forward directed and transformative for both the self and the community, such that acts of learning and becoming contribute productively to, and help to legitimize, an ever expanding range of ideas, tools, resources and ways of being in STEM. We are particularly interested in the role that youths’ making (both inside and outside of makerspaces) plays in their pathways.
Mobilities of learning studies remind us that learning always takes place somewhere, both in “relation to history (time) and context (place/space).” (p. 749). One thread of work that is particularly salient to our own work is that which examines space-making as a part of more expansive views of learning. We use the term space-making in ways similar to that of place-making. An individual’s opportunities to be and to become are shaped by place. At the same time, who one is also gives meaning to place: Creswell reminds us that “Places do not have intrinsic meanings and essences . . . the meanings of place are created through practice” (p. 17).
By drawing attention to space over place, we acknowledge the itinerant over fixed nature of learning, where space reflects “a territory defined by practice-based learning, inhabited by a network of people, ideas, and objects in movement” rather than a fixed geographical area. We also use space to suggest that the possible platforms for being and becoming are not only solely contingent on the structural landscape of geographical places but also tied to norms and power structures. “Space” connotes the plurality of spaces (platforms for being/becoming) that may be connected to a singular geographical place (e.g., home, school).
For example, in our work we look at how the playing field in after school making clubs (one area of space-making) transform for youth as they refine the problems and designs they worked on in both technical and social ways, expanding their connectedness to others, and the access they have to ideas, tools, and resources for advancing their expertise. We also explore how youth’s making also transform the playing field among peers, family, and community (another area of space-making). The youths’ design work impacts being in community with how their making artifacts impact life there, at the same time they make doing engineering an insider practice, something owned by the community. We also look at how the playing fields of STEM, both real and imagined (a 3rd area of space-making) transform. The youths’ practices serve as new tools to expand the purposes and goals for engaging in STEM.
Given our focus on equity in making, we consider the importance of designing for maximal zones of contact (across stakeholders and salient issues across youths’ everyday lives in different spaces –home, community, school, informal Maker program) in supporting such space making. Previous studies on makerspaces primarily viewed them as closed learning environments or bounded communities of practice in which individuals participate in core practices regarding making and become a legitimate member of the communities.
However, the youth in our projects show us that their makerspace work is much more flexible, and positioned “in a nexus of relations” to various physical and virtual locales, such as home, school, pinterest, playgrounds, and transportation routes. The juxtaposition of these locales, “and the contact zones between them, become an expanded terrain of examination and evidence” concerning both making and place. We are concerned with mechanisms (youth-driven, broker-driven) that promote, legitimize, and expand zones of contact, with particular attention on the following three:
- Youth create contact zones between places created by the funds of knowledge they leverage towards technical design starting points. For example, Samuel who designed a light up football knew how a football spirals and this led him to investigate how to weight the batteries in a light up ball he made. Jennifer who made a heated jacket knew how her Dad insulated a fireplace as a starting point for thinking about non-bulky ways to heat a jacket.
- Youth also created contact zones by the tools they appropriated for new purposes. For example, Pinterest served both as a tool for Emily & Jennifer (who made a heated jacket) to position themselves with authority, given their expert status with computers, and giving them time to think through the fashion side of their design, while seeking safe inroads to the tech side of the task. Emily developed new tests for assessing the quality of the heating system in her heated jacket when the standard quantitative thermometer test proved too limiting, such as the skin test, and the timed test.
- Youth also created contact zones by leveraging their insider social networks. They strategically brought new and different people into the design conversation, such as their friends, parents/grandparents, teachers, engineers, and little kids, entangling technical and social concerns in their designs in ways that advanced the technical quality while deeply ensconcing themselves and their networks as an integral parts of their design.
This blurring of spaces – zones of contact – helped to “deterritorialize” the making space and the broader space of doing STEM. Who can make and whose knowledge matters is surfaced and challenged as the histories and geographies of youth makers shape the ways in which they bound the problems they sought to solve and the solutions they developed.