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Making in Academic Settings: A Study of Three Makerspaces

Circling back to the attunement to a design-centric pedagogy for technical communication, I recognized the value of making as an educational exercise with great potential for rejuvenating our teaching and learning (Tham, 2020). When teaching as a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota, I saw making as a pedagogically sound activity that could introduce students to many core concepts of technical communication and give them an opportunity to identify and address ambiguous problems. Hence, I devoted my doctoral research to an investigation of the viability for cultivating a maker culture in the technical communication classroom. I began my study by looking outward to other disciplines in which making is already ingrained in their curricula. Upon consultations with local makers and technology enthusiasts from my network, I have come to learn about the growing network of academic makerspaces in the United States. HEMI, the Higher Education Makerspace Initiative, has gained steady traction among leading institutions with strong engineering and design programs. The Fab Foundation, an international non-profit organization that emerged from MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms to serve as a networking resource for digital fabrication communities, has reached members and partners from over 90 countries around the world.

Despite these robust networks, technical communication has virtually zero presence in them. The closest affiliation I could find after hours of keyword search and scanning of membership data was in English educators—primarily in K-12 settings—who were interested in shaking up their conventional language instruction by introducing maker activities. I also found Angela Stockman’s (2016) book, Make Writing: 5 Teaching Strategies that Turn Writer’s Workshop into a Maker Space, to be a popular guide for these literacy educators who sought to connect making and writing. Within the rhetoric and composition community, some scholar-teachers have integrated making with their writing classrooms and published compelling findings about its benefits (note especially Breaux, 2017; Craig, 2014; Elam-Handloff, 2016; Brown & Rivers, 2013; Sheridan, 2010). However, like Stockman, most of these studies discussed making in the contexts of composition—many within first-year writing—instead of the technical communication proper. I considered this a missed opportunity for our field.

To make the case for making in technical communication pedagogy, our field needs a better understanding of academic makerspace cultures beyond our occasional examinations of 3D printing (Roy, 2016) and interactions with community makers. This understanding could be gained by observing academic makerspaces in-situ—witnessing their physical structures and setups, learning about their workflow and operational process, and speaking to student makers. For this reason, I selected three academic makerspaces for in-depth site visits. They were the Anderson Student Innovation Labs at the University of Minnesota, the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech, and the Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University. These makerspaces were among a handful of options first identified from Andrew Barrett and colleagues’ (2015) review of academic makerspaces in the United States. These sites were selected due to their nature as a university makerspace— not just an engineer’s shop—as well as their establishment in the North American academic makerspace community. All three of the selected sites were regarded by their peer institutions as exemplary models.

Due to the nature of my study and funding, I was able to spend on average two days at each site performing ethnographic observations of the makerspace, the interactions between makers and the space, and overall maker culture through the respective workflow and administration. In the following sections, I begin with a brief introduction of each makerspace with their history, followed by my findings on their respective setup, workflow and processes, and maker experience on each site. I sum up my observation with a comparative analysis of the three maker- spaces by highlighting their common features and unique elements. To protect their privacy, all student names have been replaced with pseudonyms.

The Anderson Student Innovation Labs at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities (UMN)

I began my journey by visiting the Clifford I. and Nancy C. Anderson Student Innovation Labs (also known as the Anderson Labs; andersonlabs) from my home base in Minneapolis. This makerspace was what I would call a makerspace conglomerate; it’s made up of three separate labs— Student Design Lab, Student Shop, and Student Machine Shop—all supported by the UMN College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at the time of my study. The 10,000 square feet facility (all three labs combined) was initially home to several wood and metal shops where engineering students practiced wood and metalworking, welding, milling, and electronic circuitry. It was reimagined as a makerspace in 2016, after receiving a generous donation from Clifford and Nancy Anderson, with the addition of two new design and prototyping labs, and a major upgrade to an existing shop. The goal of this revitalized space was to focus on experiential learning and help students turn their design into reality.

I was introduced to the Anderson Labs by Jonathan KofFel, a health sciences librarian turned emerging technology and innovation strategist at Minnesota. From our initial meetings, I was put in contact with William Durfee, head of the mechanical engineering department and faculty sponsor for the Anderson Labs. Durfee then introduced me to two very important individuals. The first was Ben Guengerich, manager of Anderson Labs. Guengerich was a key informant who provided me with tours and detailed explanations of the functions of the Anderson Labs. The second individual Durfee introduced me to was Josh Halverson, then-senior mechanical engineering student who was completing an honors thesis examining the impact of academic makerspaces on engineering students. Halverson provided me with insightful perspectives on the uses of makerspaces from a student’s point of view.

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