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Comparing Three Makerspaces

Upon my return from Cleveland, the academic in me immediately resorted to comparing the three makerspaces, looking for similarities and differences among them. While I understand such exercise can be reductive and trivial, it has the potential to reveal a holistic view of well-functioning academic makerspaces and provide insights for those who are planning to deploy making as a pedagogical strategy in their courses. So, in this section I offer four key similarities and three differences across the makerspaces I visited and describe their implications for a maker-based pedagogy for technical communication.

First, the most identifiable similarity among the three makerspaces I observed was that they all served mainly engineering students and faculty. When finalizing my sites, I have worked to ensure that all of the makerspaces I study would be openly accessible so as to avoid disciplinary bias in how they are set up and operated. However, even though the publicity about the Anderson Labs makerspace appealed to its accessibility and service to the university as a whole, I later found out that it only served the CSE and engineering faculty'. This seemed to be the case for the Invention Studio and Think[boxJ as well, although the two maker- spaces did not limit access to just students or faculty from a particular college or department. I argued that they still primarily catered to engineering students and faculty because of the nature of the institutions themselves (both Georgia Tech and Case Western Reserve University were known to be engineering schools).

Second, since all three of the makerspaces were relatively big and known nationally as models for emerging makerspaces, they were well-equipped in terms of the tools and materials made available to makers. They all had similar fabrication and manufacturing tools, workbenches, and collaborative spaces where makers could meet and discuss ideas. The availability of the tools and the layout of the spaces were what made these makerspaces unique learning environments. The bias-toward-action learning philosophy that was exemplified by the respective makerspaces encouraged makers to put their ideas into tangible, testable forms early rather than getting stuck in the discussion of their ideas. These spaces were clearly designed with a design thinking philosophy, where failures were celebrated as part of the design process. The student interviewers all spoke to this notion when asked about their experience in materializing their design ideas.

Third, the design of the makerspaces fostered horizontal, or peer-to-peer learning. My student informants had all noted that they found values in working from their respective makerspaces in terms of learning from other makers in the space. Reciprocally, they all offered guidance or advice to their peer makers whenever they were asked for help. This kind of learning seemed desirable as students are typically less intimidated by their peers compared to their instructors. As peer mentors, makers could also become more proficient in a tool or a making process, helping them to better teach others.

Finally, I noticed that all three makerspaces had significantly active student involvement in its core operation. In these makerspaces, there were student groups or organizations that either helped run the facility or used it to perform learning activities that benefited the university at large. For instance, at UMN, student clubs like Tesla Works and Design U were student-led groups that hosted annual university-wide make-athons that took place in the Anderson Labs. At Georgia Tech, there was an official student club for the Invention Studio that organized a similar design competition. Georgia Tech students also served as board members and were trained to become Prototype Instructors or Prototype Masters who then volunteered in the makerspace. I was informed by student makers at the Invention Studio that all tools and technology' purchases were requested by students and the affiliated faculty only signs off on the purchase requests. Lastly at Think[boxJ, students were paid as workers and technicians in the makerspace. During my site visit, I found no professional technicians at Think [box]; they were all staffed by students. Overall, all three sites appeared to be extremely student- focused, even more so than traditional student learning facilities like university libraries or writing centers. This kind of student involvement (and investment) could be a great model for traditional learning spaces.

In terms of differences, I first noticed the three makerspaces were of different sizes, and they occupied their respective campuses in different ways. With more than 50,000 square feet, Think[boxJ was the largest among the three sites I visited, followed by the UMN Anderson Labs at 10,000 square feet, and the Invention Studio at 4,500 square feet. While the size of the makerspace does not represent its prominence or success, they do require different operational procedures and run on different budgets. I learned that the UMN Anderson Labs relied on a generous donation and were administered by CSE, one of the larger college units in the university system. Similarly, the Invention Studio was supported by a larger academic unit at Georgia Tech, the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. In contrast, Think[box] was an independent player. In its Playbook, Think[box] described the importance of engaging faculty, alumni, and key university players, as well as external partners to create an “ecosystem” that would support a standalone student-serving facility.

Another difference in these three makerspaces was what I would refer to as their persona. If I were to consider each of them as individuals, I felt as though I had made three different friends, each with unique personality and character. The first friend, the Anderson Labs, was very much focused on the manufacturing process, rather than conceptualization or entrepreneurship. I would refer to this friend plainly as “the shop.” My second friend, the Invention Studio, came across as more developmental. I would call this friend “the design space.” Makers in the Invention Studio were seen tinkering and prototyping using both digital fabrication as well as manufacturing tools. However, there was less welding and more 3D printing and electronic circuitry there compared to my “shop” friend. Lastly, my third friend, the ThinkfboxJ, would be someone I refer to as “the entrepreneurial center.” It was apparent in its presentation and publicity that this third friend focused on turning prototypes into start-up products. The entrepreneurship and incubator floors in the Think[boxJ building were physical manifestations of this ideal.

The last main difference among the three makerspaces was their level of community engagement. They had varying levels of engaging external entities such as business organizations and sponsors. The Invention Studio made it obvious that most student projects were sponsored by businesses around the area. Brand names and company logos could be seen on banners and posters that were hung around the makerspace. The UMN Anderson Labs, on the contrary, had no visible showing of corporate investment in its makerspace. For Think[boxJ, community engagement meant not just bringing corporate sponsors to student projects, but also inviting them to use the makerspace for their own projects. The entrepreneurship and incubator floors in the Think[box] building were where businesses could rent temporary workspaces to create their own start-up initiatives.

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