Making Your Makerspace Work | Part 3

The following is an abridged transcript of a lecture I gave for an ALSC online workshop I taught from 2017-2018.

This week we will talk about “cultivating a culture of making” which really just means “how we get people to use the makerspace and how we encourage students to take the lessons they learn and apply them elsewhere.”

Before we get into the specifics, let’s revisit some of the points that came up in a previous lecture. We discussed how expectations of a makerspace may evolve as we solidify who are users are and how they naturally respond to the space. As we talk about making your space accessible, think about how your ultimate vision – do you want your space to be more of a production shop where learners get what they need for projects? Or do you want the space to be a more self-guided place where students can experiment with different materials? Possibly a combination? This is an important question to consider, as it will guide you as you promote your space with patrons and students. It will also determine how you market your space to your community. Again, it’s perfectly fine if your vision changes throughout the creation process and beyond, but these questions will help keep you grounded.

We’ve talked about how each makerspace is different and has its own unique culture. I’m going to discuss my experiences here. What has worked and some things that have not, but you will forge your own path. Hopefully my experience helps you of course, but what works for me may not work for you. You will have successes, you will have failures. Take it all in stride and have a good time doing it. Growing your knowledge through the act of developing your own space is worth more than any anecdotes I can tell you over the internet.

In order for a makerspace to be successful, we have to have people using it right? So how does one create a welcoming makerspace? It starts with people – typical customer service best practices apply here. Smile and greet everyone who enters the space, offer to assist with their projects as needed, keep an eye on who is on the space and offer support if anyone starts to look frustrated or bewildered.

The layout of the space also plays a role. Is the space bright and open? Is it easy for users to quickly identify where everything is? I keep a label maker on hand for this very purpose. As soon as I get a new item, the shelf or cabinet it ends up on gets the corresponding label. Is the space clean and free of leftover debris? Is the equipment located in places that make sense? Loud equipment in separate places or behind doors, for example. Or potent smelling resources away from larger tables and workspaces? Some of these things may be out of our hands due to physical limitations of the space. Again, we have to do the best we can with what we have. Possibly most important – is the space safe? Clearly visible first aid kits, fire extinguishers, safety goggles and masks, sinks or eye wash stations. Each space will have different safety needs, but over prepare here. It’s better to have an extra extinguisher and never need it than the alternative.

Build relationships with departments and community groups. We are our own PR in many ways. This can be due to staff size, but it’s also due to people not understanding exactly what a makerspace is and what potential it has. It’s our job to help others figure that out. Make those phone calls, print those flyers, grab the cart and go to local events. Tweet.

Be mindful of timing. What do I mean by that? I had a class visit last fall very early in the school year – their goal was to create an object using makerspace resources. I gave them the tour and put them to work – and they had no idea what to do. They liked what we offered, but had no context. They got their projects done, but it took them longer than it should have and they were initially frustrated. We learned our lesson – the next class, we introduced them to the makerspace later into their project and the results were much more positive. The goal in cases like these, where users need to create something for a class or similar, it to get them after they have developed the context for the project – not before. They should have an idea of what their deliverable will be before they are introduced to makerspace resources, otherwise they will try to cram their project into something that doesn’t make sense. 3d printing is great, but it’s not the best for every project.

I talk a lot about what I call the “intimidation factor” with people. Factors like the above certainly play into that, but also it’s difficult for people to use potentially dangerous or expensive equipment. It’s a big hurdle to get over. There is no magic answer to the question, but we need to continually encourage people to use everything that we have and guide them along the way. Things will break, warranties will be voided, and people will occasionally cut themselves. Stay positive, keep you and your staff trained and current, and communicate to users that it’s ok to fail. It’s a necessary part of learning and a valuable lesson that can be applied elsewhere in life, too.