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Making space for self-directed learning

18 Apr 2019 | Dr Pete Mylon For this week’s Tweetchat Dr Kay Hack, Principal Adviser (Learning and Teaching) at Advance HE invited Dr Pete Mylon from the iForge at the University of Sheffield to reflect on what makes an effective makerspace.  

The term ‘makerspace’ has become something of a buzzword in engineering education. But what does it really mean? What is the difference between a workshop and a makerspace? Is it just a rebranding exercise? Graduate engineers are required to have “knowledge and understanding of workshop... practice” (Engineering Council 2014) but employers are demanding much more than this. They want engineers who can use practical skills to solve real problems and have the ability to motivate themselves and to design and build practical solutions  - the types of skills and attributes that could be developed in a ‘makerspace’, if only we knew what that looked like.  

What is the purpose of a makerspace? 

Should the primary focus be on introducing practical skills or on fostering problem-solving ability? Do we still need traditional workshop skills or are these now redundant in a world of CAD and computer-aided manufacture?  

Each space has its own emphases:

●    Supporting curriculum learning
●    Providing manufacturing space for extracurricular projects
●    Promoting enterprise and entrepreneurship
●    Fostering community and interdisciplinary collaboration
●    Developing leadership and management skills


All of these are valid and deliverable outcomes, but in a world of limited time and resources it is useful to think about what you want your makerspace to achieve.

What should makerspaces be used for?

There are (at least) two schools of thought on this. Some believe that if a university is to put resources into a makerspace, then all activities there should be ‘academically rigorous’. If projects are not part of the curriculum, students must demonstrate the academic benefits of the activity in order to be allowed access. In this worldview, ‘tinkering’ is looked down upon as a waste of expensive resources. In the other view, as exemplified by free-thinking institutions such as Olin College, all making leads to learning. Students learn better when they are intrinsically motivated, and any design and make project with a degree of complexity will develop problem-solving skills. In this worldview, it is important not to prescribe what students can or cannot make in the makerspace. 

How should the makerspace be supervised?

Some institutions have taken staff-led workshops and opened them up outside of class time for project work. However, this puts extra strain on staff resources, and still leads to a classroom atmosphere rather than a self-directed learning environment. Having had a space like this at Sheffield, we found that problems with this approach include limited access for students, and a lack of responsibility amongst students for health and safety and the upkeep of the workshop, with the underlying assumption that “the technician will sort it”. Others allow postgrads or more experienced undergrads to supervise under the oversight of a technician. A few, such as the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech, and Olin College, have entirely student-supervised makerspaces, with staff providing regular training and support but not directly supervising. In some places, these students are paid, but perhaps the most successful model, started by Craig Forest at Georgia Tech and rolled out to MIT and others, is for trained students to be given 24-hour access to the makerspace in return for committing a few hours a week to supervise other students. 

This 24-hour model is an entirely different proposition from a staffed workshops. Since the students are never ‘kicked out’ at the end of the day, there can be a real sense of student ownership, which results in more responsibility being taken for safety and the upkeep of the space, and an opportunity for genuine community to develop – students really want to be there! 

The iForge at The University of Sheffield

Building on these models I was eager to implement a makerspace, but knew that students had to be involved from the start. At the same time, a group of students, returning from studying in the US, were hatching plans for a makerspace in Sheffield, but didn’t have the resources… and the rest is history.

Having found a small space and some old equipment, we piloted the UK’s first student-led makerspace in October 2017. Unsure of how students would take to the volunteer model, we had over 200 applications for the 20 or so places on offer. Since then, demand has steadily increased – we have more than doubled in size; we now have a team of around 50 students running every aspect of the space; and we have had over 7000 visits this year from a user base of 1500 students and staff, making everything from full-sized wooden planes to novel musical instruments, learning (and teaching each other) woodworking, electronics prototyping and CNC manufacture amongst many other skills.

The iForge has become an invaluable part of the University of Sheffield engineering experience, impacting recruitment, improving engagement with learning, creating enterprise and employment opportunities, and offering a world of possibilities for curriculum development that would not have been possible without the extensive access to equipment and training that students now have.

So what’s stopping you from creating a makerspace for your students? What would it take to turn it from a buzzword into reality? Why not start the conversation, and see what your students can do?

Want to find out more about makerspaces? Join us for the Tweetchat at 8:00 PM on Wednesday 24th April. #AdvanceHE_Chat #LTHEChat

You are also invited to The iForge at The University of Sheffield for the UK's first Academic Makerspace Symposium and Workshop on September 12-13th 2019.

Joining us for the event will be Professor Craig Forest, founder of the world-renowned Invention Studio at Georgia Tech, one of the largest student-run prototyping facilities in the US. Express your interest here

Engineering Council (2014). The Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes, UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence, 3rd Edition.

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