Today I am going to talk about something that might sound like a very narrow issue, but really isn’t. The issue is this: what is the best way to create a maker space at a college? This issue isn’t as narrow as it seems, because there are nearly 1000 maker spaces in the United States and the majority of them are at educational institutions. In many cases, these institutions have struggled to create their maker spaces and for them to be successful; to reach their full potential in serving students and the community. And there are many more unfinished maker spaces in the United States than there are finished ones – many, many colleges, communities, and school districts have plans to create a maker space, or have actually started to create one, and have found that the process can be very difficult. I would like to offer my theory of why.
Prefer to listen to the podcast about this subject? Here it is. Otherwise, just scroll to keep reading.
What is a maker space? Maker spaces are typically places where people can work collaboratively to create physical objects using a range of tools from low-tech to high-tech. However, in practice, maker spaces have become much more than that – their computing capabilities make possible the creation of virtual objects, and the collaborative environment often encourages people to go beyond fabrication and venture into the areas of marketing, business development, and entrepreneurship. Maker spaces are often used as incubators and accelerators for business start-ups.
Some maker spaces are called Fab Labs. This just means that they’ve been granted a license from Fab Lab International to use the name and become part of an international network of maker spaces. Independence Community College’s maker space is called a Fab Lab because we obtained that license.
Let me give you some backstory: when I came to Independence Community College in 2011, we had engineering programs on the books and an engineering professor. However, we had no completers; that is, students who were actually completing those programs. When I visited the facility that housed the engineering programs, I found that it had a large lab space that was almost entirely unused. The lab space, which was part of a building that had been built and then donated by an aerospace company, was an engineer’s dream of a blank canvas for a lab: high ceilings, hi voltage, compressed air, overhead bay doors, and lots of other desirable features. But the space wasn’t being used for anything that would appeal to students, and in fact was primarily being used for storage.
Coincidentally, the college also had an entrepreneurship program that had no physical home on campus. The program was quite successful, and had resulted in successful businesses in Independence. A further coincidence was that I had visited Fab Labs both together with the director of the entrepreneurship program and on my own, in several states, and was convinced that the community of Independence would benefit from a Fab Lab.
So I met with the director of the entrepreneurship program, Jim Correll, and made a proposal of sorts: we could turn over the building to his program and create a Fab Lab if he would direct that project. The Fab Lab would serve as an academic lab for our engineering programs, and as a Fab Lab for both the entrepreneurship program and for the community. (One of the conditions for a Fab Lab license is that the facility needs to be available to the community.) Jim didn’t need any convincing – he was all over it. Over the next six months, with a little help from me, Jim raised donations of both money and gifts to equip the new lab. The college made some basic investments in the infrastructure of the lab, and we were off to the races. We hired a man named Tim Haynes to be the manager of the lab. Tim was already an employee at the college – he worked in the library – but I believed that his real heart was in the traditional mission of the maker space.
It’s now four years later, and the Fab Lab has flourished. I don’t say that lightly; the lab’s accomplishments in that time have been amazing in both their depth and breath. We created a quarterly program to build prosthetic hands for disabled children. We created a summer camp for middle school girls to learn STEM subjects. We’ve helped entrepreneurs bring products to market. We have provided a working space for multiple local organizations to create and dream. We’ve created an outreach program that brings some of the equipment of the Fab Lab out to our service area instead of making people come to us. We embraced solar power and became the first Fab Lab in the world to operate substantially on solar. We’ve enlarged the curricular offerings at our school by creating courses intended primarily for other majors – for example, music students can now build a musical instrument from scratch as part of a course. We’ve grown in physical size – a federal grant from the Economic Development Administration allowed us to build an entire new building next to the original facility. This list barely scratches the surface, but the real change has been the awareness and self-efficacy that we have brought to the people of the community.
As evidence of that, let me give an example. In 2015, just a year after the Fab Lab opened, the campus wrote a new strategic plan. As part of that planning process, we did a series of environmental scans that included one data set that was comprised of in-depth interviews with 62 residents of our community. The residents were deliberately selected by our institutional researcher to be across-section of our community – the group included everything from home makers to senior citizens to business people. The interviews questions were open-ended ones about the college. There was only one positive attribute of the college mentioned by 100% of the survey respondents: The Fab Lab. We had never seen a result like this before. Even if the respondents had not used the Fab Lab themselves, they knew people who had used the Fab Lab, or they knew people who knew people who would use the Fab Lab – you get the picture. Success stories regarding publicly funded organizations, especially educational institutions, tend to also be divisive – success in sports antagonizes those who don’t like sports, success in the arts antagonizes people who don’t care for public funding of the arts, and so on. The fab lab seemed to be largely immune from criticism. Why?
I believe that the main reason for the success of the FabLab was the entrepreneurial mindset of the people running it. When I say, ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ I actually mean that in a somewhat technical sense, because the entrepreneurship program at ICC operates using the principles of something called the Ice House Entrepreneurial Program, created by Gary Schoeniger who heads an organization called the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, or ELI. The values that ELI seeks for its students to emulate and which it seeks to exemplify itself are these – listen carefully to this list:
- Deliver Exceptional Service
- Challenge Our Assumptions
- Listen to Understand
- Be a Resourceful Problem Solver
- Be Useful, Add Value
- Do the Right Thing
- Work Hard, Eat Well, Be Well
- Reflect, Learn, and Grow
The staff at the Fab Lab has completely internalized these values, and it is this mindset that is at the core of the success of the lab. I’m sure anyone who thinks for a moment about this list, and envisions an organization that exemplifies it, it’s easy to see why people who use the Fab Lab feel well-served and challenged, and why the community sees the lab as a real difference-maker. Although the sophisticated machines at the lab are exciting, I believe strongly that the success of the lab has nearly nothing to do with them. A maker space with 3d printers can open in a community, but unless the staff do both dedicated outreach and provide genuine service to users, the maker space will remain a small niche business that serves a tiny group of dedicated hobbyists who don’t need help. Most people need help, and providing that is what makes the difference, not the printers. I’ll try to have Jim Correll on a later episode of the podcast, and you’ll know what I mean.
There are other reasons for the success of maker spaces. Don’t you dare click on this link before reading the last paragraph of this blog post, but here’s a great article in New York Times about another noteworthy benefit of maker spaces.
I’m personally acquainted with four maker spaces that have been trying to get off the ground for three years or more, unsuccessfully. I’m acquainted with four more which have opened but serve either a very small or a very narrow audience, or both. All eight of them suffer from the same problem, a shallowness in either their mission or the execution of their mission, which causes supporters or users to think about the labs in terms only of the whiz-bang equipment inside. The result is failure. The success of maker spaces, whether in the developmental stage or the operational stage, is entirely dependent on the mindset of its people. For most people, creativity is a novel experience and therefore a bit frightening, and for many people, working with the hands is also novel and frightening. Machines don’t cure fright; people do.
PS: You can get a copy of the Fab Lab Blab, the newsletter of ICC’s Fab Lab, by contacting Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org