Makerspace: An Origin Story

Curt and I visited a school who had just built a space dedicated to 21st Century learning opportunities. They had dubbed their space a “FabLab,” based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s approach to innovative learning spaces. The two of us were tasked to understand 21st century pedagogy and what type of space that could work best at our own school. Our tour guide was a colleague of ours whom we have worked with in many different capacities in the past. We were excited to see what he did with his space and his new found freedom as the school’s first Chief Innovation Officer.

We found his space packed with industrial grade tools, materials, and various messy projects, both undone and in progress. I had seen spaces like this in the past, it was a classroom only a teacher could love, because it looked more like a disaster from an outsider’s perspective. Our tour guide regaled us with stories of classes he was taking for professional development and the different projects he was preparing for his students. However, his biggest issue at the moment was “buy-in.” He was having a difficult time getting both students and faculty to utilize the space. As he was telling us this, I began to realize that Curt and I actually had the opposite problem. We did not have space, but we had a burgeoning interest in building, tinkering, and getting messy in a classroom. A “makerspace” was a natural fit at our all boys school.

I was curious to hear how our friend was going to get traction with his faculty and students. While we were talking he told us how he was able to gain some ground with his faculty one chilly evening at his school. He offered a FabLab orientation where his faculty were immediately offered free beer and wine upon arrival. First of all, bribery always works, and on top of that, beer and wine is how you win a teacher’s heart. He knew all of this, but what he really wanted from his teachers in return was their attention and willingness to learn some very basic 3D design software. He wanted them to build their own bottle opener and corkscrew. They couldn’t imbibe a drink until they worked together and were able to first build a corkscrew or bottle opener and then 3D print their design. It was a success, the teachers learned a new program and how to use 3D printers in the FabLab, and then enjoy their spoils for which they worked so hard.

When I heard that story I had two questions for our colleague. First, was there beer and wine at this event? Unfortunately, the answer was no, and second, did the bribe work? Did he get teachers to return to the FabLab and learn more about what goes on in this space? He said it worked but was not quite as successful as he hoped. He did not see a sustained growth when it came to using that space, but was optimistic that in the future teachers were less risk averse and were willing to use him as a resource when trying to innovate their existing curriculum. After seeing my colleague’s space and hearing his stories and plans for the future, I kept thinking about his original problem, how do you fill this space with faculty and students? How do you get that “buy-in” and sustain it?

Curt and I returned to our school, he as a division head, myself as an IT Coordinator, and continued to spin ideas about our own journey to creating a dedicated innovative space. Neither one of us had a background in computer science, engineering, or software development. We were both teachers and at one time or another worked in our school’s technology department. We understood how difficult it was for a school to change, but thankfully we had a new sheriff in town. Our relatively new headmaster had been pushing for a 21st century curriculum and space at our school. He had urged the faculty to embrace project based learning, he was key in our getting our 1:1 Google Chromebook program off the ground, and he desperately wanted us to be seen as thought leaders and differentiators when it came to how we prepared our students for life in the 21st century. That sort of leadership is absolutely necessary when it comes to embarking on this type of change throughout a school. He tasked Curt and I with creating a plan to bring a distinctive space for innovative learning and act as a creative outlet for our students. We agreed to the challenge and began our feverishly researching what this type of learning might look like.