Why Makerspaces are Changing the World

In Perspectives by Sean Newman Maroni

While in college I learned about engineering in a makerspace. I learned how to communicate in a makerspace. I learned how to organize people in a makerspace. But it took a year of operating a mobile makerspace to realize the true value of these environments.

Teachers hear it daily:

“I’m stuck on this, what should I do now?”

If you are a manager you’ve heard the same question take the form:

“Boss, we need some guidance as to the next step of this project.”

All too often we defer to others when stuck on a problem. When a challenge is especially thorny, many quit or simply avoid the situation all together. Why is this the case?
Growth can only happen after you’ve been stuck for a while. It’s natural to experience recurring moments of failure, frustration, and confusion during the learning process. The rate at which you master a new skill is directly correlated with the number of times you discover, analyze, and master its subcomponents. If your rate of learning is high, then you will experience a corresponding high rate of confusion, frustration, and uncertainty.
Just ask Richard Feynman:

Those that become brilliant scientists like him use stress as motivation to push onward. Not all of us have developed this gift.
It can be especially difficult to grow in an environment where the tolerance for failure is low. You learn that the best way to move forward is not conscious mastery, but rather careful avoidance. These environments reinforce an external locus of control, meaning that you do not feel you can improve your situation on your own. You may hate your job, but stay in that position for years regardless. Perhaps you even get an offer at another company, and still choose to stick with your current one. Having an external locus of control leads to learned helplessness, which is defined as:

“Learned helplessness is a behavior in which an organism forced to endure aversive, painful or otherwise unpleasant stimuli, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable.” — Wikipedia

Both an external locus of control and learned helplessness relate to weak self-efficacyInstead of bouncing back from failure and honing your skills over time, you’ll avoid challenges and assume that what is hard for most is actually impossible for you. Basically the opposite of this guy.

But how do makerspaces help?

Employees were once students, and this problem of weak self-efficacy often starts in school. Our education system is modeled after industrial manufacturing processes where student life is bound by rigid policies, tests, and bells. The makerspace offers a space where these growth dampers don’t apply.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, makerspaces are informal learning environments where students have the freedom, time, and requisite access to resources to make things. They often contain craft supplies and rapid prototyping tools like 3D printers and laser cutters.
The value of integrating a makerspace in a school is often unclear to people with the power to write the checks. They want data. They want pre/post surveys, they want to know it will work before they try it. Here are some arguments makerspace evangelists frequently employ to persuade decision makers:

  • To expose students to new technologies like 3D printing
  • T0 increase interest in STEM fields
  • For creating opportunities for kinesthetic learning
  • In order to centralize project-based learning activities in one place
  • To spark student collaboration
  • To spend this final $1,432 of this budget surplus…

These tactics might very well get a makerspace built, but they are not why makerspaces are really valuable. These are not the reasons that makerspaces are changing the world.

The real impact of makerspaces is long term and hard to grade. These spaces enable experiences that over time can significantly strengthen self-efficacy, eliminate learned helplessness, and build an internal locus of control.

In makerspaces I’ve seen students teach their teachers about new technologies. I’ve seen 1st graders intuit the existence of cartesian coordinate systems just by observing 3D printers move. I’ve seen kids shout “YOU JUST DISCOVERED SOMETHING!” at classmates wearing ear-to-ear smiles. Teams of runny nosed kindergarteners are crafting Mars rovers out of chopsticks and 5th graders have built freaking 3D printed prosthetic hands before my eyes.

Why makerspaces boost self-efficacy

Albert Bandura (the guy who coined the term) says there are 4 major sources of self-efficacy:

  • Mastery of experiences: performing a task successfully and solving problems gives us confidence in our own abilities.
  • Social modeling: seeing peers overcome obstacles and eventually succeed gives us the courage to attempt similar challenges.
  • Social persuasion: positive feedback and encouragement from others helps us overcome doubt (Bandura points out however that this is not a replacement for firsthand experience).
  • Psychological responses: solving problems trains our brains to use stress as a source of motivation instead of paralysis. This demystifies seemingly impossible tasks and could even boost life expectancy.

Bandura might as well be listing “My four observations from observing students in a makerspace.” When collaborative problem solving occurs in a safe, low risk makerspace environment students learn that their environment is something that can be controlled. They learn that failure is an opportunity to personally improve, not an impetus for complaints. They develop a track record of problem solving they can point to and say “Wow that was hard but I eventually figured it out.”

The higher the self-efficacy of our population, the longer humanity will thrive. We will recover from failures quicker. We will cultivate richer interests and a deep cultural commitment to mastery. We will learn to embrace the struggle of attempting (and eventually conquering) ever more difficult tasks.

Powering a custom built mobile makerspace: one of many challenges we faced this year.

After a year of operating our BetaBox Mobile Prototyping Lab, the Betabox team and I have felt these changes in ourselves. After pushing past a litany of unexpected challenges (from the existential to the hilarious), we feel like we can walk into any situation and use our ninja-like problem solving abilities to deconstruct problems on the fly, generate potential solutions, and execute with limited resources.

The ask:

Let’s accelerate the adoption of makerspaces in schools

We started our company to accelerate the adoption of makerspaces in the traditional education system. Our 3–5 day BetaBox program both engages students and motivates administrators to invest in makerspaces of their own. We don’t really want BetaBox to go back to a school, we want to spark sustainable on-campus programs that are meaningfully integrated into the learning process. Self-efficacy is not developed in a week. It takes many projects, many collaborations, many challenges, and LOTS of chopsticks to hone this mental muscle.
You’re connected to the education system in some way. How might you help a local school create a makerspace of their own?