ATG Original: Innovation, Learning & Progress: The Era of Makerspaces

by | Oct 10, 2018 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther

Makerspaces “herald a new era of creativity and openness that holds promise for a new future of collaboration, open development, and technological and social advances,” I wrote back in 2015. “Much of the energy at these maker gatherings is also due to the passionate participation of the inventors. There is a new breed of folks out there—reminiscent of the hackers of the early PC era in the 1970-’80s.”  Makerspaces have grown rapidly and are currently found across the globe – in schools, businesses, colleges and public libraries. It’s been estimated that in 2015 there were over 135 million adult makers in the U.S. – which is more than half of the population of the country. Today, just three years later, these concepts and centers have become standard services, involving people of every age, involved in all types of learning and working across the disciplines.

Today, we have established makerspace Guidelines for Accessibility and Universal Design; directories of products and equipment most commonly used in makerspaces and interactive directory maps to makerspaces around the globe. The concept of makerspaces – unleashing the creativity of individuals to discover, create and learn – is truly revolutionizing schools, businesses and libraries across the globe.


“Creative hands-on projects allow children to demonstrate not just what they know but what they can do. They are also importantly a form of self-expression by which students can connect with others in the community. Through maker-centered learning, students can discover creativity in themselves and develop an ability to solve problems using science and technology.” notes authors in the recent book, Makeology: Makerspaces as Learning Environments, v.1, 2016.

“Over the years, I’ve had the chance to see the freedom that the creative process allows. Boosting student confidence through creative opportunities has become my secret weapon in encouraging student engagement and skill building,” notes educator Nick Provenzano. “As a makerspace director and advocate for the maker movement, I’m passionate about the range of opportunity that a creative space gives students.” These advantages are clear for adult learning as well.

For academic libraries “makerspaces make a unique contribution to the partnership between academic libraries and digital humanities by providing a creative, informal space for learning skills and new knowledge, sharing materials and equipment, and exploring and experimenting through an problem-solving, inquiry-based learning approach,” notes authors in the recent Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community (Chandos Publishing, 2018, p. 91).

There are no absolute formulas for success of makerspaces; however the literature notes that these collaborative spaces require very different types of oversight and operation.  Benedict Dellot notes that ethical ”collective leadership” that is able to deal with safety and legal issues and keep these innovation labs state-of-art in this ever changing technological environment.  The Makerspaces at Georgia Tech, for example, include those that are run by students, for students.  Others are imbedded in companies, K-12, community centers, workforce centers, museums, libraries and other agencies.


Research labs across the world are investing in 3D printers, exploring how this new technology can be used in research and in production.  At the University of Minnesota, mechanical engineers and neurosurgeons just announced a breakthrough in the potential treatment of spinal cord injuries by ‘printing’ “stem cell-infused scaffolds that could be implanted in spinal cords to repair nerve damage” that would be sensitive enough to not damage the cells in the printing process. Yale University engineers have been able to “fuse metallic filaments made from metallic glass into metallic objects,” a process that may allow for new production methods over traditional manufacturing plants. Harvard researchers have developed a new 3D printing technique that uses sound waves to generate droplets from liquids that may prove to be a new manufacturing process for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other products.

“Humans augmenting themselves with mechanical, robotic or bionic parts is a popular trope in science fiction, and for a long time this has seemed so futuristic as to be out of reach,” a recent article explains. With 3D printing,  researchers at the University of Minnesota have been able to create “an array of light receptors on a hemispherical surface. This discovery marks a significant step toward creating a “bionic eye” that could someday help blind people see or sighted people see better.”

U.S. troops are now using 3D printed concrete barracks. And as we have heard in the news recently, we now have the ability to create 3D printed handguns as well. The changes and new opportunities for discovery are happening very rapidly.


The Maker Lab, Chicago’s first free and publicly accessible maker space, is on the 3rd floor of Harold Washington Library Center and offers introductory workshops and open shop for personal projects and collaboration. The CPL also offers a Chicago Southside Mini Maker Faire at the Woodson Regional Library this  Saturday, September 15, 2018 as a family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness. Woodson also offers regular YOUmedia and Experience Labs for the public.

All of these efforts are led by librarian Sasha Neri works in The Maker Lab and the General & Information Services department. She has 20 years of public service experience, particularly focused on informal instruction design in makerspaces, community outreach, and user research in a design thinking context. She was part of the CPL team that produced “Design Thinking for Libraries,” a toolkit sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for use by librarians across the world (designthinkingforlibraries.), and is actively involved in Makers in Chicago, which convenes maker spaces and activities in ChicagoSasha will be joining us at this year’s Charleston Conference as a speaker.

The concept of the university maker space is young, with the first recorded facility being set up in 2001 at MIT. The Invention Studio at Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious programs today, has grown from an under-used mailroom to today’s coordinated system of services and facilities:

A design-build-play space open to any Georgia Tech student. It is for students — managed by students.

A 12,500-square-foot design/build space for the fabrication and assembly of prototypes and mockups, ranging from human scale to building scale.

Construction is nearly complete on the new Interdisciplinary Design Commons, which will provide education, collaboration, research, and makerspaces for fostering student design creativity and innovation.

An active machine shop that can design, fabricate, repair, and modify parts or entire devices for research projects. It works on designs ranging from miniature gears used in heart medicine research to large-scale structural welding projects as tall as 35 feet.

Startup Exchange is a student entrepreneurial community that inspires Georgia Tech students to create and develop their own ventures and supports them in doing so.

A student organization that provides resources to design and fabricate in a collaborative environment, including student-taught classes and events.

Established in Fall 2016, this make-and-measure space was created to give students the chance to learn more about the practical applications of materials science. Here, students can examine the characteristics and properties of the materials they are working with, by using high tech testing equipment. Students can also experiment with new and different types of materials by using the space’s specialized 3d printers.

Provides students, faculty and staff with access to, and training for, a vast array of rapid prototyping equipment.

Provides students and faculty with high-tech mills, a lathe, drill press, 3D printers, and hand tools.

This November, the College of Charleston opens the Department of Computer Science’s makerspace, which will take “experiential learning to the next level with a state-of-the-art facility where students can learn how to design the next big thing in tech.” Called COMPASS (COMputing Professionals And Student Scholars), “employees from companies such as Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, Mercedes-Benz Vans and Benefitfocus will maintain a regular presence alongside students and professors.”

Engineers and physical sciences aren’t the only ones to benefit from this age of making. At the University of Michigan Justin Schell is the Director of the Shapiro Design Lab. He holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse Society and Michigan’s lab is intended to bring out the creativity in students across the disciplines and Schell focuses much of his attention on innovations in the arts and humanities.

In addition to equipment and facilities, the Lab includes opportunities undergraduate student Internships that provide day-to-day support for the Shapiro Design Lab’s three spaces, as well as offer project consultations with students, faculty, and staff on a variety of topics. Design Lab Residents are an interdisciplinary learning community of graduate students who develop a year-long project in the Design Lab. Design Lab Developers are a group of undergraduate and graduate students who will explore and implement experimental tools and technologies into both the Design Lab and the overall Library.  The impressive list of completed projects is impressive in demonstrating that ‘making’ is something for everyone in the academy, working to improve understanding and appreciation for those aspects of life and society that are less easily quantified or ‘solved’ by traditional tinkering.


In a detailed 2015 report from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce found that “makerspaces have a role to play in changing our broader worldview. Put another way, they are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion new values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the tenets of self-reliance, sustainability and open source thinking….makerspaces have a role to play in changing our broader worldview. Put another way, they are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion new values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the tenets of self-reliance, sustainability and open source thinking.” 

For the first time at the Charleston Conference, Makerspaces will be featured in one of our Lively Discussion sessions.  If you have an interest – or curiosity – about these innovations, please join us! 

(Nancy K. Herther is librarian for Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus. [email protected])


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