The following post is the second of two journal entries I am submitting for my grad school class on informal learning. The topic is sustainability. (The topic of the first was inclusivity.) The context is the makerspace at my school and the informal workshops I’ve been running there this year.
As the makerspace becomes increasingly institutionalized in my school, its needs will evolve and mature. Successful growth into the institution of the school will require an ongoing commitment to diversity and a vigilant eye toward its long-term health. In this essay I provide an overview of the makerspace’s sustainability from four different perspectives: staffing, programming, finances, and environmental responsibility. I only glance at the first three issues, which are well-documented by other makerspaces and analogous organizations, so that I can focus on the unique challenges of the fourth.
A maturing makerspace should consider human resources a pillar of its ongoing success. Staffing priorities rely both on quantity and quality: the question of how many adults are committing time to the makerspace directly affects its viability and the opportunities that students have to use it; and the question of which adults will be in the makerspace, not just how many, is important to sustaining rich programming. (For example, a staff only of men might convey a message that distances female students; an homogenous staff of technology-focused adults may privilege programming over crafting, designing, or fabricating.)
The diversity of the programming itself will need to evolve in order to sustain the makerspace in the school community. Are workshops tailored too much toward novices, or perhaps not enough? What pathways are available to help students to grow from novice to expert, and across how many disciplinary realms are such pathways available? After the program has been kickstarted in the first year, it risks facing a sophomore slump in the second if the programming does not mature at the same rate as its participants.
As the makerspace becomes further institutionalized in the school, the range of goals, backgrounds, and abilities will grow beyond that of its first year’s early adopters. Additional funds will be needed to ensure equity and safety among a broader base of users. Here, again, maturation indicates more change: the needs for financial sustainability in the long-term are different from the initial start-up costs of the short-term.
Finally the makerspace faces a unique set of challenges in terms of environmental responsibility and material waste. The expectation to make things is built directly into the name “makerspace.” Along with that expectation come two sets of questions that hold implications for a makerspace’s ecological sustainability: what will be made, out of what material, and for what purpose? And how much waste may be generated in the process of learning how to make things?
This year I have emphasized a mindful approach to making. Project storage bins contain a slip of paper with three queries for students to complete before saving their projects: “What are you making?” “Why are you making it?” and, “Who is it for?” Balancing moments of reflection while also still nurturing a bias toward action and experimentation is challenging to do without relying on power structures or teacher-centric coercion. As an example, a group of middle school girls often come to the makerspace after school to spend time together and to work on projects they have designed. Recently they invented a new game: “Pick That Stuff.” Each player secretly picks three materials for another player, and then following a simultaneous “reveal” event, each player is challenged to make something that uses the materials that were selected for her. This student-generated game is a creative, playful, community-building activity, but it has sometimes turned into an efficient waste-generating activity as well. Channeling their creative energy to more environmentally responsible shores without interrupting it all together is delicate work.
Yet even a thoughtful, considered approach to making can still incur material waste. How can a student learn how to build furniture without wasting a few cuts of wood or learn to throw pottery without wasting some clay? Or in my own learning experiences this year: how can I learn how to sew without using fabric that might otherwise be used by someone more experienced for something more permanent or wearable? The question here is not financial; we source many of our materials via donations, thrift shops, or simply use scraps. But an ecologically sustainable approach needs to be aware of what will happen to the learning materials after the student is done with them. Learning how to work with authentic materials requires students actually to work with authentic materials. Yet in the end, not all projects will go into production, and not all work should go in front of audiences or be used permanently. So how can we reconcile authentic learning opportunities with the waste we may generate as learners? Even though we practice soldering skills on scrapped circuit boards, those scraps will at some point make it to our landfills. I have avoided these questions for years as a computer science teacher (the bits and bytes inside the computer are infinitely reusable), but it is impossible to ignore that using materials for learning and then disposing of them is problematic. 3D printers, the flagship tool of many makerspaces, can be a particularly egregious example of this. Students who are learning about 3D printing are more importantly learning CAD (computer-assisted design). The act of printing 3D models serves to amplify learning and provide a useful context for CAD work, but most learning happens in the digital environment. And so in many cases, 3D-printed objects readily turn into plastic waste. It is challenging to celebrate themes of experimentation and iteration if the objects of students’ learning are not considered from a larger ecological perspective.