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Monday, January 19, 2015

Creating a Makerspace


By Doug Baldwin, Emerging Technologies Librarian, Piscataway Public Library

The Piscataway Public Library is a two-branch library system located in central New Jersey, serving a population of approximately 55,000 residents. In 2012, staff from the library became familiar with the Maker Movement, a technology- and do-it-yourself-based culture that encourages hands-on building, constructing, tinkering, and experimenting.

This movement has been a key factor in the democratization of design and manufacturing that has been taking place all over the country. It has also highlighted the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in developing and innovating new products, as well as training a competent twenty-first-century workforce. It was through the lens of STEM education that staff at the library began to research and eventually initiate a makerspace to provide access to programs, equipment, and technology to support visitors of all ages in making, creating, and learning. Our space, branded as MIY (Make it Yourself), has been growing steadily since our makerspace grand opening in early 2013. This has included open hours for visitors to come and utilize the space and resources, monthly age-appropriate making programs, and a summer maker-camp for children in grades four through twelve.

While our library was fortunate enough to have the seed funding to create our space, our budget is certainly limited, as many other public and nonprofit programs. Because we strive to create programs where participants can take their creations home with them, we research and run many of our programs using low-cost or recycled materials to create things such as smartphone projectors, duct- tape speakers, glass jar lanterns, dry-ice ice cream, and much more. Likewise, we were fortunate to have our summer maker-camp funded this year by a grant from Cognizant called “Making the Future.” This is a great funding opportunity to support afterschool and summer STEM programs, and Cognizant has announced that it will be tripling its funding for this grant project. Information on the grant is available at http://cogniz.at/1G75DS6.

We have used a variety of resources to help generate low-cost STEM project ideas to do with our kids and teens afterschool and over the summer. Among the Web-based resources we have and continue to use are:

In regard to delivering our programs, we have found that usually a group of eight to ten (with one facilitator) or up to fifteen (with two facilitators) is optimal when making physical projects. Furthermore, incorporating the following steps into our approach has worked best in providing a stimulating, fun, and educational environment for this type of programming:
  • Providing guidance, but allowing open exploration of the materials and the physical and mechanical design of their projects
  • Asking questions, instead of providing answers
  • Supporting their ideas when they go "off-script"
  • Encouraging them to share their ideas with other participants when they develop a new way to get something to work, or a unique way to solve a problem
  • Be less of an expert, and more of a facilitator
We work by the mantra of “success through failure” and “there is never one right answer.” This is at the heart of the unstructured learning process that takes place in our programs as participants develop their abstract and critical thinking skills, planning and design skills, and self-confidence in the work they are performing. 

What we have also found is that expertise in STEM-related fields is not a requirement to facilitate these programs successfully. Certainly a willingness to be curious and learn new things is an asset; however, we have discovered that our ability to provide the right learning and creative environment has been the most important ingredient in running these programs successfully. If you are thinking of incorporating this type of activity into your program, our library is more than happy to assist in whatever way we can. Please feel to contact me via e-mail at: dbaldwin@piscatawaylibrary.org.