Where is the Science in a Maker Space?

The debate over the value of maker spaces continued on Monday afternoon with “Where is the Science in a Maker Space?” led by Hooley McLaughlin from the Ontario Science Centre. Building off of a similarly divisive session from ASTC 2013, presenters Lisa Brahms from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Karen Wilkinson from the Exploratorium, San Francisco, and Paul Orselli of POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop) described their work with maker spaces while McLaughlin took the (unpopular) anti-maker space stance.

McLaughlin started the session by stating his view that maker spaces are a danger to science centers (followed by a great deal of murmured dissent from attendees). In his opinion, science centers should be educating visitors with classic methods on the basic principles of science so that visitors have a stronger foundation on which to build their interest and knowledge of STEM subjects. McLaughlin believes that while all experimental scientists are makers, putting people in an environment where they get to be makers will not make them think like a scientist. Often participants are just moving things around and not thinking about the process. Needless to say, the panel and many maker professionals in attendance did not agree, leading to a lively and passionate discussion.

Orselli pointed out that many museums are not clear on what their criteria for a successful maker space should be or how it should be measured. He said that asking where the science is in a maker space is a bit of a red herring, since a lot of what maker spaces are about is the learning process and developing abstract thinking. Maker spaces may be spreading like wild fire, but that doesn’t mean everything that came before will be destroyed. This led to a larger discussion about what the overall purpose of a maker space should be. Wilkinson stated that science centers should be the biggest, broadest playground for science exploration in many forms, and Brahms added that the maker movement has sparked a new conversation about learning and thinking about learning as a social process. Attendees were very vocal in their support for maker spaces using “scientific play” as the gateway to a deeper interest and understanding of science.

Brahms then discussed her recent study based on a text analysis of Make magazine that showed that making activities corresponded with many learning disciplines and learning practices. She also stated that through making, children are learning how to set and reach goals and how to work with others. At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Makeshop, the goal is not science or science learning, but simply learning. This led to a discussion of the “maker space” brand. There are museums that have received funding and built maker spaces without knowing what to do with the space, or that have simply renamed craft areas as maker spaces. These less purposeful maker spaces dilute the term and bring down the overall impression of maker spaces. However, just because the maker movement is popular and museums around the world are jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t mean that making and tinkering are not effective.

Overall, this thought provoking discussion brought out a plethora of opinions on the maker movement and the debate is sure to continue. Resources and research on learning in maker spaces is being compiled at, a project from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.