Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Makerspaces and Fab Labs

PostedThursday, July 12, 2018 at 1:51 PM

Makerspaces and Fab Labs

I was lucky.  I grew up in a house that had a large, unrenovated room furnished with a huge utility table, built-in shelves and cupboards full of every conceivable craft material and art supply. It is also where the tools were kept and the guinea pigs lived in a custom designed and built pig run. It was called simply, the Workroom. My mother was an occupational therapist and art educator and my father was an industrial designer. Both of them embodied a DIY reflex and spent much of their time making and repairing things.  If I was ever moping around or complaining of boredom I was dispatched to the Workroom.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and most of my peers didn’t know how to cook a meatloaf or hem their pants, let alone glaze a window or make gold hoop earrings that I realized my upbringing was unusual.  In today’s parlance, you could say I grew up in a Makerspace.

What my parents taught me was the language of materials and the grammar of basic technical skill. Until you have held plastic, paper, wood, metal, glass, yarn, or electrical wire, in your hands you do not know what they are, or what they can be used for, or how to manipulate them. While our culture is becoming increasingly digital, we live in the material world. Our knowledge is incomplete if we don’t understand the materials that shape it. The internet is useful and can be fun, but it cannot help you to feel the difference between paper and vinyl, wire and wool. No video can make you viscerally understand that a butter knife will not cut wood. The Maker and Fab Lab Movements bring this hands-on learning to pk-12 education. For children growing up in the digital age, a room (or closet, or cart) full of materials and tools with the freedom to explore and create is a powerful thing.  For educators, it provides a framework for constructive play in the classroom and excited, engaged students who will develop the skills they need to be successful at the project based STEM curriculum called for in the new science standards. Looking further down the road, these early making experiences are viewed as important to future success in engineering careers.


In the intro to their comprehensive book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering , and Engineering in the Classroom, Silvia Martinez and Gary Stager describe the maker movement this way: “Making is a way of bringing engineering to young learners. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding abstract science and math concepts. For older students, making combines disciplines in ways that enhance the learning process for diverse student populations and opens the doors to unforeseen career paths.”

capstoneMakerspaces do two things at once: they help kids understand how things are made, and they allow students to see themselves as creators and innovators. Both things empower kids to see the world around them with fresh eyes and to see themselves changing their world. While making is a creative process, it is free from the aesthetic pressures of art projects. Many children decide at an early age whether or not they are “good at art.”  Making expands the act of creating to the world of useful objects and problem solving. Making has a practical component that measures value in how well a project functions in addition to its aesthetic form.

Because making falls outside traditional educational disciplines, students who might be intimidated or challenged by math or language arts find themselves on a level playing field with their classmates. And since there is never one, right, answer in a maker assignment, all children have an equal opportunity to succeed. In fact, this is built into the core principal of the maker movement in education.  According to Maker Ed, a non-profit providing support and resources to schools and educators, maker principals include:

  1. Empowerment – maker education focuses on the learner’s capability to voice their unique thoughts, choices, and ideas.
  2. Access – it provides a spectrum of entry points for learners of any culture, background, or ability to take part.
  3. Process – maker education emphasizes designing, iterating, reflecting and sharing as part of the universal process of learning and development.
  4. Community – it welcomes and values every learner as they are encouraged to share, collaborate, and engage with one another.

In a wonderful video series by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh entitled Why Make?, Lou Karas, Director of the Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University discusses how powerful student directed lessons can be: “Having the opportunity to decide for oneself when to stop, when to shift to something else is a really important part of making. Particularly with children. It gives them some ownership and some control over what they are doing as opposed to everything being adult directed.”  This autonomy fosters self-confidence and a desire to make more.

“Maker education allows us to move towards a more comprehensive educational approach that better reflects and incorporates the diverse, complex, and ever-changing nature of our world. Through maker education, youth develop new perspectives, a belief in their own abilities, and a passion for learning.”  – Maker Ed.

Circuit work

Fab Labs

While some makerspaces may have 3D-printers, they tend to place an emphasis on traditional tools and equipment. When a makerspace is built around a selection of digital fabrication tools and the projects utilize computer software to design and create projects, it is called a Fab Lab. Fab Labs were originally conceived to provide design communities and entrepreneurs with industrial digital tools to create low cost prototypes for innovative ideas. According to the FAB Foundation, Fab Labs are increasingly being adopted by schools as platforms for project-based, hands-on STEM education. Students learn by designing and creating objects of personal interest or relevance, while gaining deep knowledge about the machines, the materials, the design process, and the engineering that goes into invention and innovation.

As with maker programs, Fab Labs allow kids to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas. Plus, Fab Lab equipment has a serious cool factor that is hard to replicate in a standard classroom. When done correctly, Fab Labs create an educational space where hands-on learning, engineering design, math principals, science concepts, and career and technical training are seamlessly integrated.

"We kind of like to think of Fab Labs as that which happens before you're invited to be on Shark Tank". – Ken Welty, UW-Stout Fab Lab

What’s on the Equipment/Materials List?

Like all good engineering challenges, one must make careful note of the constraints. How much money, time, space, and talent is available?  It is best to think of building a Makerspace or Fab Lab as a long-term project that will be expanded as budget and interest grows. Start where you can start. A lot can be done with cardboard, scissors, tape and glue. Maker Media has a downloadable guide for educators called Makerspace Playbook that provides soup-to-nuts information on creating and using makerspaces including comprehensive lists (pg. 16 & 18) for tools and materials. A recent panel of teachers at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference discussed how to create Makerspaces with limited resources.

Fab Lab equipment

Fab Labs are more dependent on specialized equipment with many Labs starting with 3D Printers because they tend to be more affordable. However, their slow printing time and pricy filaments add cost in the long run.  Perhaps the most versatile piece of equipment is a laser cutter. These machines cost more, but can be used on more material (plastic, metal, wood), make better use of student time (faster), and have much lower material expenses.  There is no doubt that Fab Labs require significantly more investment than a Maker Space. Some communities pool resources to create Fab Labs that can be shared by multiple schools and organizations. Sometimes libraries create these spaces that can be reserved by local classes. And, as in most engineering education, your local university engineering department is a tremendous asset providing access to tools and the professional training to go with them.

The FAB Foundation has a comprehensive recommended hardware and software list that can be a little intimidating, but is a valuable resource for schools considering building a Fab Lab or adding to one.

Tapping the Potential

Ken Welty of the University of Wisconsin-Stout recently joined LinkEngineering for a Video Conversation with Laurence Charlier, a high school technology and engineering teacher, about how to use one’s Fab Lab for meaningful engineering experiences. They acknowledged that many schools jump on the Fab Lab/Maker bandwagon and raise funds for expensive equipment and then aren’t sure what to do with it. Welty says, “It’s almost as if schools think the machines come with curriculum embedded.” Welty explains that the last thing you want to do with your new laser cutter or 3D-printer is have students find a design file online and then send it to the machine.  This is, according to Welty, the equivalent of an English teacher having a student find a poem online, change the font, print it, and call it theirs.  No teacher would dream of equating printing with writing, and yet that is what often happens when schools build Fab Labs before understanding and being able to teach basic engineering design concepts.

ear budThrough years of working with students and educators at the UW-Stout Fab Lab and in middle and high school classrooms, Welty and Charlier have developed an approach that calls for engaging students with “seemingly simple design problems”. Acknowledging that Fab Lab equipment is basically a set of digital printers, their motto is “simple and small.” Simple to maximize student engagement and success, and small to minimize time printing and cost of materials. A small and simple project, such as an earphone spool, allows student and teacher to work carefully through the engineering design process with lots of time for prototyping, testing, tweaking, and printing. They stress the need for students to be able to describe and defend their research, design, and improvements as an essential component of meaningful learning.

To find standards-aligned, free STEM lessons and activities, head over to TeachEngineering, where they just rolled out new Maker ChallengesSCOPES-DF is a pk-12 digital fabrication resource from FAB Foundation that aims to create a community of practice by offering support, information and project ideas. MAKE Magazine, which coined the term Maker in 2005, has dozens of project ideas, and are especially strong on electrical and coding activities. Need more? Instructables is the maker movement’s crowd-sourced guide on how to DIY just about anything. Think of it as a Wikipedia for How-To. This site is not specifically geared to educators, but is big on inspiration and easy to follow step-by-step instructions. Great for answering the question: How do you make that?

Don’t Forget the Fun

AnnMarie Thomas, Associate Professor at University of St. Thomas, MN and the founding director of Maker Ed emphasized the importance of playful learning in engineering education in a recent Video Conversation with LinkEngineering. She stressed that adding an element of play to the classroom is not just about improving student engagement, it is crucial for preventing burnout in educators.  “Look for the joy, the laughter. Be sure to include an element of surprise for your students. And bring in new people – look for interesting and unexpected collaborators.”  She has paired graduate students with 4-year-olds to work on design projects.  She and her students in the Playful Learning Lab recently teamed up with the band OK Go, famous for their creative and technically difficult viral music videos, to create OKGo Sandbox, a resource and project website for STEM educators that incorporates the Maker ethos.  Check it out, if you need some ideas to get you and your students excited and, most importantly, having fun making.

Not Just For Students

teach projectIndustrial designer and television personality, Adam Savage said “Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals; we use tools and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.” Making things, whether a baby blanket or a doggie wheelchair, is satisfying and feels good.  This is true for all people, teachers included.  It is very difficult for adults to promote and encourage making if they are not making themselves. Invite fellow teachers and community members to use the space and share their skills and interests with your students.  At the Playful Learning Lab, AnnMarie Thomas hosts monthly “play dates” for local educators to stop in, learn a skill, play with materials, try a project and have lemonade and cookies.  Done right, a Makerspace/Fab Lab creates excitement in all members of an educational community – from students to staff to parents and all the businesses and organizations that support their local schools. I think that’s called a win-win-win-win-win.

Do you have a Makerspace or Fab Lab in your community?  Tell us all about it in the comments.


More resources:

Tapping the Potential of Fab Labs, an article by Ken Welty

Photo credits:

Top: Fab Lab by Maciej Wojnicki via Flickr Creative Commons Licence
Two girls with capstone project and Girl and boy with circuits by Alliance for Excellent Education via Flickr Creative Commons license
Fab Lab equipment by Ophelia Noor via Flickr Creative Commons licence
Bottom: Educator makerspace by Fabrice Florin via Flickr Creative Commons licence




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  • Shawn  Boger

    Posted 3 years and 10 months ago

    What a wonderful article! Thank you for all of this wonderful information. I would like to also share that the National Inventors Hall of Fame is now offering an all new STEM Maker Lab curriculum and materials to help with establishing these creative spaces. This curriculum helps build a framework and provides teachers and media specialists with access to teaching strategies to facilitate real-world experiences in the Maker Space environment. (National Inventors Hall of Fame is the developer of Camp Invention, Club Invention, Invention Project and Invention Playground.)
    Thank you again for spreading the word on the Make Space movement!