dispatches from ola 2014, part 1: makerspaces, libraries, and me

Yesterday I attended one of the most exciting and inspiring sessions of the OLA Super Conference, one of three that I will write about. It was a presentation by two people from MakerKids, one of the world's only makerspaces dedicated to and for young people - and lucky for us, it's in Toronto.

Makerspaces... and MakerKids

In this previous post about attending "OLA" for the first time, I listed "Maker Culture in Action" as one of the sessions I wanted to attend. A reader asked what that meant, and a little discussion ensued: here. That was a good reminder that the makerspace concept, which I only discovered in library school, is not necessarily a part of the general consciousness.

My favourite definition of a makerspace is "a community centre with tools". A makerspace is a public workshop where people use materials and tools to create things. The maker movement is related to old-fashioned tinkering, but it's more social - something that takes place not in your own basement or garage, but in a shared space, within a community. And in addition to standard, old-fashioned tools like hacksaws and pliers, makerspaces usually offer open-source electronic components and 3D printers. (3D printers are a mainstay. If you haven't seen one in action, here's a video.)

The makerspace ethic encourages people to try things with which they have no experience, to experiment, to explore, to participate rather than watch, to create rather than consume. There's an emphasis on education, community, and shared resources.

There's tons of information online about makerspaces; I'll quote one snip from Victoria Makerspace in Saanich, BC.
A Makerspace is a shared space where people can come together and collaborate while sharing tools, resources and knowledge. One tool can be effectively duplicated many times over by sharing it, in the same way that someone's learning experiences may be shared.

When you walk into a typical Makerspace, your first thoughts might be, "Wow, I could make anything here, if only I had the knowledge." Then after talking to a few people, you realize the vast amounts of experience and knowledge that exists. Anything you would like to know about, someone has either done it or has a really good idea how to do it. It soon becomes apparent that almost anything is possible.
Kids? Not so much

Makerspaces may be many wonderful things, but one thing they're usually not is kid-friendly. Despite the no-experience-needed ethic, beginners won't find step-by-step instructions to guide them, and certainly not the kind of encouragement and support a young person needs when using unfamiliar tools and equipment. Safety is an issue, of course. In general, most makerspaces would be too intimidating and potentially dangerous for young people, not a place a parent could drop off a child for an afternoon.

Enter MakerKids, located in Toronto's west end, one of the only makerspaces for young people in the world. Through camps, after-school programs, and workshops, MakerKids lets kids create things using 3D printing, electronics, and woodworking. In their words: "Kids learn how to make their own creations come to life using real materials and real tools."

The presentation I attended emphasized a value system adopted from the Montessori education model, where adults are mentors and guides, and process is valued over product. Learning happens through exploration and discovery, in a "prepared environment" that offers youth of varying ages and abilities a chance to try a wide range of activities. The idea is: don't be afraid to fail.

At its core, the MakerKids philosophy is about helping kids move away from being passive consumers, and towards being active creators. Think of what that paradigm shift can do for people of all ages: the feelings of accomplishment and confidence it can build. Now imagine how enriching it could be for children, especially in an environment of mutual respect and shared responsibility. It's a powerful concept.

The MakerKids presenters described parents who warned them about their children's terrible behaviour problems, only to stare in wonder at how beautifully their child cooperated and focused in this new environment. Many of the kids in the MakerKids programs have mental health diagnoses, and kids personally attest to feeling better - and they act better - when they're absorbed in creating. It's clearly a program that builds confidence and instills a love of learning by doing.

If you're interested, here are a few videos (of varying quality) that illustrate MakerKids more fully than I can explain it here.

Here's a short intro.

Here's a promo from local TV news.

If you're very keen, this is a video of a longer presentation. The presentation I attended was more focused and refined, but this is still a good introduction.

From The Globe and Mail: Remaking the Way Children Learn and Play.


Libraries and makerspaces are a perfect fit. People have always come to the library to learn how to do things, borrowing books and DVDs on knitting, cooking, cabinetry, and so on. People also come to the library to use technology and equipment that they don't have access to at home. A library with a makerspace is an extension of this idea. It turns the library from a place where people come to consume (media, information) to a place where people come to create.

Earlier this year, I attended a "webinar" about how libraries can get started in this movement. The speaker suggested we think of what our libraries are already doing that fits with the makerspace ethic. We have several: our hugely popular Saturday-morning drop-in Lego program, a thriving partnership with a high-school robotics program, and tons of drop-in craft programs. A makerspace would extend this even further.

The MakerKids presenters have thought a lot about the obstacles libraries will encounter, and already have solutions and best practices. For example, installing new applications on public-use computers can be fraught with issues. The MakerKids folks introduced us to Tinkercad, a web-based 3D modeling program. One of the must-buys for any real makerspace is a 3D printer, which produces your 3D model. But 3D printers heat up quickly and can be dangerous to use with kids... except one that does not. One of the most exciting notes of the whole session was learning that MakerKids offers training sessions for educators.

Here are a few articles on makerspaces and libraries.

Forbes: First Public Library to Create a Maker Space.

Medium.com: Shifting from Shelves to Snowflakes: Libraries shift from consumption into creation with makerspaces.

BoingBoing: Makerspaces and libraries: two great tastes that taste great together.

...and me

Unlike makerspaces and libraries, makerspaces and this librarian are not a natural fit! And I've decided that's exactly why I should get involved.

Take the monthly teen DIY program that I'm planning. My first thought was: "I can't do this. I will look foolish! The stuff I make will be crap!"

Next I tried to think of how I could plan and present the program without actually doing the craft.

And only next did I realize that I'll participate in the program along with everyone else, learning as I go.

Finally, I realized that I will be modeling the exact kind of attitude and behaviour that we want to encourage: the person with no experience and not a lot of confidence, who tries anyway, and creates something. When I was a volunteer tutor at a youth centre, I did the math exercises along with the young people. If we came up with different answers, we didn't assume mine was correct! That's the spirit I want to bring to youth programs.

I grew up in a home with tinkerers, but I was not encouraged to do anything crafty myself. The few times I tried, my father grabbed the tools out of my hands so he could it "properly". Not a big confidence builder. In general, in our home, we were encouraged to do the things we had natural aptitudes for, but not to explore beyond our comfort zones. (I'm not complaining or blaming; this is just a fact.) We were encouraged to "do our best", but not just to "do".

Lack of experience breeds lack of confidence. Sitting in the MakerKids conference session, I realized that I have a real lack of confidence in my ability to make anything with my hands. Here's my chance to improve that, and to model that attitude for young people.

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