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Makerspaces: Beyond Tools and Products

June 19, 2015

By Kristin Fontichiaro
Faculty Coordinator, Michigan Makers Project

As maker fever hits America’s makerspaces, libraries, museums, and schools, the focus is often on tools and products: what we bought, and what people made with it. These are important data points that validate purchases and provide tangible evidence that our efforts have borne fruit. But, there are more maker stories to be told: about access, diversity, and agency.

Michigan Makers, a service learning project of the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), has just celebrated its third anniversary. What began as after-class conversations with graduate students about the transformative potential of low-cost computing devices like the Raspberry Pi has transformed into weekly afterschool, pop-up makerspace activities in which UMSI students mentor middle-grade students in highly diverse, underserved neighborhoods.

Students sitting at a table taking apart fleece pajama pants.

Students at Michigan Makers’ site at Scarlett Middle School (Ann Arbor, MI) hack fleece pajama pants into scarves.

Each week, a group of UMSI mentors brings a menu (and a carload!) of nearly a dozen possible activities to local schools. We are diverse mentors, with interests ranging from comics creation to computer code, sewing to storytelling, and Arduino to animation: those interests seed Michigan Makers sessions. But we also watch and listen to our makers, tweaking and adjusting our offerings to meet their needs and interests. The goal is for anyone to walk in and find something interesting. We find that a student who chooses to hand-sew is actually watching the animators at work …and eventually becomes curious and confident enough to try. The ability to observe first before trying has proven critical for broadening participation. Some participants even play reporter, taking photos and video of their fellow makers. Inevitably, circling the room to document others leads to an idea, and the camera is set down to begin a new project.

Students working on laptops

Students at Michigan Makers’ site at Ann Arbor’s Mitchell Elementary create electronic music.

This issue of inclusion is crucial for cultural and educational organizations. We often say that we welcome all into our spaces. But words may not be enough: some potential makers feel uncomfortable in our settings or with new tools. Others look at popular media and erroneously assume that makers are mostly middle class, mostly male, and mostly about code and robotics. Most makers agree that making is a human experience! So we need to populate our spaces with diverse materials, not just circuits and sensors. We actually find that stereotypically “female” tools like sewing machines are more popular with males! This diversification has helped us welcome and nurture a diverse group of makers.

For our mentor-led mini-lessons, we learned to add DIY stations for self-directed learning: LEGO, Tinkertoys, and a junk box of recycled materials for innovative creations, for example. We learned that students—even those as young as 9—could become mentors to one another, freeing up adults to introduce new skills. As a long-time educator, I had to learn that not everyone wanted to be taught, but I could still influence their creativity by the types of provocations—or intriguing materials—I set out for them.

Students building structures out of marshmallows and toothpicks.

Students compete in a mentor challenge to create the tallest structure at Michigan Makers’ program at Scarlett Middle School (Ann Arbor, MI)

Even harder to recognize was that some at-risk students need safety and security, not challenges and enrichment (think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Some need relaxing, repetitive activities with caring adults that wash away the exhaustion of chaotic home lives or rigorous school expectations. Over a hundred years ago, John Dewey talked about students working at their “center of gravity,” and makerspaces must protect a maker’s agency and choice.

Ultimately, our makerspaces are about people first, then tools, and we’re continuing to learn. We thank the University of Michigan Third Century Fund and UMSI Founders Fund for early funding and are eager to begin our work on Making in Michigan Libraries where we help Michigan libraries, schools, and community groups build maker capacity in underserved communities.

To learn more about Michigan Makers, please visit or, to follow our new IMLS-funded journey,

Photo of Kristin FontichiaroAbout the Author

Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Michigan and faculty coordinator of the Michigan Makers project. She is, with co-PI Silvia Lindtner, leading the Making in Michigan Libraries project (IMLS # RE-05-15-0021-15).

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program
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