I recently had a meeting with University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Yasmin Kafai. Dr. Kafai was one of the people that helped start MakerJawn at the program’s outset. One of Dr. Kafai’s research focuses is on makerspaces and she also teaches a course at the university on the subject. She also happens to be my academic advisor at Penn GSE. I wanted to get her thoughts on makerspaces in general and see if she had any insights or recommendations that we might be able to apply here at MakerJawn to make our programming as effective as possible. Below are some of the main points that we discussed:
1) Age matters
In her experience, one of the biggest challenges of makerspaces is often the difference in age among the students. Programs that are specifically designed for a particular age group are easier to create a consistent curriculum for, but when you mix teenagers and kids 9-10 together, as is often the case at MakerJawn, it presents challenges for how you approach facilitating activities. Dr. Kafai suggested that while it might be beneficial to have separate programming for different age groups, if there is no choice but to mix students together, encouraging the older students to act as mentors themselves and help teach the younger children can be a good strategy. It empowers the older students, can actually make facilitation easier, and establishes a greater sense of community.
2) Sense of progress
Dr. Kafai emphasized that in makerspaces it is very important to make sure that students are moving in a positive direction and constantly improving. Having opportunities to participate in activities that increase in difficulty over time allows students to feel that they are progressing and gaining new skills. In doing this, support and proper scaffolding from mentors is particularly important.
3) Sense of purpose
Perhaps the most important point that Dr. Kafai made was about establishing a sense of purpose in a makerspace. For students, it is often better when students feel that they are making for a specific reason, as opposed to making simply for the sake of making. Situating what students are doing allows them to connect what they do in the maker environment to something bigger and creates a sense of working towards a goal. Whether this is an organized annual showcase of student creations, some kind of competition that students can enter, or simply displaying what students make somewhere prominently for people to see, the most important thing is that they feel that what they are doing matters and isn’t just something to past the time.
4) Connecting to the community
One of the strategies that Dr. Kafai has implemented in other makerspaces that she has worked with in the past to encourage greater participation is to host weekly events where parents and family are encouraged to attend and get involved in the making spirit along with the children. Food is often the first step in creating a communal atmosphere! Most importantly, by offering an opportunity for the greater community to get involved it gives students the sense that what they do in the makerspace has significance and relevance outside of the actual space itself.