Strategies for Broadening Participation in Makerspaces: A Comparative Case Study of Three Youth Makerspaces

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Journal/Book Title/Conference

American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting


American Educational Research Association


Washington, DC

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As makerspaces proliferate across formal and out-of-school learning environments, researchers and practitioners persistently question the accessibility of these space and the maker practices they support. In this paper, I contribute three illustrative examples of how makerspaces can reach a broad audience by supporting maker identities and cultivating maker communities. I conducted a comparative case study (Stake, 2008) of three youth makerspaces in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: a well-established museum makerspace near city center (Makeshop), a semi-established afterschool makerspace in a low-income neighborhood historically stigmatized for high crime rates, (Assemble), and a newly founded library makerspace in a blue-collar neighborhood (Millvale). Findings highlight strategies for broadening participation in makerspaces at the maker-level and space-level.

At the maker-level, these youth makerspaces support identities of “maker” by encouraging young makers to take ownership of making. Makeshop’s signage and rhetoric situate youth as makers. The design of the space and the facilitation style of the staff support young makers in the process of making; facilitators want youth to embody the process as something that is ‘theirs’. Both Assemble and Millvale aim to position making as an accessible practice youth can own. Through connecting experts with young makers, the director of Assemble resolves to break the “I don’t feel like it’s for me” barrier often preventing youth from identifying with a given making practice. Millvale adopts a similar approach by focusing on pragmatic skills (e.g., repairing bikes or sewing) that youth can utilize in their everyday lives. Not all sites work toward overtly building kids’ identity as “maker,” yet they do empower youth to own making.

At the space-level, each site espouses a slightly different ethos. Makeshop embraces the family-oriented ethos of the Children Museum and they are dedicated to exploring best practices of supporting parent/guardian-child interactions through the making process. Moreover, Assemble functions as a community platform connecting experts and young makers throughout the Pittsburgh area. With this ethos, Assemble seeks to change the surrounding neighborhood more locally by equipping youth to see themselves as having productive futures. Millvale, as the borough’s first library, implores the neighborhood to use the space as more than just a place for books, but also as a community built, community run neighborhood hangout. Both Assemble and Millvale work for community and neighborhood revitalization by offering a safe space for youth to explore creativity and discover viable life pathways, but offer slightly different examples of how makerspaces can change the communities within which they’re situated.

Interestingly, a site’s orientation toward identity does not necessarily mirror its community ethos. Makeshop and Assemble primarily support individualistic identities, though they both embody community-driven ethoses, and Millvale supports a collectivistic identity and a neighborhood ethos. Halverson, Lowenhaupt, Gibbons, & Bass (2009) also grappled with this relationship in youth media arts organizations suggesting that this tension spans across contexts. With this, the youth makerspaces in this study function as three illustrative examples for how to broaden maker- and space-level participation to those who may not feel ownership over making practices or maker culture.

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