Prepping a Learning Space to Grow into a Makerspace

Many schools, museums, hospitals and all sorts of other institutions are beginning their “maker” programs on carts, in the corners of existing classrooms or in other temporary spaces.
As they see the enormous benefits of “maker” learning experiences for learners, more institutions are preparing to dedicate more permanent space to these programs–preparing to craft a dedicated makerspace.
While it’s beneficial to grow a program gradually and to add equipment and materials gradually, you can’t build a whole new space gradually. As everyone realizes at some point–perhaps after a home remodel–you can’t just build for where you are right now. You have to build for where you’re going.
After visiting dozens of makerspaces in preparation for our design, and now a year into our newly-built makerspace, I can offer the following recommendations to those beginning design for new builds. Not just the equipment and materials, but the architectural design. Some elements that we fought for turned out hugely important, and we found that there were some elements we missed.
Location. If the vision is to have a space that will bring STEM concepts *across* the school – tinkering-to-learn in social studies, world languages, everywhere – then the space needs to be both dedicated and not sequestered in a “STEM” part of the building. This is a great aspect of integrating makerspaces with libraries… libraries are already known as all-school spaces. Our space is situated in full view of the central school courtyard, in an area accessed by all classes for world languages and art, too.
Clear Line-of-Sight. In our original drawings, the back “woodworking room” was going to be a completely closed space, with only a pair of solid double doors between the main space and that room. This would have prevented me from seeing what was happening in that room at all! We convinced our architects to add a large window between the two spaces, so now, when I hear the miter saw come to life, I only need to glance over, confirm that it’s a trained adult and not a wandering adolescent, and go back to what I was doing.
Storage. Unlimited and highly efficient storage is a universal request for learning spaces, but an additional recommendation for makerspace: no cabinetry. Cabinets hide materials, so kids don’t know what’s available. Open, non-industrial shelving allows all available materials and tools to be visible. Additionally, there needs to be separate storage for construction materials and for students’ in-progress projects. As you can see in the picture of our storage below, our in-progress project storage (on the right, under the window) needs some work.
Electrical Outlets. A wall without an electrical outlet is a lost opportunity. The wall in our makerspace pictured below has zero electrical outlets on any side, severely limiting how we can use it. Further, an electrical-outlet-desert in the middle of a room is a hindrance. Think carefully about whether to install ceiling-mounted or in-floor electrical outlets.
In our digital space–with unmoving computer stations–in-floor electrical outlets give us the flexibility to place computer stations without extension cords running to the walls. In our building space, ceiling-mounted pull-down electrical outlets (visible in many pictures here) give us similar flexibility without the tripping hazard caused by uncovered in-floor outlets.
Ventilation. Even if starting without soldering, 3D printing, vacuum forming or laser cutting, consider the enormous expense it would entail to retrofit sufficient ventilation into an existing space. If you’re building a new space, or even just opening up the walls of an existing space, plan for significant ventilation needs in the future.
Many schools fitting makerspaces into existing spaces are needing to purchase large and very costly filtration systems to make up for a lack of ventilation. Even with our large and lovely hood, I’m already wishing for more ventilation as we add a vacuum former to our equipment.
Flooring. We talked our architects out of carpet for our building space, and the final vinyl tiling pattern designed by our head-of-school had a great serendipitous effect… The grid formation gave us great structure for on-the-fly group organization! Younger elementary-aged kids benefit from having a distinct line to “line up” on, and groups that need to spread out to work benefit from being assigned to a specific section of grid. Perhaps this is something school architects already know, but it’s amazing how flooring pattern can support (or, presumably, hinder) each group management!
Continuous New Findings. Just as teachers stay up-to-date on the latest research in effective teaching and learning, architects for schools need to stay up-to-date on the latest research on how space impacts learning. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but I can’t emphasize enough how critical I think Dr. Sapna Cheryan‘s research is in designing and maintaining STEM learning spaces that are equitable and promote belonging for ALL learners.
I hope learning institutions continue moving towards encouraging “maker” education and the idea of tinkering-for-learning. As more and more institutions do so, we’re also continuing to learn more and more best practices, from getting off the ground to dedicating significant time, space and professional development to the movement. Wherever you are in your process, there are more great resources to get you moving, from this
Wherever you are in your process, there are more great resources to get you moving, from this iNACOL webinar with my colleague Lina Rose and myself, to the #makered Twitter hashtag, to the K12 Fab Labs Google group.
For more, see:

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Lindsey Own

Lindsey has been a STEM educator for over 2 decades, in a teaching career that has been interspersed with research-based curriculum development and professional development leadership. She is an internationally-recognized leader in the educational makerspace community, including earning the 2018 FabLearn Global Excellence Practitioner award. Her love is in the classroom: supporting her students in understanding themselves, their growth, and the great impact they can have on the world.

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