Kim Martin, Beth Compton, and Ryan Hunt
As demonstrated by the popularity of Make: Magazine, Maker Faires, and maker-inspired curricula, makerspaces and maker culture have gathered significant attention in recent years. Although these concepts are increasingly familiar, many makerspaces (also known as fab labs, hackerspaces, and DIY centers) are often found in basements of university campuses or off the beaten path of popular downtown streets. As makerspaces gain traction, their role in supporting their local communities and acting as social spaces for their members has become clearer (Taylor, Connolly, and Hurley). For instance, many of them are becoming mobile, shifting from dark basements and hidden streets into the wider public sphere through the use of vehicles. Maker projects in themselves, these vehicles help instill a love of creative play by carrying materials to help a wider population engage with maker culture. We manage one such vehicle: the MakerBus, a school bus based in Southern Ontario. Since starting this project in April 2013, we have responded to questions we did not think we would encounter in our time as graduate students: how do we continue to remain critically aware of the maker technologies we use and provide? How do we maintain our academic interests surrounding the maker movement, yet also strive to make a difference in our local communities? And how do we negotiate our roles as “experts” in a field where we have so much more to learn?
After briefly introducing the concept of mobile makerspaces and the MakerBus, this chapter explores perceived dichotomies that we have faced and continue to face. We feel that academic scholarship often neglects personal experience, which is central to critical work. Thus, we offer our experiences with the MakerBus as a window into a public-facing communications project in order to inform future like-minded projects and diversify current maker discourse. Through our unique point of view as humanities graduate students overseeing the MakerBus project, we provide a reflexive take on two common dichotomies: the academy or the community, and experts or amateurs.
A makerspace is “a general term for a place where people get together to make things” (Roslund and Rodgers). In the spirit of DIY, makers use these spaces to share a variety of skills — from sewing, woodworking, and laser-cutting to artistic practices and computer programming. Mobile makerspaces take this concept on the road, packing all the equipment into a vehicle and going out into communities to foster engagement. While no two makerspaces are the same, one common goal of mobile makerspaces is to provide access to resources and offer educational experiences to their communities (Moorefield-Lang). Instead of requiring individuals to visit a library or university campus, mobile makerspaces go directly to them. The current literature on mobile makerspaces is narrated largely by those involved in their creation: communications personnel for libraries and museums, teachers looking to extend school programming, university groups of STEM advocates, and independent organizations (including nonprofits, charities, and social enterprises) (Craddock; de Boer; Gierdowski and Reis; Moorefield-Lang).
With no direct ties to a particular university, library, museum, or school, the MakerBus is an independent organization. It is also a retrofitted 1989 school bus that carries an eclectic collection of technologies — such as virtual reality and augmented reality viewers, drones (or quadcopters), 3-D scanners, and 3-D printers — that are often affiliated with the maker movement. One aspect of our work involves partnering with charities and nonprofits to offer creative approaches to digital literacy education in our city. We are different from other mobile makerspaces because we aim to include arts, humanities, and social sciences content in our explorations. We visit libraries, schools, and museums and work with children, teens, and adults alike. We have designed adult literacy modules about drones and podcasting (“Maker Curriculum Modules”), held fashion shows of wearables and handmade clothing, and even attempted to set a world record. Not all of these activities occur on board the bus; however, the MakerBus is the symbol that drives our community-focused project.
The Academy or the Community
Academic scholarship predominantly frames community involvement through terms such as “knowledge mobilization,” “community outreach,” and “public engagement.” While these terms have been used to describe work that is reciprocal in nature, in practice they are mostly unidirectional — academics remain producers of knowledge, and community members (or “the public”) remain consumers of curated academic information. This perceived dichotomy shapes what both parties (i.e., scholars and community partners) bring to the table.
Our work with the MakerBus disrupts this dichotomy in two ways. First, our interactions with the larger maker community shaped our personal academic interests. More specifically, 3-D printing and 3-D modeling altered Beth Compton’s Ph.D. path. She knew little about either topic prior to her work with the MakerBus. She now explores issues of representation and replication in cultural heritage management through interviews with research participants in the Circumpolar North. Having to negotiate gender dynamics as a female co-founder of the MakerBus led Kim Martin to a post-doctoral fellowship examining the role of gender in makerspaces. Meanwhile, Ryan Hunt decided to leave the academy and now balances community engagement via the MakerBus with discussions of the MakerBus in academic contexts, including this very chapter.
Second, our paths as scholars inform our community-based, collaborative work, providing a critical lens when advocating for maker technology and digital literacy. For example, the Innov8 project saw the MakerBus partner with a literacy advocacy program, a local church, and an adult education institute. Each group contributed a unique knowledge set to the larger goals of the project (Dumlao and Janke). Literacy Link South Central’s focus on literacy information and training, combined with their awareness of London’s underprivileged social areas, led them to create digital literacy programming with a focus on 18- to 35-year-olds. The local church and adult education institute provided a connection and attentiveness to the interests of potential participants. The MakerBus provided a creative take on digital literacy around maker technologies such as 3-D printing and augmented reality, demonstrating how they are more than mere gadgets for uncritical consumption or entertainment.
In 99 percent of Ontario elementary and secondary schools, students have access to computers with Internet access (Chen). However, research shows that access alone does not equate directly with increased scholastic confidence or performance (Chen). More technology is not necessarily better; how resources are used matters most. While providing at-risk and underserved groups with access is an important MakerBus mandate, we also encourage people to evaluate their relationship with technology. The Innov8 project was the result of finding “common ground” and could not have happened without a critical assessment of digital literacy techniques and maker technology (Sandy and Holland). As a group we worked through past literacy programming and concluded that many of the learning objectives could be met with maker technologies. For instance, instead of teaching someone how to use a search engine, we presented them with a Makey Makey, provided instructions for set-up, and then asked them to look online to locate either new games to play or other uses for this technology. With the maker technology as the focus, Innov8 participants wanted to understand how things worked. They also learned the requisite digital literacy skills through curiosity instead of a step-by-step tutorial. This unique approach to digital literacy training would have been difficult to achieve without voices and contributions across the academy and community.
Through the MakerBus project we built a network that connects nonprofit, charity, corporate, government, and academic initiatives, each of which is motivated by a diverse array of interests. Our network and the way we draw upon these partnerships are unique to our community and the individuals with whom we work. We believe our project must be viewed within a broader ecosystem of existing local projects and complementary services responsive to local needs. This integrated and unifying approach treats academic and community expertise as equally valuable.
Experts or Amateurs
A core ethos of the maker movement is to challenge traditional views of the expert, recognizing that everyone, from aerospace engineers to kindergartners, has skills to share (Martinez and Stager). This sentiment of collaborative, peer-to-peer learning turns students into teachers and amateurs into experts. As Kuznetsov and Paulos point out, DIY culture is driven by creativity and open information exchange. In these communities, expertise is not derived from formal education or training alone, but also by “hobbyists and enthusiasts who critique and learn from each others’ work, giving rise to the expert amateur” (8). Such expertise in amateurism results from dialogue with the maker community, gaining knowledge from sharing knowledge, and participating in iterative creative processes. One of the goals of the MakerBus is to help our community members realize their potential as expert amateurs by leading them to engage with maker technology in ways that pique their unique, individual interests. Another goal is to challenge normative assumptions about expertise, including assumptions about who experts are and where expertise is developed.
Despite this goal, our backgrounds in higher education, combined with the leadership roles we have undertaken by virtue of running the MakerBus, often give the impression that we are maker experts. Part of what makes the MakerBus desirable to organizations like libraries and schools is the perceived expertise of its team members in maker and educational technologies. Aware of this paradox (that we use our status as experts to challenge assumptions of expertise), we are transparent about our own knowledge, or lack thereof. For example, in a recent set of workshops with teacher-librarians from the local school board, we discussed our relationship with our 3-D printer. Assembled from a kit over a period of months on a kitchen table, we learned how 3-D printers work by building (and often failing to build) our first printer. By telling this story, we were being honest about our perceived expert status, acknowledging that we gained familiarity with 3-D printers and their use through trial-and-error experimentation.
The use of specific maker technologies (e.g., 3-D printers and 3-D scanners) requires us to gain detailed knowledge about them, and working with the public means sharing this information in a variety of settings. Some people consider this knowledge to be expertise, but we treat it as a platform: information that will inspire others to expand their own experiences with the tools we have at hand. For instance, in our 3-D printing workshops, we demonstrate the printer, the software it requires, and numerous 3-D scanning methods. Then, instead of working to achieve a fixed set of learning outcomes, the group discusses their personal interests and skill sets and how both may relate to 3-D printing. We have yet to leave one of these workshops without learning from the participants and witnessing the participants learn from one another.
From its outset, the MakerBus has challenged dichotomies. Acting simultaneously as academics and community members, we have felt tensions between perceived expertise and amateurism, at times feeling like amateur professionals or professional amateurs. Our professional training in library and information sciences, archaeology, and history, respectively, all influence the direction of the MakerBus project, but the humanistic skills we obtained through our education are rarely employed academically in the day-to-day running of the MakerBus.
The MakerBus and, in our experience, a great many makerspaces reflect Kuznetsov and Paulos’s idea that DIY culture has given rise to the “expert amateur.” While none of us has formal training in science education, curriculum design, or emerging technologies, we have gained “expert” status in many different community circles through our continued work with the project. Drawing upon elements of our academic training, experience working with diverse groups, and a healthy sense of trial and error, we hope to continue inspiring critical dialogue about maker technologies and pedagogies that encourages people to share their unique skills, ideas, and perspectives, making everyone an expert amateur. By seeking and valuing divergent expertise to the benefit of all parties, and by recognizing that knowledge mobilization is reciprocal, we are well positioned to forge new directions and create, above all else, meaningful change.
2. For the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s definition of “knowledge mobilization,” see www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/definitions-eng.aspx#km-mc.
3. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Digital Projects for the Public” grants support projects that contribute significantly to the public’s engagement with the humanities. See www.neh.gov/grants/public/digital-projects-the-public.
4. A Makey Makey is a small circuit board that, when connected to a computer via a USB and to conductive material via alligator clips, creates an interface alternative to a standard keyboard and mouse.
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