Makerspaces — school-based, concept-to-reality, hands-on learning spaces — have become popular among today’s educators because of the high demand for future professionals who are not only technically skilled but also experienced in working collaboratively with their peers.

Think of it as old-fashioned shop class re-purposed for the digital era. The people who inhabit the spaces are the makers, and now they even have a day — actually two days — recognition of their activity. Makers Day is a celebration of “maker” culture across New Jersey. This all-ages event connects individuals with libraries, schools, businesses, and independent makerspaces that support making, tinkering, crafting, manufacturing, and STEM-based learning. The second annual New Jersey Makers Day will be held Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19. More than 15,000 at 150 sites people participated in the first Makers Day in 2015 at 150 sites.

This year’s event could be bigger yet. Sites participating in the 2016 Makers Day include Action Horizon Institute at 300 Carnegie Center Drive, the Trenton Computer Festival (see page 52), the New Jersey State Museum, the New Jersey State Library, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, AC Moore in Hamilton, Hightstown High School, Cranbury Public Library, 5eBoard at 118 Tamarack Circle in Skillman, the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, YingHua International School, and South Brunswick High School.

Because a major purpose of Makers Day is promoting STEM Education, many schools have decided to participate in the festivites, or even set aside space for makers to do their thing.

For example, Peddie School has opened a 4,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art digital fabrication laboratory, complete with design, engineering, and testing studios. This “Fab Lab,” designed by Ford 3 Architects at 32 Nassau Street in Princeton, continues the school’s tradition of innovating and using technology to enhance learning. “We believe it is important to not only integrate technology more fully into our curriculum, but also to foster interdisciplinary learning, provide opportunities for concrete applications of our STEM courses, and further develop the critical thinking skills of our students,” says Elizabeth Silverman, chair of the board of trustees at Peddie.

Architects Quinn Schwenker and Moira McClintock, founding partners of Ford 3 Architects (www.ford3.com), recently published at article on “How You Can Make a Makerspace Work for Your School” on the Independent School Magazine blog. Among their observations:

The College Board reports that according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the growth of jobs in the STEM disciplines was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM disciplines in the last 10 years. STEM jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent versus 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs in the 10-year period leading to 2018. But as a nation, we are not graduating nearly enough STEM majors to meet the demand. As is well documented, the United States has to either export many technical projects or import foreign talent to complete them here.

“Makerspaces could be a mid- and long-range macroeconomic strategy to re-onshore American technology and to reinvest for advanced manufacturing in the United States,” said Evan Malone, president of NextFab, a Philadelphia-based makerspace.

If you are considering a makerspace for your school, there are several key components to consider, including teachers, cost, space, technology, and ways of measuring success.

What You Need in a Makerspace Teacher. Perhaps the single most important component of a successful makerspace is the individual who manages the program. Finding the right person for the job can be a challenge, particularly because people with the required skills are in high demand in for-profit industries. On the other hand, your school’s hiring edge may be your ability to offer qualified candidates a quality-of-life benefit.

Among the issues you need to keep in mind: Makerspace teachers need a broad background and should be able to adapt to new technologies. They will preferably have some experience in a field related to the makerspace, such as computer science, engineering, and/or robotics. But the STEM disciplines aren’t the only ones that justify having a makerspace; rather, transforming STEM to STEAM — by adding art and design — morphs the makerspace into a truly multi– and inter-disciplinary learning site.

“The best makerspace teachers are creative thinkers, problem solvers, and people who embrace new technology; those can be teachers from very diverse backgrounds,” says Malone.

Teachers should be encouraged to work collaboratively and across disciplines. To share ideas and gain mentors, they should keep up with technology conferences, such as the ones from the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, as well as blogs and social media sites from academic and community-based makerspaces. Your school can also hire consultants to train staff members on new equipment and/or technologies periodically.

Teachers may need to secure partnerships with community members in related fields who will be willing to donate mentoring time and skill training for both the students and the teacher. Those experts could be active professionals or local retirees.

What to Consider About Cost, Space, and Technology. A makerspace can be a sizable investment in several ways. Start-up costs can be high, requiring at least $10,000 in the first year, plus a commitment to add to the makerspace with sizable annual investments. But academic discounts on new equipment will help make it more affordable.

Typical makerspace equipment could include computer workstations for design and programming, plus high-tech engineering equipment, such as 3D printers and computerized numerical control (CNC) such as a ShopBot, which is a CNC router that is excellent for woodworking, manufacturing, prototyping, and creating furniture.

You can create a simple makerspace in your school media center with only tech design computers and a 3D printer for small projects. But once you add CNC equipment, you must secure those devices in a static space with electrical power and compressed air. Plus, you need flexible open floor space with movable tables for project construction.

Peddie School renovated more than 4,300 square feet of existing space to create a dedicated workspace for digital fabrication. The redesign of the school’s old boiler plant included a poured concrete floor; new HVAC and electrical systems; a second story; and three unique spaces for design, engineering, and testing. Fully equipped makerspaces have technologies and materials with separate and conflicting facility and safety requirements, such as safety equipment, fire safety measures, and environmental controls.

How to Measure Success with a Makerspace: When a makerspace fulfills its mission every semester on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, then it is a success. Therefore, success for your independent school makerspace starts by just getting it operational; securing commitments for short– and mid-range funding; reallocating space within an existing campus for the makerspace; and hiring the right teacher, complete with training, experience, vision, passion, and energy, to build and lead your makerspace program.

Academic stakeholders will know their investment is paying off when they see high school students succeed in college– and professional-level challenges, equipment, and experiences, right on their campuses. Over the longer-term, they can measure success when students enter and do well in collegiate-level technical fields and become accomplished young professionals.

How a Makerspace Will Give Students an Edge: Given society’s unrelenting demand for professionals who can work collaboratively, are technically proficient, and possess excellent leadership skills, it is not surprising that makerspaces are becoming a major trend in education. Adding one can help prepare your students for the future as it sets your school apart from the competition.

Peddie looks forward to the possibilities that its new digital fabrication lab will provide to students and faculty for years to come.

“As the lab is as limitless in potential as our students’ imaginations, we can create 150-pound robots, or props and costumes for the musical, or a bicycle for the sophomore cycling trip,” said Catherine Rodrigue, associate head of Peddie. “As students problem solve, design, build, iterate, and revise in the laboratory, they learn important lessons about creativity, grit, failure, and success — and develop skills that will prepare them for a lifetime of innovation.”

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