Informal Maker Programs Make Deep Connections

Ten months ago, I left the familiarity of the formal classroom setting in pursuit of practices in constructionism, free of the tyranny of standardardized testing and a one size fits all curriculum.  While driving from coast to coast and back again, I visited some truly inspiring makerspaces. From the woods of New Hampshire, to the mountains of Colorado, to the green hills surrounding Silicon Valley, programs are offering learning opportunities that demonstrate that informal ed doesn’t have to be shallow, or ephemeral. Two library programs stand out for spreading meaningful and lasting impact on their communities.  

In 2015 the Sunnyvale Public library in California began offering a series of free, two-hour workshops for girls and their mothers, led by women role models. The Make-HER series was designed to give girls ages 8-12 and their moms the opportunity to work side by side, applying their creativity both to the use of existing tools and the invention of new ones. This program was the vision of Youth Services Librarian Nancy Andrus who stumbled upon the Maker Movement and its mindsets, while hoping to offer more programming and coding workshops at the library, normally filled by mostly male participants.

Thanks to Nancy’s “Steminist” formula, Make-HER has become so successful that the free workshops sellout on eventbrite within sixty minutes of being posted online. Despite the nature of the two hour workshop, these moms and their daughters return month after month for every STEM course offered. Clearly, the Sunnyvale community is drawn by this special gathering of women makers. After two years of successful two hour weekend workshops, Nancy Andrus secured funding to take the program on the road to a local public school, as an after school enrichment program. Prototyped by maker extraordinaire Corinne Takara (pictured below), the public school outreach pilot is in its first year of funding. Corinne did the fall term series, Lauren Cage did winter, and Lindsay Balfour will finish up with the spring term. “We’ll continue at the middle school next year,” Nancy tells me, “and expand to one Title 1 elementary. After piloting at the elementary level, we hope to continue to roll out to the remaining Title 1 elementary schools in the district.” 

Make-HER founding educator, Corinne Takara

3D rendering with TinkerCAD

Powerful ideas begin with powerful tools

Targeting girls for STEM/STEAM outreach is not a new story, but seeing libraries and maker programs take this issue into their own hands is. Studies show that middle school is a great time to intervene and help shape young women’s confidence in STEM. According to a paper entitled Overview: Self-efficacy in STEM it is noted that “the most influential source of STEM self-efficacy for boys and men is mastery experience,” while, “the most influential sources of STEM self-efficacy for girls and women are vicarious experience and social persuasion (Zeldin & Pajares, 2000).” In other words, being part of a designated social maker community like Make-HER, helps young women form identities around their STEM efficacy, or feeling “smart” or good at science, math, engineering and technology. (Rittmayer, et al., 2008)

Women in STEM is one issue for makerspaces and maker programs to tackle, the other is based in local issues of unemployment, underemployment, and sustainability. BLDG61 (pronounced Building 61) is the first public library in the Unites States with a state of the art makerspace featuring, 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC machines and a professional woodshop. Residents of Boulder can take free workshops in coding, sewing, and bring in broken items for repair, similar to many makerspaces. What makes BLDG 61 unique is their partnerships with local organizations to help disenfranchised individuals find a path to purposeful and lucrative work.

Under the vision of master woodworker Janet Hollingsworth, BLDG61 has joined with Bridge House, a program that helps the homeless and working poor, and #TreeOpp, a city parks program innovation that transforms an environmental challenge into art and social change. The Ash tree is non-native to the Colorado rockies, yet it has become a signature ornamental in the Boulder area, making up 25% of the urban canopy. As of 2013, the Ash trees have become threatened by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a green jewel beetle that feeds on ash tree species.

Emerald Ash Borer (EAB)

The beetle originated from Asia and is a federally quarantined, invasive tree pest responsible for the death or decline of more than 50 million ash trees to date. In true maker fashion, Janet partnered with #TreeOpp and saw the dead trees as material for change. BLDG61 uses the wood from fallen trees to teach the Bridge House participants basic wood working to make high quality wood products, such as cutting boards, ornaments and tables. The products from the first round of interns were sold at a winter craft market and sold out within two hours!

“Beetle Ash” gets a new life as this butterfly designed by Bridge House participant using CAD and a laser cutter

Janet introducing a Danish oil finish technique to participants during their Saturday morning internship session

“It’s not just the direct skills that will be carried forward,” explains Janet, “it’s also the confidence, the sense of agency, the idea of being the steward of your own ideas, that really is an empowering potential – and something that is behind everything we do here at BLDG61.” One Saturday morning participant jokingly commented that his time in the makerspace was “better than being in jail.” We all agreed. Watch a video about this incredible program here.

Successful informal outreach looks like partnering with local agencies, sustainable material sourcing, and some creative solutioneering that can become the roots of entrepreneurialism. In this rich context, jobs, ideas and people matter. In these examples, informal education can be as meaningful and impactful as formal education, when you have the right chemistry. Programs that fit within their local maker ecosystems like Make-HER and BLDG61, it seems, rather than those that work in isolation, stand to see more meaningful results over time.

  1. Rittmayer, A. D., & Beier, M. E. (2008). Overview: Self-efficacy in STEM.SWE-AWE CASEE Overviews.
  2. Zeldin, A. L., & Pajares, F. (2000). Against the odds: Self-efficacy beliefs of women in mathematical, scientific, and technological careers. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 215–246.