After the 2017 STEAM Symposium in San Francisco there were many great ideas floating around the brain. It was next to impossible to capture them all. When getting to the meat of what was most useful to share with the Maker community what really stood out was exploring the best ways to create budget-friendly makerspaces. This is constantly discussed in education circles as makerspaces are not only a hot trend, but visibly impact the student learning experience. My personal highlight was meeting and chatting with MAKE’s very own Dale Dougherty who was passionate about the concept of Makerspace design by and for the user or what is commonly known as user-center design.

When designing a space, a couple things are clear, while you don’t need a lot of money to start you need a minimum of a clearly defined vision, mission and purpose. Whether you plan to ring in the New Year in a brand new makerspace or undergo a makerspace reboot, here are some tips collected from the STEAM Symposium experts and from the San Diego Maker community to get you going.

Define your short and long term projected budget

When money is tight, first put pencil to paper in figuring out this magic number. It will largely determine your strategy. Educators who are especially strapped might be used to seizing the opportunity to think of creative and inventive ways to DIY or seek out space and materials. As a note, both short-term and long-term visions for the program might have differing budgetary constraints.

Define the purpose, vision and audience for the space

This was emphasized, by STEAM Symposium experts like Daniella Shoshan of MakerEd Vista, Rick Shertle of Steindorf K-8 STEAM School and Gokul Krishnan of Maker Therapy, as one of the most important questions to answer when first designing or transforming your space. Engage your audience early and often to define how they envision using the space. Daniella Shoshan provided some questions to guide you:

  • What are the goals and projected outcomes of the space?
  • Who will be using it and how? Who haven’t we thought of that might be a user? Why wouldn’t they use it?
  • What are the barriers (e.g. Culture, language, access, preconceived notions) to using the space? How can you resolve for those barriers in the space?
  • What projects are most interesting and relevant to the intended users?
  • Will parents and the community be involved and how?
  • What are our values and how does the space connect to those values?

In her session, “Resetting your makerspace baseline: Equity & Inclusion through Community Centered Making,” Danielle emphasized the importance of including the user at every stage. “Don’t be afraid to turn it over to the students and young people to ask these questions. In today’s climate, the idea of making things inclusive seems high stakes. It seems daunting. Take small bites and steps toward inclusion.”

Do your homework before selecting tools, then create a tool wish list

Dive in and immerse yourself into the culture of Making. Visit local makerspaces, talk to local experts and see what might already be available. More and more local libraries are building community makerspaces that are open and free for public use. Uyen Tran, who heads the Innovation Lab at San Diego Central Library  and co-founded the San Diego Makers’ Guild,  has some sound advice regarding tools. Given there is such a wide variety of tools and tech available at varying costs think about purpose, maintenance and upgrades down the road. Since technology changes so quickly and can be challenging to maintain, tread cautiously into super high-tech tools unless you have a dedicated technical person to help maintain and manage the upgrades of the space tools. This is important to keep things in working order and usable. She also suggests diving into MakerEd’s Youth Makerspace Playbook  for more information about creating the space and identifying tools.

The San Diego Central library built their space with special regard to the community they were serving. “We have sewing machines, laser cutters, 3D printers and more, available to the public.” The library hosts workshops so anyone can create. If you’re looking for similar spaces in your local area, a good place to start is the MakerMap or the Maker Directory both of which will help you navigate your local spaces. As a note, not all spaces are included in these maps, so continue to connect with other local makers and educators and ask around.

Once you’ve identified materials and tools available, create a wishlist for a range of tools you’ll want to add to your utility belt. These might include woodworking tools, power tools and software.

Rick Shertle, a teacher at the Steindorf K-8 STEAM School in San Jose, California, shared some of his favorite hand and power tools. His favorite hand tools measure, clamp and cut while his favorite power tools are a drill press, scroll saw, sander, and power drill. His best advice, “you don’t need the top of the line and most expensive equipment.” The best advice he got was from a fellow Maker to avoid buying the $30,000 laser cutter and opt instead for the one that was a fraction of the cost. Also, don’t discount mobile maker carts either. Those are highly functional and can be a making project on their own.

The use and ease of mobile making carts was also echoed by Gokul Krishnan of Maker Therapy who worked with chronically ill children receiving long term health treatments. He worked alongside them to create the first ever Mobile Makerspaces in the hospital setting to encourage kids to bring their creations and imaginations to life.

Don’t be shy. Reach out to your community of parents, schools, businesses and ask for what you need. You can organize a local tool drive or check out DonorsChoose.org and request your items. You might get everything you need to build out your space.

Define space and site management plan

Now that you have an idea of what the program will look like, tools you’ll need and what is already available, you can begin thinking about space layout and resources needed to manage the space.

Rick Shertle discussed site management as a major challenge when developing a space. One major lesson learned was keeping the space organized and tracked for inventory. Creating a simple plan for logistics, organization and space ground rules will save you headaches and money in the long run. One of Rick’s major challenges was organizing the space, cataloging and creating a current inventory of tools. His suggestion is to assign a committed volunteer or student to be the manager of the space. This person would be primarily responsible for taking inventory of items that need to be refilled, restocked and checked out. This can easily be done in a simple excel file.

Apply for grants for your space

Never fear, there is money available for makerspaces and STEAM projects through grants. You just need to know where to look. Applying for grants is a great way to find additional money needed for that laser cutter, 3D printers or software which can run a pretty penny. To begin your search for grants, you can search the CDFAGrants.gov  or STEM Grants. This will get you started in the right direction.

As a note, there is an art to grant writing says Jennifer Janzen of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. She would know as her grant experience spans more than 15 years. Mostly, you can avoid disqualification if you follow the grant funders instructions exactly as most applicants, more than 60%, are disqualified for ineligibility or lack of following instructions.