Over the past few years I’ve talked with many groups about making and education. There is always a big question of how making fits into the classroom. Should it be integrated into normal curriculum? Should there be a dedicated maker space in the school? Unfortunately, there is no single quick and easy answer to these questions. It is undeniable that the maker mindset is having an impact in education though.
There are groups of educators that gather at maker faires and discuss these things in detail, sharing tips and tricks for funding, curriculum, and building. One question that I’ve heard asked over and over, is “is there a service that can come design a space and give us a curriculum to work with?”.
The answer is yes. If you have the leverage to hire an outside source there are a few available. I recently had a chance to talk a little with Thomas Kearns, founder of Bit Space a group in the Chicago area that does a few things including having a “maker summer camp” and designing maker spaces for schools.
Bit Space has built maker spaces in schools of all kinds, from k-12 public schools to the multi-million dollar space in U of C Lab School.
Tell me a little about Bit Space.
Bit Space is a company in Chicago which operates multiple youth only maker labs, where we run programming such as summer camps and after school programs. In addition Bit Space works with schools, libraries and organizations to bring the power of making into the classroom through facility design + construction, training and curriculum development.
How did you get started?
I come from higher education, where I spent 13+ years as a full-time professor of architecture most recently as a curricular director in the college of architecture at IIT here in Chicago. Alongside my academic career was an active design and consulting practice fueled by a hands on approach to building and a masters degree in game programming. This combination of teaching and practice is at the core of Bit Space, both as content and service provider. 4 years ago I opened a maker lab just for kids and we have built an amazing program and infrastructure for teaching kids and teachers.
What is often the most difficult aspect of the process of putting a makerspace in a school?
What is a makerspace really? It’s not an easy question to answer and understandably most schools really struggle with this. What you normally see is, hey we got some 3d printers now what? At Bit Space, curriculum comes first and the resources follow. This avoids the “3d printer, now what” problem that plagues so many schools. While much of the provisions are similar, the way that a school wants to engage, can engage or will inevitably engage with the lab can be really subtly or really explicitly different. The difficulty is locating and choreographing those pedagogical, operational, economical, and administrative forces which schools aren’t always clear about, into the definition of makerspace that is appropriate for them now and in the future.
How do clients find you?
Over the past four years we have developed relationships with a really large cross section of public and private schools throughout the entire Chicago land region through the wide range of services we offer. In many cases a teacher or parent finds us and connects us with the school. Over the past few months we have begun to increase our marketing reach as we scale our furniture production and teacher training efforts nationwide and more.
Are there competitors in this space?
There are definitely competitors. Most of the large institutional furniture providers have catalogs for schools to outfit their labs and there are a range creative space consultants throughout the country. You can find lots of resource providers and curriculum available in the variety of different subject areas we have expertise in, but the thing that really sets us apart is that we are experts at connecting it all together and have a proven track record of not just recommending it, but actually doing it and using all of this stuff ourselves.
Do you have any tips for schools that can’t afford to hire someone like you but want to do something small?
We do all of this making stuff in the service of teaching design. Make your maker lab about the design process first and “making” things second, and you’ll quickly find that you don’t need a lot of expensive stuff. What building offers is away to make your design bump up against reality, so if you select the right kind of design problems, constrained by the tools or materials you can get access to you can do something small, or even better (do something big on the small budget)