MakersLabs: Creative Spaces for the 21st Century School

With technology changing almost daily, companies and industries are altering the way they work, communicate, and develop their products in the ever-changing world of technology.  With industries transforming from the traditional "9-5" workforce, how does this impact the education industry?  And more importantly, how do we prepare students for the ever-changing world?  At BCA Architects, we work with our clients to develop schools that take into account these changes, and develop spaces in schools that are flexible and adaptable to be able to accommodate these changes.  One of those spaces is the Makerslab.

A Makerslab, as defined by technology writer Alan Henry, "is a shared workspace where you can tackle do-it-yourself (DIY) projects you wouldn't normally be able to because you don't have the space or materials. Very often, those spaces are loaded with tools, training classes and other experienced members willing to help you get your projects off the ground." Our team at BCA Architects has seen a rise in the need for flexible spaces as this shift in education grows. Children cannot learn everything from textbooks; they need to actually experience what they are learning.

For children growing up in today's ever changing environment, it is important that schools adapt and offer the types of tools they need to thrive in a 21st Century Classroom; a MakersLab is a great way to help them achieve these goals. Technology's exponential growth is changing the demands of the workforce for today and tomorrow.  There are a growing number of new information technology (IT) positions and the growth of these new jobs is not being met in the U.S.   There is also a growing demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related jobs in the U.S. and abroad, a field where unfortunately U.S. students are extremely unprepared compared to other countries.

It isn't just teachers and future employers of students who recognize the important of this move towards more STEM-focused education.  Politicians across the U.S. have recently endorsed a nationwide STEM competition. Modeled after the Congressional Art Competition, the House Student App Challenge promotes STEM education by recognizing and incentivizing our nation's young programming talent.

This need for IT and STEM employees has created the beginning of a paradigm shift in U.S. schools to prepare the students for the demands of the workforce of tomorrow. A growing number of school districts that are emphasizing a STEM curriculum have found a need for a space where students can create, build, design, and learn through hands-on, minds-on learning projects. Some school districts call this space a Makerspace, while others use the term STEMlab or Fabrication lab. Regardless of the name, they all have a common goal and similar tenants, which is to provide a workspace where students can create and build, individually or collaboratively, invent and design their ideas into reality, and learn the process of designing a prototype from the beginning to the end.

When BCA Architects works with a school district to create a MakersLab, we first look at what will be taught in the space, what tools will be used in the space, the tools that will be initially purchased for the space, and we make sure the classroom space will perform its duties within the budget along with making sure all considerations are taken care of in regards to safety function and teacher/school needs. Next we consider the facility needs in terms of the tools the school district is planning to purchase in the implementation of the lab.  For example, if the school is going to purchase a 3D printer, what are the facility's needs to support fully utilizing this tool? All of these considerations are crucial to planning a MakersLab that will be successful for the individual district.

The majority of the spaces we design have specific designated areas: a digital area, classroom/collaboration space, and a fabrication lab.  The digital area is where students use computer technology, engineering and building materials, and collaborate on the prototyping of their creations.  In the digital area, students can work with software to design 3-D images and then see them come to life through 3-D printing. The Fabrication Station is the area of the lab where students utilize different tools to build their prototype and test its capabilities.  It is vital to know what tools are being planned for this area to ensure that all safety and security measures have been set in place. Every last detail needs to be considered, from the ventilation to the appropriate storage space

The first things many parents and teachers want to know is how these labs will make a difference in their child's curriculum. How will their work and learning experience advance? It is hard to answer such broad questions since all MakersLabs are different and so are the school curriculums. There is one project that almost every child in America does at some point in their life - the infamous Popsicle bridge building. Although it may be an exciting challenge for elementary school children, high school and middle school students will engage in this project with more rigor critical thinking and challenge.  The MakersLab allows them to build actual bridge prototypes with a variety of materials, integrating elements of engineering, art, math, and science into the process.

There are many ways that schools across the U.S. and internationally are implementing the "makers model." One school, East Bay School for Boys, has truly taken on the challenge of creating a MakersLab from scratch. Every year when a new class of students arrives, they are tasked with designing and constructing the desk they will sit at for the next three years. The students have to work together and collaborate so that they can build different prototypes and see which works best. In other words, they really are making their own workspace, which is what the makers model encourages. Other schools have programs where students design the bookshelves for their libraries or raise chickens for a culinary program. All of these activities allow the students to perform their activities creatively and thoughtfully.

As technology changes — the workforce demands change as well, which is the main rationale for the introduction of MakerLabs across the country.  Students today will go into a very different work environment and the challenge is to educate and prepare our students for these demands. The MakersLab is just one of the many ways schools can offer a space and a platform for children to grow and be successful.

Devorah Merling is the 21st Century Educator in Residence at BCA Architects. BCA Architects partners with clients in a mission to achieve excellence in design. Since 1989, BCA strives to strengthen communities through projects built, whether it's to design, to help define partnerships, to locate financing, to save energy or to present alternate delivery methods. BCA goes above and beyond the task at hand to ensure their clients succeed. For more information, visit: www.bcaarchitects.com.

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