If we break down the two words that comprise the word ‘makerspace’ you would get the most general and high-level answer to the question 'what is a makerspace?'. Simply put, it is a ‘space’ for ‘makers’, a designated area where one is able to create something.
A lot of questions arise from this.
WHO are these makers?
WHAT can or do they make?
WHAT is found within a makerspace?
WHY is there a need for a designated ‘space’ to make something?
Before we answer these questions, it’s important to note that there is no governing body. That means no definitive rules and regulations for what defines a makerspace. That is why the definition provided above is likely going to be the most accepted version.
This does us no favors in understanding the makerspace concept though. Especially those of us who have no idea what it is let alone what it even looks like.
To help understand, think of science, woodworking, or computer labs in an educational context. Makerspaces build on that concept but without the strict rules or regulations (aside from safety rules of course). These spaces can be set up anywhere, for anyone, to make anything. The goal here is to learn, tinker, explore, and make.
If you are a living, breathing human being then congrats! You, sir/madam, are a Maker!
Mark Hatch (TechShop co-founder), in his ‘Maker Movement Manifesto’, listed several characteristics of what makes a maker, well… a maker. Some of these include the passion and drive to make something, to give, share, learn, participate, and support.
Chris Anderson (former Chief Editor of Wired magazine) lists three primary characteristics of a maker mindset.
While there are slight differences in what defines a maker, it is unanimous that makers are producers.
They are tinkerers and experimenters.
They are learners, learning new concepts through experimentation and hands-on activities.
They are willing to fail.
They are willing to collaborate and share their ideas.
You can make anything! You don’t necessarily have to think of something original. With a maker mindset, you can re-create an existing product or item from scratch. The difference here is you get to put your own twist or add your own flavor to it. This could be in terms of aesthetics, design, or functionality.
Perhaps you do have a new idea. Makerspaces are a perfect place to tinker, experiment, and design prototypes.
The beauty of a makerspace is it can be what we make of it.
For instance, in a school, students are constantly learning new principles and concepts. Teachers can set up a makerspace that facilitates this learning.
For example, instead of explaining some physics theory wouldn’t it be great to first demonstrate it? Wouldn’t it be great to let students tinker their way into learning instead of hammering it into them with a drawn-out lecture? After all, Newton didn't theorize endlessly before discovering gravity.
I’m not suggesting that we completely do away with lectures. What I’m saying is intentional project-based learning would be the perfect supplement to traditional teaching methods.
Yes, there are science, computer, and woodworking labs for that sort of thing. The difference here is the ‘open play’ mindset. Within a science lab, teachers give students instructions to get from Point A to Point B. Like mindless robots, they carry out the instructions.
This significantly limits one’s creativity, critical thinking skills, and initiative.
In a makerspace though, you’re allowed to play, tinker, and explore based on the knowledge you hold. The end goal is loosely defined with no intermediary steps. It is entirely up to you to determine what and how to make something.
The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge."— Seymour Papert
The only limitation within a makerspace is the set of tools available. This is actually a big plus because you can set up a makerspace according to your specific needs.
To get an idea of the type of tools usually found within makerspaces, Make The Data held a survey on the type of spaces and maker equipment used.
You can get a bit more creative within a classroom setting. Here are just some items you can find in a school makerspace.
Makerspaces can be found in public libraries, schools, universities, museums, and non-profit organizations. Heck, you can set one up in your home. There are other specialized organizations built specifically to hold maker spaces. Organizations such as FabLabs and TechShop have been around since the early and mid-2000s. Unfortunately, TechShop filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and has since closed down all locations.
The good news is that libraries and schools are opening new makerspaces at a rapid rate. Thanks in large to high participation in experimental makerspace setups.
If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books.”— Roald Dahl
Makerspaces grew out of the rise of maker culture - a culture of creation over consumption. Where DIY projects took off in a rapid fashion over the past couple of decades.
This formed into what is known as the maker movement. This movement was propelled even more by the advent of rapid technological advances. Tools that were only available in industrial settings started showing up in the general market for all. 3-D printers, Raspberry Pi, Arduino microcontroller made the process of going from design to prototype seamless. This, coupled with the advent of the internet allowed for individuals across the globe to share knowledge, ideas, and designs.
Starting in the early 2000s, small organizations were being formed to provide a designated space for makers. A significant formation was that of FabLabs. With the help of the National Science Foundation in 2002, Neil Gershenfeld (and the ‘Center For Bits and Atoms’ at MIT) deployed the first Fab Lab. The idea behind it was for it to work as a design workshop open to anyone.
It strived to provide a space to allow for research and experimentation. Their motto - “to empower, to educate, and to create ‘almost anything’”.
Since then, other communal places followed suit. Libraries, museums, and schools started setting up experimental workshops to gauge interest. The feedback was very positive, from students, teachers, and patrons alike. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tinkering is a mindset – a playful way to approach and solve problems through direct experience, iteration, experimentation, and discovery.— Martinez & Stager
Here are some resources to expand on everything we’ve covered so far. You will find books, videos, articles, project-based websites, and actual makerspaces you can visit.
What is Making?
Every child deserves a Makerspace
The Maker Movement in Schools
The ‘Make’ YouTube channel has a huge library of videos to keep you busy with more examples of projects.
The Budget Makerspace Project - $500 or less
Hopefully, you now know what is a makerspace and why it exists.
I’ve provided a starting point to get involved through this article. But that’s all it is, a starting point.
If you are an educator, get the conversation going about setting up your own makerspaces in your school.
If you are a parent, set up your own makerspace for your child. It doesn't have to be fancy or high tech, a simple starter space is sufficient to get things going.
If you are simply curious and marvel about getting to tinker and experiment to your heart’s content then get out there and join the makerspace community.
The Maker Movement allows students to strengthen humanistic values through projects and experiences that require the use of their heads, hearts, and hands. Students are introduced to creative technologies that bridge the digital and physical worlds. Through whimsical projects, students take an interest in the concepts and ideas that might normally be offered through a textbook or worksheet. The Maker Movement also emphasizes the necessity of problem-finding, problem-solving, and the power of social learning through sharing and collaborative work to solve issues small and large. Working with unfamiliar materials in novel ways provides authentic experiences for students to deepen their understanding of energy and energy transfer.” 
So share ideas, ask questions, learn, explore, and most importantly, MAKE something. Your mind will thank you for it.