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Maker Voices: Elisabeth

"One great approach is to define a small number of projects (really small! Like one or three!) that integrate into existing programming or curriculum. Do you have a organization...

Elisabeth Sylvan, Maker Educator


Elisabeth Sylvan’s work for over twenty years has been to support creative communities including, in some small ways, the GSE Makery. She has worked her herself, at the MIT Media Lab, TERC, The Tech Interactive. She is currently Managing Director, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University(link is external) and Principal, Elisabeth Sylvan Consulting(link is external).

Tell me a story about a learner in a makerspace who surprised you.

When I was first introduced to “Angie,” she barely grunted an acknowledgement of my existence. I was the new kid on the block, charged with getting a new makerspace in order, but I wasn’t doing anything that she found interesting yet. 

Angie was an unconventional learner who had found our makerspace to be a good place for her. She rebelled against rules of all kinds, when she noticed them at all. She was driven to realize her own creations and had developed a range of technical skills to make what she wanted, but ㅡas I learned when she took one of my classes laterㅡ was less interested in completing coursework, even when she defined the assignments. She could have been labelled a ‘difficult student’ because, well, she was not going to do what people asked just because they asked her.

Still, if you stuck to her highly specific interests (Pokemon Go, cosplay costumes, Dungeon and Dragons, and 3D design of Pokemon characters,) Angie was capable of making anything and explaining exactly how you could do the same. Since 3D printing was my weakness and her strength, I found Angie to be a great troubleshooting resource. 

As we got to know one another through discussions of makerspace tools (and, yes, the makerspace’s rules too) I learned that Angie really wanted to connect with others and had a lot to offer. Ultimately I asked another educator to take Angie on as a summer camp assistant, knowing that Angie could be a great technical helper and hoping that this amazing instructor could help her grow to understand the camper’s needs. I won’t say that everything went perfectly smoothly, but, thanks to the amazing camp instructor and to Angie’s perseverance, Angie helped a lot of campers create in the makerspace and she demonstrated some diligence that I had not seen in Angie previously.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for educational makerspaces currently?

Sustainability can be really hard, both financially and community buy-in. I’m going to focus only on the financial issues. 

Creating a sustainable business model can be challenging for any kind of makerspace, but ones located in schools and libraries have particularly constrained budgets. 

For the last several years, entrepreneurial educators have procured startup funding through grants or enthusiast supporters in their administrations. (As the challenges of makerspaces become more obvious, this kind of funding seems to be shrinking.)

Sometimes startup funding includes money for staffing, but often it doesn’t. This is a mistake, one that is a second cause of makerspace unsustainability. 

When funds are not put aside for staffing, either everyone uses it some --resulting in the tragedy of the commons(link is external)-- or one person gets an additional set of job responsibilities. Even if that person is enthusiastic and highly capable, they still have to balance that with the rest of their workload. And often they are assessed on the other parts of their workload (e.g., the performance of their classroom students), rather than what happens in the makerspace.  

It’s much better when someone’s job is to run the makerspace and when that person is part educator, part curriculum developer, part technical guru, and part community cheerleader. A person like that is rare and probably has other opportunities. They need to know that the staffing budget looks secure for a couple of years, which often it doesn’t. 

Regardless of start-up staffing, makerspaces continue to cost money over time. Having a secure budget year-to-year is a huge challenge for many educational makerspaces. People get creative with membership models, Christmas trinket sales, and charity events, but these may not cover the costs of the space.

There’s no great solution, but starting small and staying lean can help. One great approach is to define a small number of projects (really small! Like one or three!) that integrate into existing programming or curriculum. Do you have a organization-wide program or event that you can tap into? Or a favorite set of lessons that staff would be happy to update?  This approach provides clarity around the tools and materials that are most needed, provides resources from other parts of the organizations involved in the programming, helps with community buy-in, and allows people to take on roles within the makerspace that are directly related to their work. 

What tips do you have to make makerspaces environmentally sustainable?

See my article(link is external) on this topic!

What do you see as the trends in maker education going forward? What are you most excited about?

The most exciting trend in maker education for me is making them more open to a range of contributors and learners.  The ‘elilist’ criticism of makerspaces has been a fair one for a very long time. For the last several years more people are addressing diversity and inclusion directly while others recognize the problem more than they did previously.  I’m not saying this is the newest new trend, but it’s a fundamentally important one that is slowly being realized over time. (By the way, Stanford GSE has been working on this issue for a while(link is external).)


You can connect with Elisabeth at Twitter:@lisard(link is external) Instagram:@lisardhere(link is external) Web:

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