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Aditya Vishwanath, MakerGhat co-founder

Aditya Vishwanath
Expertise: 

Aditya is a doctoral student at the GSE, a Knight-Hennessey Scholar, and one of the founders of MakerGhat. His interests lie in understanding and evaluating tech for diverse learning environments. He works at the intersection of the learning sciences, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction. He aims to engineer creative and contextually appropriate solutions for diverse communities.

MakerGhat creates safe and open community spaces in underserved environments, equipped with resources and mentors. The first lab launched in 2018 in Mumbai, India. The goal is to facilitate social and economic change at the hyperlocal level by supporting the creation of community leaders.

What was your trajectory to MakerGhat?

My co-founder, Azra Ismail, and I were both engineers at Georgia Tech, and we were touched by the vibrant maker culture in our respective undergraduate programs. At the same time, over my summers as an undergrad, I used to work as a volunteer tutor and researcher in schools in a few underserved neighborhoods in urban Mumbai. I noticed the incredible drive and willingness to ‘hustle’ (for lack of a better word) in the students I mentored. I saw that in most cases, what they were missing was not passion, enthusiasm, willingness to learn, or even access to information and content (thanks to the Internet). Rather, what they were missing was space. Mumbai is very densely populated. These students did not have a safe space where they could gather, collaborate, experiment, tinker, fail without consequences, and build their ideas.

As PhD students, both Azra and I were frustrated with the slow pace of the academic path. We wanted to get our minds busy with a hands-on project. So in 2018, we reached out to some of the students, teachers, and community members in these neighborhoods in Mumbai, pooled a small fund together, and took the plunge to rent out a tiny studio space. The space was intentionally located deep within one such underserved community, and the entire team managing the space—from the lead staff member to the cleaner—all belonged to that community and lived nearby. Our job was to merely help set up the space, raise adequate funds for it, create a barebones curriculum (which then evolved over time through iterations), and then get out of the way.

Today, the MakerGhat community is many thousands of students strong. We’re now working with the central government’s planning commission at NITI Aayog to scale our curriculum and support a nationwide program across thousands of schools and makerspaces over the next few years.

Tell us a story about a learner who represents what you hope to accomplish at MakerGhat.

Jay is a college student at a local government college in the morning. In the afternoon and evening, he works 2-3 odd jobs to help bring more money to his family, which includes 3 other younger siblings, and a mom and dad who work 14+ hours-a-day jobs as rickshaw drivers, street vendors, and cleaners. At night, he uses his 4G internet hotspot to watch Coursera and YouTube videos and aspires to build his own business one day. For someone like Jay, the formal education system isn’t cut out to support his eclectic and diverse interests: he struggles to cope with the rigors of rote learning and standardized testing. But at MakerGhat, Jay is a role model. He understands electrical circuitry in buildings better than most people, knows how to carve the perfect chair from scrap wood in a few hours, and can 3D print almost anything. The formal education system doesn’t give a voice to the millions of Jays in India. Our goal with MakerGhat is to offer a platform to the next generation of role models like Jay, who aspire to grow as leaders in their field.


MakerGhat students on the roof

What does a diverse and inclusive makerspace look like to you?

A diverse makerspace represents the community it serves. It is so important that this diversity is reflected in the leadership and staff of the space. It was so powerful to have a woman, Azra, as the founder and technical expert of our Mumbai center. She is seen as a role model to all the girls and boys in the community who had, until then, rarely met a woman that could solder a circuit or use a CNC machine. “That’s a man’s job”, is what most people would say. But just the presence of a counterexample to the perceived norm attracted so many more women to our center. Mothers felt safe to send their daughters to our place after sunset because they knew there was another woman there. We realized that gender diversity needed to be a key pillar of our mission statement, and required consistent effort and investment of capital (and staff members dedicated to this cause) to sustain in the long term.

An inclusive space is one that offers a safe haven at all levels, from the intellectual level (do I have the freedom to explore, fail, and try again?) to the personal level (can I be vulnerable and authentic in such a space and will my authenticity be respected?). When we hire staff, we prioritize humility as a key metric, even above technical competence. The latter can be learned on the job, but the former is very hard to teach.

What tips do you have to make makerspaces environmentally and financially sustainable?

Leverage local materials: cardboard, paper, wood, clay, wires. Everything in our space, from the furniture to the walls, was built from scratch locally and by the community. This move really built a sense of ownership and inclusiveness in our community early on. Also, try to sell what your makers make! A yard sale won’t pay the rent or cover the annual budget, but it could certainly cover material expenses for the month, or the electricity bill, or the salary for an additional staff member or teacher. The intent to achieve sustainability is essential. We’ve seen that showing a willingness to sustain ourselves in the long term invites more donor investment and involvement. At the advisor level, it builds trust and signals a true commitment to long-term success of the organization.

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

I’d love to see makerspaces take a more intentional step towards measuring outcomes. Making is a powerful learning opportunity and we all know that, it’s super intuitive. But I’d love to see spaces adopt a research-mindset towards iterating and improving their programs based on data on participant engagement, learning outcomes, and confidence from events they attend at the space. Measuring outcomes is incredibly hard, however; the last thing you want is some sort of standardized test that you administer with each activity. Measurement needs to be more embedded, and almost invisible in such spaces.

What resources do you love that you think others should know about?

Everything we needed to get started was available on YouTube. For more specific resources, the MakerEd foundation has an amazing Beyond Rubrics toolkit that describes strategies to embed qualitative and quantitative measurements in everyday makerspace activities. We’ve found it super helpful, even as a starting point, to think about gathering feedback on our programs, events, and participants' experience.

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

I am increasingly seeing makerspaces share their material—curriculums, guides, resources, slide decks—online, completely for free, for other aspiring tinkerers to adopt and adapt to their context. Fostering this community, that ideally could transcend regional and national borders, is an exciting trend that I believe will help unify and accelerate the maker movement globally.

 

Follow Aditya on Twitter at Adi_Vish or on LinkedIn at AdityaVishwanath.