Investigating STEM Literacies in MakerSpaces (STEMLiMS)

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July 14th, 2016

Project Team: PI Dr. Eli Tucker-Raymond, Co-PI Dr. Brian Gravel, Dr. Aditi Wagh, Kaitlin Kohberger, Ada Ren, Briana Jefferson, Kyle Browne (past member)


Making is becoming increasingly popular as a way to engage learners in informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning.  The informal education field is just beginning to conduct research in making and makerspaces to find out what people are actually doing and learning, and how those practices relate to STEM. Investigating STEM Literacies in MakerSpaces (STEMLiMS)  (NSF DRL#1422532) is a 3-year ethnographic and design-based research study that seeks to document and support people’s use of representations in different kinds of makerspaces. In addition to producing case studies highlighting 6 different makerspaces, our team of researchers from TERC and Tufts University is also designing supports for youth to connect what they do in makerspaces to academic disciplines. Schools and informal spaces have much to learn from each other, and we believe a focus on literacies, or the ways in which people use representations, is a promising way to help them.


The ongoing research of the STEMLiMS project develops our understanding of what is important about how experienced and newer makers access and use information. On the research team we included  artists and  makers because they know first-hand the motivations and challenges that all makers face.


We created this project to address the issue that while there is a lot of interest in informal and formal education spaces in makerspaces, research into what people are learning is only beginning to emerge. Making is a representationally rich activity with many connections to STEM disciplines. Our goal is to document the representational activities, what we call literacy practices, and figure out how to support young people to connect the personal interest-driven work that they engage in at makerspaces with the more formalized demands of STEM learning in school.



Implementing the STEMLiMS Project


In Year 1, we studied two adult makerspaces: Artisan’s Asylum and DGF Technologies. Artisan’s Asylum is a 40,000 sq ft, 400+ member-run makerspace that houses everything from a bicycle chopper gang and shop to computer-controlled mills and professional-grade machining tools. DGF Technologies, now out of business, was an engineering firm that specialized in rapid prototyping and was started by three members from Artisan’s Asylum. . At the same time that they were building products for clients, they were building their own tools to be able to meet the demands of the mid-level entrepreneur.


Now in Year 2, we are studying two out-of-school spaces for youth. The first is a (mostly) digital fabrication lab that is stewarded by high school students. It houses a well-established program in which high school students learn fabrication and group facilitation skills to teach elementary-aged youth in parks and summer camps throughout Boston. Of the 40 youth teachers and college mentors, almost all of the youth are from ethnic groups currently underrepresented in STEM. The second space, located in a public housing complex, houses a computer lab that serves elementary school students 6-12 years old. There, we are studying a STEAM (A is for Arts) club for boys.


In Year 3  will be focused on design-based research and our research sites will be an elementary school and a high school where we will try ideas for supporting literacies that will be based on what we have learned in the first two years. In preparation, this summer we are working with teachers from our participating Year 3 schools. As we integrate our research findings and teachers’ plans for using the makerspaces, we will co-develop literacy supports, and pilot these supports with participating youth. When the school year starts, we will implement and research our supports with teachers at the elementary and high school levels. We are excited to continue this project with our collaborating partners as we move forward connecting in- and out-of-school learning opportunities.


Because this is a research project, we have engaged evaluators from Endicott College to provide ongoing critical feedback on our research instruments and theoretical framework, and thereby strengthen our research.


Challenges of Doing Research in Makerspaces


Conducting research in natural settings involves encountering and dealing with unexpected issues, and research in makerspaces has particular challenges. Capturing the richness of a makerspace is challenging since makerspaces are often loud, busy, and have  machines running, and people moving from place to place doing a variety of activities.  Another challenge is that while making is popular, makerspaces and activities can be difficult to sustain. For instance, one organization closed in the middle of our study and an organization we intended to work with delayed  their programming. Fortunately, one of our current collaborators was able to connect with elementary aged youth at a city-run community center. Their help reinforced the importance of establishing ongoing partnerships based on mutual goals and trust when considering issues of broader impact for people from groups underrepresented in STEM.


Insights on Makerspaces for Educators and Researchers


We hope our research will provide insights for educators to help them design social spaces for making that promote the development of literacy practices and beyond. For instance, three broad design considerations we advocate include a) student generated problems, b) developing young people’s networks of expertise and the interconnectedness of texts within making, and c) attending to affective dimensions of literacy engagement–including play and risk-positive presentations and performance.


For others who want to study literacy practices in makerspaces, we offer a developing framework in the form of our five literacy practices.


  1. Posing and Solving Problems

  2. Identifying, Organizing, and Integrating Information    

  3. Creating and Traversing Representations

  4. Communicating with others for feedback, help, and sharing

  5. Documenting making processes


Please visit CAISE’s Knowledge Base article on Making and Tinkering where you can read and request to contribute field knowledge in this rapidly growing area of ISE work.