Making + Learning

Pittsburgh researchers at the Children’s Museum develop national Making + Learning guide

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh was already well known for its MAKESHOP, a pioneering makerspace that boasts cutting-edge tools, programs and a renowned staff of researchers and educators.

“I’m certainly biased because I work there,” says Dr. Peter Wardrip, a learning scientist at the Children’s Museum. “But I’ve come to learn that that the MAKESHOP has an incredible reputation in the museum world.”

It’s about to get even better.

As part of Making + Learning, a collaborative partnership between the Children’s Museum and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Dr. Wardrip and his colleagues have been touring museums and libraries across the country to codify, guide, and enhance the emerging field of maker education.

Earlier this month, the Making + Learning team released “Making + Learning in Museums & Libraries: A Practitioner’s Guide & Framework,” a downloadable publication developed to help museum and library professionals better support learning within different maker programs.

Making + Learning
Makerspaces might differ across the country, but they all the share the same goal of enriching kids’ educational experiences. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

“There is a great deal of diversity as to what productive maker spaces look like across the country,” says Dr. Lisa Brahms, the Children’s Museum director of research and learning. The publication is not meant to prescribe how learning experiences are designed. “Instead, it’s meant to offer guidance to practitioners to create the conditions for learning.”

After conducting more than 50 interviews and convening a national group of their peers, the Making + Learning team identified three key elements that support “deeper learning” in makerspaces:

  • The purpose of the makerspace;
  • The role of people in the makerspace;
  • And the makerspace’s pieces and parts.

“When we see exciting tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, sometimes there’s a temptation to think, ‘We need to have that!’ without taking the time to ask why,” Dr. Wardrip says. “But it’s really important to think about how we can be intentional and figure out how best to support learning with this stuff.”

It’s an issue the IMLS has grappled with for some time. As the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums, it receives grant applications from around the country. In the process of reviewing them, IMLS staff realized the field lacked consensus about what constitutes a productive makerspace.

They approached the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh for help. And Making + Learning was born.

Even for longtime maker educators, the project was an eye-opener.

“When we first started visiting other museums and libraries across the country to develop the framework, our reference point was always MAKESHOP,” says Dr. Wardrip. “That was our world. That’s how we thought about maker spaces. And as we were exposed to more and more of them across the country, it sort of made us think differently about what we do and don’t do, and led us back to that question of why.”

Lessons learned from the project will inform the practice of maker educators nationwide. In addition to the downloadable resource guide, the Making + Learning team developed a suite of tools — including a website and a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — intended to help practitioners consider the key elements of their maker spaces.

Making + Learning
Engaging children in making activities helps promotes creativity and problem-solving skills. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

So, what does this all mean for kids?

“We’re always testing and revising what we offer and how we offer it,” says Dr. Wardrip. “It’s really important to us to turn our research into professional development opportunities to make whatever we’re researching or finding out useful for educators. So, I think the project will shape the professional development experiences we create for museums, libraries, and schools in western Pennsylvania.”

That, in turn, he says, will “lead to more robust learning experiences for kids in maker spaces everywhere.”