Epicenter's Victoria Matthew discusses two approaches that faculty often take when developing makerspaces at their schools.

The Makerspaces Reinvented session from VentureWell's Open 2015 conference.

by Victoria Matthew

As part of Epicenter’s Pathways to Innovation Program, I’ve been in a number of conversations on makerspaces. For many faculty, a makerspace is one of the key strategies for engaging students in innovation and entrepreneurship. Institutions are either launching new spaces, optimizing existing spaces, or figuring out how best to connect and maximize access to a suite of spaces across campus.

During a recent talk with two faculty members — Craig Forest from Georgia Tech and Buddy Clark from the University of Pittsburgh — it occurred to me that schools often take one of two approaches to designing a makerspace:

(1) Plan and launch: one or more faculty or administrators receive funding for the space; they design it, purchase the equipment, set up the policy documents and launch.

(2) Pivot as you go: faced with limited funding and space, faculty launch a minimal viable product makerspace with basic plans for safety and for running the space, with the expectation that pivots will be needed.

So which approach should you choose? As you might imagine, the choice is often driven by funding and space availability; the “plan and launch” option is chosen if there is funding and space available, and the “pivot as you go” model is often (reluctantly) chosen out of necessity.

Pathways faculty explore the d.school's prototyping spaces during their visit to Stanford in November 2015.

My advice to faculty is to not be reluctant to try the “pivot as you go” model. This model offers tremendous advantages, including the fact that faculty appear to be more likely to engage students in the design of a space when using this approach. Some more advantages include:

  1. You have a sandbox for experimentation. By starting small you can test your policies, your training procedures, and refine your operating model, all with limited exposure and risk.

  2. It’s easier to demonstrate success and foster buy-in from administrators. If you start with a small space, it’s much easier to fill it, demonstrate the demand and then make a pitch for more space and equipment.

  3. You get the students engaged and bought in right from the start. This minimizes the need for lots of whiz-bang advertising and recruitment strategies.

  4. You have a space that meets the needs of the students. This means you won’t waste money on equipment that doesn’t get used, and you may purchase equipment or set up the space in a manner that, without student help, you wouldn’t have.

  5. Faculty get to share the burden with students. Designing a makerspace is a ton of work. How wonderful to share that work with students who are engaged, excited and have lots of energy!

For Craig Forest, the "pivot as you go" approach resulted in Georgia Tech’s wildly successful Invention Studio. The Invention Studio started life in a closet; Craig gave out the keys to a handful of students, who, together with Craig, grew the studio into what it is today.  

For Buddy Clark, the "pivot as you go" approach gave him the freedom and flexibility to let go of the stress associated with designing a makerspace alone and getting everything right the first time. Buddy is now working with fabulous student collaborators who share the burden of the work, offer fresh insights, and represent the start of an emerging campus maker community.

There are many other great examples out there of spaces that started small like Buddy’s and Craig’s, and continued to blossom over time. So, take the “pivot as you go” model into consideration, even when money and space are available.


Victoria Matthew is the leader of the Pathways to Innovation Program, the driver of the Epicenter’s faculty development and engagement strategy, and senior program Officer for Faculty Development at VentureWell. In Pathways, she leads the design of in-person and online workshops and convenings. She connects faculty with curated content, experts, and with each other, with a goal of growing the Pathways learning community. 

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