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Makerspaces in Higher Education: An overview

Special Issue: Paradigm Shifts in Global Higher Education and eLearning

By Brian Meyer / May 2019

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In higher education today, recent developments in educational practices have resulted in considerable redefinition of the concept of the classroom. The creation of designated makerspaces aims to facilitate a more integrative method of learning that favors active student discovery, rather than a didactic, teacher-led approach. A makerspace is a collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.

Unlike a traditional classroom environment, where the educator leads through formal instruction, makerspaces lend themselves to experiential modes of learning, with the teacher assuming a far less dominant role. The aim of the makerspace is to naturally encourage critical, lateral thinking from learners by affording them an environment in which they can design, assess and evaluate projects, and refine their techniques accordingly. To accommodate the needs of students, designers of the makerspace must possess the forethought to consider the multifarious uses of the area, and how they can be easily adapted to accommodate a diverse array of activities with minimal fuss and upheaval. 

Makerspaces and the STEM Curriculum

Although makerspaces can be appropriated to suit a variety of disciplines, the active experimentation they naturally elicit corresponds with the demands of a STEM curriculum.  As a term, STEM is used to refer to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all of which necessitate practical, process-orientated learning that is best facilitating by the exploratory environment of the makerspace, which is replete with tools, such as 3-D printers and robotics, to consolidate theoretical concepts through hands-on modes of inquiry. 

In both education—especially medical education and research—the speed of development and rapid integration of technology requires a mentality that is naturally inclined toward innovation. In an era of increasingly stretched resources for teachers and physicians, makerspaces prove invaluable resources for ensuring existing resources are utilized as effectively as possible, or creatively re-appropriated elsewhere depending on the specifics of the situation.

Makerspaces and eLearning Technologies

Although makerspaces vary in terms of the structuring of the learning environment, the majority of spaces today tend to assimilate blended learning technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, in order to afford students an immersive pedagogical experience that puts students in the very heart of the action, encouraging them to solve problems for themselves, with only minimal intervention from the teacher. In relation to STEM, the VR (virtual reality) technologies incorporated into the makerspace affords them the opportunity to view an image of an organ from varying angles and perspectives; an essential pre-requisite for ensuring surgical precision. Equally, blended, e-learning technologies, such as Google Glass, can position STEM students in the heart of hypothetical scenarios, without requiring significant financial outlay. These headsets are also highly portable as well, making them suitable for the requirements of the makerspace, where maneuverability of tools and resources ensures ease of adaptation.

The Advantages of Makerspaces in Education

Although makerspaces are designed to facilitate a convergence of creative and technological skillsets, they can also be adapted to suit the designated purpose of a specific lesson. In terms of pedagogy, makerspaces tend to encourage an experiential approach to discovery—allowing students to play an active role in their education—resonant of the progressive education movement proposed by educational maverick and reformer John Dewey. They allow the classroom environment to provide ample opportunities for problem-solving, with minimal intervention on the part of the teacher. By favoring this particular approach, higher education becomes intrinsically motivating for students, creating a distinct sense of “flow” that aides the absorption of new ideas immeasurably, as Educational Innovator, Ian Gilbert, concurs:  “The use of multiple intelligences in the classroom also allows students to play ‘in the zone’ from time to time, as it affords them the opportunity to learn using their optimum learning state when learning is effortless” [1]. Unlike the traditional, classroom environment, where a lesson plan is rigidly adhered to, makerspaces actively encourage improvisation. This is an essential prerequisite for effective teaching in higher education, where a steady sense of momentum is necessary in order to ensure students remain engaged with the subject matter. Furthermore, at the higher education level, it is imperative that the focus of teaching remains translating information and skills from the classroom to a corporate context, and encourage active student involvement in STEM subjects—something that students may once have deemed academically unapproachable, as library media specialist, Laura Fleming explains: “When that curiosity and creativity combine with storytelling, makerspaces can be at their best. When people hear ‘storytelling,’ they automatically think fiction, but it could be an informational narrative or a message. Creating a narrative, especially around STEM, provides meaning and context” [2].

In this respect, makerspaces prove an invaluable aide to this process; they are constructed to simulate real-world working environments, where in-demand skills applicable to every industry are provided with the best chance to flourish.

The Makerspace Mentality in Real World Environments

On closer reflection, the creation of makerspaces in a higher education environment is resonant of the start-up mentality in many organizations today. Rather than simply segregating creative and scientific skillsets, the environment is designed to promote the cross pollination of ideas from varying sectors of study in order to progress understanding and incite innovative insights that might otherwise have remained unexplored as behavioral strategist, Max McKeown, elaborates: “The challenge is to use innovation to move somewhere better. The new idea is used to shape the future in ways that users and creators both find desirable. Ideas are seldom useful in isolation, and in a similar way, chains of innovation need to be connected with opportunities and capabilities…you start by redefining what’s possible. This eventually changes what is desirable and then acceptable” [3].

Currently, there is a tendency in higher education to prioritize the attainment of particular answers at the expense of evaluating the process itself. Yet, rather than simply letting the curriculum dictate the learning experience, makerspaces allow for the redefinition of the concepts explored through modes of operation that resonate with students’ preferred approach to educational discovery. Furthermore, the creation of makerspaces in the learning environment also ensures that both theory and practical application are given equal credence: the subject matter taught takes on greater significance, as students witness the utility of their lessons and learning first-hand.

Makerspaces in Medical Education

For those considering a career in medicine, the creation of a makerspace in the classroom facilitates the multidisciplinary approach needed to thrive in medicine, as well as fostering relevant skillsets that can only be developed through experiential learning as higher education expert, Dave Douchette, accedes:  “…[Students] achieve that elusive goal of accomplishing several pedagogical purposes at once: They provide a practical, hands-on component that complements classroom learning and expand students’ skill sets into areas that will be prized by future employers. And, they give students a creative outlet where they can imagine, invent and experiment” [4].

Makerspaces can be utilized for health science education in a number of ways. First and foremost, they afford STEM students the opportunity to develop their practical expertise in the subject through medical simulation training, without the inherent risks posed by directly operating on patients. Latex-based simulation models can be used to enable students to develop the level of surgical precision demanded to succeed in the medical profession. The advantage of a makerspace is that it provides an inherently flexible area to work in; these spaces are often furnished with technological tools such as 3-D printers and simulation devices which can be appropriated for the task at hand. This enables students to contextualize their learning through the practical application of ideas; virtual reality stations can be established to create atypical, emergency scenarios faced in the course of a medical career, empowering students to respond with immediacy to situations as they arrive [5]. Such situations require medical staff to react instantly to the crisis they face, whilst remaining calm enough to think clearly and precisely about the best course of action to follow. Consequently, the implementation of virtual reality stations in makerspaces enables educators to introduce their students to a variety of hypothetical scenarios, such as endoscopies or open-heart surgery, enabling them to develop procedural competence, prior to performing on patients.


Unlike traditional, pedagogical methods, which are restricted to particular modes of instructions, makerspaces allow students to take charge of their learning from the outset, making knowledge acquisition an intrinsically motivating process. Despite the obvious advantages afforded by makerspaces, and the integration of e-learning technologies into such spaces, cost considerations are certainly a valid concern; the tools on offer in makerspace environments require substantial investment, and, additionally, a level of proficiency on the part of the teacher to ensure they are used effectively and efficiently to achieve the desired outcomes. For those with less experience of makerspaces, affordable tools, such as Google Glass, provide a good introduction to the potentialities of immersive technologies in the makerspace, and how they can help students acquire the practical experience to excel in STEM subjects-all of which tend to require an immersive, experiential approach. Unlike traditional classrooms, where a select number of students tend to contribute, makerspaces pave the way for a more collaborative, cohesive dynamic; everyone is encouraged to contribute to the project proposed using skills of self-initiative and critical analysis to auto correct one`s mistakes, rather than relying on the teacher to provide the answers. Equally, the learning environment of the makerspace tends to create a more enterprising mentality among the students involved; mistakes are portrayed as a necessary precursor to refining one`s intended approach, rather than as signifiers of a student`s inability to grasp taught material.

Concluding Thoughts

While a traditional classroom provides a perfectly viable means of theoretical instruction, the simulated technologies integrated into a makerspace ensure that the educational experience accommodates the need for practical experimentation as well. In this regard, augmented technologies, such as Google Glass, can be utilized for practical instruction, with relatively minimal effort. In contrast to virtual reality, augmented reality serves as an extension of the real world environment, and provides the heightened sensory experience that immerses the student in real world scenarios, through student led classroom design [6]. Although videos can demonstrate procedures in practice, the three dimensional capacities of virtual and augmented  technologies afford students the ability to explore the intricacies of human anatomy at a far deeper level; indeed, students can even position themselves within the physiological structures of hypothetical patients as well, enabling them to assess where to make incisions from varying angles in an operating theater to develop their practical acumen ahead of risky, surgical procedures.

Students studying medicine undoubtedly require the practical aptitude necessary to attain licensure, but such skills must be complemented by creative thinking as well should not be undermined. Even the most thorough program of training in medicine cannot account for the sheer scope of challenges that present themselves to medical professionals in the course of an average, working day. When practical treatment options are exhausted, the clarion call for creative solutions to such challenges takes center stage, making prior investment in innovative modes of thinking and experimentation facilitated by makerspaces a vital prerequisite to fulfilling one’s overall duty of care [7].


[1] Gilbert, I. Essential Motivation in the Classroom. Routledge, New York, 2013.

[2]Fleming, L. Laura Fleming: Don’t let makerspaces be a passing trend. School Library Journal (May 3, 2018).

[3] McKeown, M. The Innovation Book,. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, Essex, UK, 2014.

[4] Douchette, D. Maker movement teaches 21st century skills and encourages innovation. EdTec. (July 11, 2017).

[5]  Vongkulluksn, V. W., Matewos, A. M., Sinatra, G. M.,  and Marsh, J. A. Motivational factors in makerspaces: A mixed methods study of elementary school students’ situational interest, self-efficacy, and achievement emotions. International Journal of STEM Education 5, 43 (2018).

[6] Delzer, K. Flexible seating and student-centered classroom redesign. Edutopia (April 22, 2016). 

[7] Lynch, M. Why makerspaces are perfect for school and public libraries. The Tech Edvocate (January 4, 2017). 

About the Author

Brian Meyer is a second-year medical student at Rocky Vista University, and is completing his M.Ed. in learning design and technologies from Arizona State University. He has been involved in health education for a number of years, including the use of high -fidelity simulation. Meyer???s focus is on utilizing emerging technologies to enhance all levels of health education.

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