How can we make science and engineering come alive for more young people and for more communities? Engineers need good theoretical understanding, but do they also need hands-on experience? David Perry and José Chambers of the Comino Foundation, which has been asking these kinds of questions over many years, explore the growth of makerspaces and the kinds of experiences that should be on offer, both in schools and communities, if we are to be sure of having enough engineers in the future.
The founder of the Comino Foundation, Dimitri Comino, was intent on bringing more creative approaches to UK industry and schooling. For nearly 45 years the Foundation has worked with these two sectors, on such ventures as the 1986 Industry Year initiative and the use of problem-solving approaches and design thinking in schools.
In 2013, the Foundation explored innovative developments in manufacturing that had potential and might be effectively supported by a small charity. It discovered ‘the maker movement’. Working with the RSA and the Design and Technology Association, we held a ‘Futuremaker’ day at Somerset House to explore the field and its potential for schools. We were pleasantly surprised that some 500 people attended and by the level at which the school pupils involved could contribute. In 2014, we facilitated a consultation involving 24 individuals leading and promoting makerspaces, giving makerspace people opportunity to talk together, often for the first time. An exciting outcome, was an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant of £467,000 to the Re-Distributed Manufacturing project based at the Royal College of Art, to explore the potential of a group of makerspaces collaborating in scaling-up production from emerging prototype to volume manufacture by providing a distributed interim production facility.
Just one year later, Nesta research had identified some 93 makerspaces. We now continue to support the networking of those involved in this resurgence of 'making' through a series of Maker Assemblies which is building into a series of networks across the country.
Some makerspaces see themselves as innovation hubs developing potentially commercial products. Most are dedicated to learning within their local communities: establishing a membership model enabling people to gain new skills and knowledge and access new hardware and software. This outreach work means that the makerspace becomes a community hub, offering coffee and a place to meet as well as skills experiences. This concentration on learning and being open to what transpires offers huge potential for the future, especially in a society where, as we are frequently told, middle class, middle tier employment will be replaced by emerging technologies, leading potentially to a loss of 15 million jobs.
Occasionally makerspaces turn their back on commerce and resolutely concentrate on doing what they are doing for its own worth and interest. Some, typically with a mix of people with a diverse range of skills and knowledge, explore new directions. For example, MadLab reports that the term ‘maker’ is beginning to shed its reputation as solely a concern for amateurs and hobbyists. It predicts this trend will increase, as makerspaces, supported by crowdfunding, continue to grow and draw together a catalytic community of scientists, professional engineers, tinkerers and maker-entrepreneurs in an environment, which encourages fast hands-on experimentation with new technologies.
Recognising this, University College London have set up the Institute of Making, a makerspace open to all their staff and students. As Elizabeth Corbin, of the Institute, recognises:“Doing is a different way of thinking, we enable staff and students to conduct real-world research and enquiry, allowing them to discover unexpected outcomes and have a much more whole knowledge… Hands-on learning differs from, and is complementary to, academic scholarship.”
Thinking along similar lines, the Comino Foundation has been working with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the RSA and the Design and Technology Association to explore how an engineering mindset, together with the skills and knowledge development necessary to support it, can be developed in children. In a report by the Centre for Real World Learning (CRWL) at the University of Winchester, published in 2012 by the RAEng, Professor Bill Lucas identified the power of teachers and students learning through working actively together. The report described these approaches as ‘studio teaching’. As well as liberating the higher-attaining students, these approaches better supported some of the previously less engaged:“A small number of students, typically characterised by their lack of ability to focus, were picked out by teachers as being ‘surprise’ successes. Our studio learning approach was seen to give these learners the freedom to make their own decisions, which they found particularly motivating.”
In their later work for the Royal Academy of Engineering, the CRWL, identified six ‘engineering habits of mind’: improving, visualising, creative problem solving, problem finding, adapting and systems thinking. The Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub, sponsored by Comino and the Primary Science Teaching Trust at the University of Manchester, has been investigating how to promote these habits of mind, using the concept of ‘tinkering’ as a teaching/learning approach in primary schools. This work draws from the work in (mostly US) makerspaces, which they describe as an: ‘increasingly visible network of makers, within tinkering studios, Tinkerlabs and Tinkergardens. In such spaces the intersections between art, science and technology are blurred and what emerges are spaces in which young people can play with, make, refine, remodel or repurpose materials and machinery in creative purposeful pursuits.'
The barriers are coming down, not just between making, manufacturing, engineering and science but also between time to learn and time to earn; makerspaces are as much learning communities as formal institutions. The traditional role of institutions (universities and companies) as gateways into careers is in question: IT specialists in particular can now go straight into collaboration in a hackspace, makerspace or online as entrepreneurs rather than go to university and risk learning out-of-date knowledge.
Drawing conclusions from these developments, the Comino Foundation wants to see a continuation in the cross-fertilisation of ideas between industry, universities, schools and makerspace locations. Whether in the service of individual, community or regional economic development, we need opportunities for learning at all stages to reflect the changes outlined here. This needs to involve people of all ages in hands-on activities, resulting in a redefinition of ‘learning’ and an explosion in purposeful, creative thinking, leading the way in economic and social regeneration.
This is an abridged version of an article published in the Spring 2017 edition of Science in Parliament, the Journal of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.