Best Practices for Staffing a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center

Best Practices for Staffing a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center

Schools typically go through several phases before opening a new Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center. Like any major undertaking, the impetus is usually great inspiration or great need-or a combination of the two. What follows are stages of planning, acquisition, staffing, and then curriculum development. The end result-the opening of the new learning space-is actually more commonly the beginning for the educators tasked with maintaining the space, teaching the students who attend class there, and supporting both the students and the teachers who use the space.

While it’s easy to focus on the physical build-out or renovation of the space itself, or what types of tools will be acquired for the space, the critical decision is personnel. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult aspects of creating and managing a successful Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center. With few exceptions, schools of education in universities and colleges don’t yet offer training in teaching with traditional and emerging technology to pre-service teachers enrolled in Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. programs. As such, there is currently (as of 2019) no ready pool of teachers who’ve been prepared to do this work. Fortunately, many teachers are learning not only the tools but how to teach effectively with them. And many artists, designers, and technologists are getting second degrees in education or are willing to learn classroom management, curriculum development, and other key skills necessary to make effective teachers.

In this article, we’ll cover various models for staffing a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center, important aspects for effective hiring and training, and specific considerations across grade levels and content areas.

Typical Models for Successful Maker Programs

Below are six common models for staffing Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, Innovation Centers, or other types of transformative learning spaces. Often schools begin with one model and naturally evolve into others, or progressively meld aspects of two or more models.

Auxiliary Classroom

In the Auxiliary Classroom model, institutions have created and equipped a dedicated Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center for use by any teacher or group of students. These spaces may or may not have a person responsible for maintaining machines, stocking materials, or providing training and support for faculty and students. These spaces generally can be reserved ahead of time and are considered an auxiliary classroom for lessons or activities that require specialized machines or workspaces.

Required Curriculum

Schools that have implemented a Required Curriculum model provide a mandatory experience for all students across grade levels or in specific divisions. A dedicated teacher is common in the Required Curriculum model, as well as a curriculum map used to detail the experiences and literacies students are expected to attain through their experiences in the coursework.

Staffed Resource

The Staffed Resource model consists of a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center with personnel hired specifically to facilitate use of the space, but not necessarily to teach in the space. In this model, dedicated staff are responsible for one or more of the following: maintaining machines, stocking materials, and providing training and support for faculty and students.

Augmented Environment

A very common scenario in schools is the Augmented Environment model. In the Augmented Environment model, an existing area or room has been updated, altered, or remodeled to house resources typically seen in Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, or Innovation Centers. The most ubiquitous trend in this model is augmenting libraries. Librarians working in these environments commonly are given additional tasks and responsibilities for maintaining machines, stocking materials, and providing training and support for faculty and students.

Maker Evangelist

The Maker Evangelist is another common model. In this model, one or more entrepreneurial faculty or staff members have initiated an emerging or traditional technology program. While the scope of this model frequently includes only the classroom and content area of the initiating teacher, some Maker Evangelist models have grown to include several classes and content areas or evolved into fully formed Maker Programs with characteristics of one or more of the other aforementioned models. Maker Evangelists tend to have been exposed to a new tool or resource while attending a conference or visiting other schools. Teachers who fit this model are skilled at identifying new resources that are useful for reimagining existing curricula or represent novel ways to improve student engagement.

Elective/Club/Before School/After School

Another common model in schools is the Elective/Club/Before School/After School model. In this model, schools either create opportunities for students to gain exposure to Maker toolsets and resources or engage external providers to do so. These opportunities can occur during the school day or during before/after school sessions. Many schools employ this strategy to great effect during the school day by teaching varied aspects of Maker literacies to students in low stakes, ungraded electives. This model may evolve into other models (such as Augmented Environment or Staffed Resource) over time through sustained interest.

Important Considerations Before Hiring

Before hiring staff or faculty for the new Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center, it’s important to determine exactly what is expected in the role. Important questions to ask are:

1. Will they teach classes?

a) How many?

b) What grade levels will be covered?

Experienced school administrators can easily calculate how many hours a teacher in traditional content areas should be teaching, planning, and completing duties outside of the classroom. However, a teacher in a Maker Space or other innovative learning environment may require additional time to educate themselves on how current and new tools work, produce student project iterations (3D prints, etc), experiment, or do maintenance/inventory/ordering.

2. If they are not expected to teach a class, will they offer support to students and teachers who visit the space?

a) What will this support look like? Will they instruct teachers and students to use the machines in the space, or will they simply be onsite for any questions or issues that arise?

b) Will they produce student work (similar to a print shop, where a customer leaves a file and asks for a certain amount of items to be printed at specific scales), or offer guidance to empower teachers and students to produce work themselves?

3. Who is responsible for maintenance?

a) Is the employee hired to teach and/or offer support in the space also responsible for maintenance?

b) What kind of support will the person need to complete regular maintenance and repairs, particularly for machines they are newly learning to use?

The maintenance required by machines like 3D printers, laser cutters, power tools, sewing machines, and other common emerging and traditional technology resources is one of the most overlooked and underestimated aspects of launching a new innovative learning environment in a school. It may take time for the person(s) staffing the space to teach themselves not only how to use the machines, but how to conduct maintenance/repairs, troubleshoot common issues, and ensure that necessary software updates and machine upgrades are completed. If this is expected of the person(s) staffing the space on top of teaching duties, it may become necessary to look for 3rd party companies to do maintenance and repairs, hire an additional person to take on that responsibility, or find existing human resources within the school to assist with this (facilities teams and IT often have transferable expertise that can be helpful for this).

Hiring the Right Person(s) to Staff the Space

With the previously mentioned questions answered, hiring becomes somewhat easier. In PS-12th environments, hiring for a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center depends greatly upon the grade levels the space is intended to serve. There are of course exceptions to any of the following scenarios, but these serve as a good starting place or general guidelines.

When to Hire a Teacher

If the primary role of the person(s) staffing the space is teaching and the grade levels served fall between PS-8th, a good rule of thumb is to hire a teacher. It’s possible to give a technologist, engineer, or designer the proper support to become an effective teacher in those grade levels, provided they are willing to attend training (e.g. Responsive Classroom) and can be mentored by experienced educators within the school community. However, domain expertise is not necessary for educators working with PS-8th-grade students. Teachers with curiosity, a growth mindset, grit, time, and determination can certainly learn how to use and teach with each tool.

When to Hire an Artist/Designer

If the primary role of the person(s) staffing the space is to support learning and collaborate with teachers, a formally trained artist and/or designer can be a good choice. Artists are already accustomed to demanding processes that may or may not result in the perfect product each time (for example, pots exploding in the kiln). Formally trained artists can readily see the creative potential in each tool, and can then help guide students and teachers toward the best tool to express themselves or to serve the project. Formally trained artists can apply a critical eye to both a proposed project and final works, and facilitate critiques and discussions: both of which are invaluable tools as students progress through each iteration.

When to Hire a Technologist

If the primary role of the person(s) staffing the space is to maintain the machines and software and run batches of projects students and faculty have created (e.g. 3D prints), then a technologist might be a good choice. A skilled technologist may or may not have experience with every tool in the space, but the capacity to troubleshoot and fix issues that might arise can save schools thousands of dollars and hours of frustration. Willingness to move through frustration, conduct research when needed, and provide consistent and thorough preventative maintenance are key characteristics of a technologist who will be successful in the space.

When to Hire Domain Experts

If the primary role of the person(s) staffing the space is teaching and the grade levels served fall between 9–12th grade, it could be better to hire a domain expert to teach specific content areas. This is particularly important if a school already has a robust design, engineering, or general STEAM program in PS-8th grades. By freshman year, students often have already outgrown many tools commonly used in Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, or Innovation Centers. For example, Tinkercad is a fantastic 3D modeling tool that I recommend for students beginning in 4th grade. For some students, Tinkercad is powerful and flexible enough to serve their needs as they progress into high school. But many will begin to see the limits of Tinkercad as they progress into more advanced 3D modeling and require a more robust tool, such as Fusion360 or Solidworks. In this scenario, a domain expert (e.g. an engineer or industrial designer) is a better hire to teach older and more advanced students.

Final Thoughts

While all of the above considerations can help when making key hiring decisions for a Maker Space, Fab Lab, or Innovation Center, there truly is no one-size-fits-all solution for staffing. A realistic view of the responsibilities desired, a thorough job description, and proper professional development are as important for these types of roles as for any other in schools. Acknowledging that emerging technology, design+engineering, and Maker Education are still relatively new territories for most schools is important. Programs that are developed slowly and methodically-with buy-in and support from the existing community-are those which will become enduring and effective.