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Remaking Higher Education: The Maker Lab at Abilene Christian University

By John B. Weaver January 13, 2014

Student-led learning the vision for the Maker Lab, a place and community for empowering the experiences and abilities of students as (re)makers of their world.

The innovative promise of higher education is stunted too easily.  Unique student aspirations give way to new student standardization; dreams of transforming the world give way to curricular conformity in the school.  Institutional mechanisms of academic degrees can render a student’s creativity “just another brick in the wall.”

At Abilene Christian University (ACU), our faculty teach so that students can grow in their own responsibility and abilities to realize their goals for the future, and to utilize their talents in pursuit of these dreams. To leverage the full variety of students’ experiences and relationships as part of their learning process, ACU created its Maker Lab. This project seeks to expand the borders of student learning, and to break down boundaries to student creativity and engagement with the world.

Opened this past October, the ACU Maker Lab is a 8,000 square-foot design studio and prototyping shop that is part of the broader “Maker Movement” — a global sub-culture that is focused on “do-it-yourself” design and rapid fabrication of innovative products that address personal interests and sometimes broader societal problems.  The Maker Lab combines this Maker culture with a “constructionist” approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes the importance of student making and manipulation of objects as learning outcomes that are tangible and refinable.  This “student-led learning” emphasis approach is at the heart of the vision for the Maker Lab, which is a place and a community for fully empowering the experiences, interests, and abilities of ACU students as (re)makers of their world.

The Maker Lab at ACU is reorienting student approaches to their futures. At a recent open- house, over 300 ACU students, faculty and staff joined the group of makers to discuss a range of projects created in the lab. These projects ranged from quadcopters, to electrical guitars, to 3D printing of human bodies, to original works of art. With 3D scanners and printers, laser cutters, CNC routers, and a wide-variety of cutting-edge and old-school equipment, the landscape is fundamentally altered for students by their ability to both imagine and prototype a better future for themselves and their world.

Community is the Payoff
The main contribution of the Maker Lab, however, is not tools and technology, but rather a community of makers that is focused on sharing expertise and resources in the pursuit of building skills and making things, regardless of departmental boundaries and personal status.  This is competence-based education that views student competence not only as a primary outcome, but also an essential starting-point for empowering learning through collaboration and community.

The Maker Lab is also a concept and a space for re-imagination of what it is to be a member of the teaching faculty at ACU.  An increasing number of faculty are becoming “regulars” in the lab, offering their mentoring to students beyond the confines of the traditional classroom experience. In other cases, Engineering faculty and Art faculty work side-by-side in projects and presentations that were scarcely imaginable last year.  Last month, for example, a presentation by an entrepreneur from the Abilene community brought engineers and artists together around three-dimensional printing and product development. This cross-departmental blurring of disciplinary differences is mirrored in the egalitarian approach to leadership of the Maker Lab, where student representatives and experts have equal voice with faculty leaders on the Maker Lab’s advisory board, which sets direction for the space and its role within the broader university.

Libraries and Librarians ‘Re-made’
At another level, the Maker Lab at ACU is a re-engineering of modern conceptions of the academic library.  The library continues to serve as a repository (collection) and exhibitor (curation) of the information resources needed for undergraduate and graduate research, but the library is also increasingly focused on the immediate sources for feeling, thinking, and making that are needed in design and creation of products in the Maker Lab.  In other words, the library is moving beyond a singular role as a repository of information “just-in-case,” towards a more holistic role in reconnaissance of knowledge “just-in-time.”  In this role, the library discovers and supplies knowledge (and skills) that are needed in the process of creation.

Librarians who were once stationed in waiting-mode at research service desks, are now actively creating at workbenches and fabrication machines, inviting students and faculty into the productivity that they model as a matter of course.  Sketching and calculation, along with traditional writing and research skills, are critical skills among librarians, who are becoming qualified and recognized as “master-makers” in the lab.

Library databases once buried in website lists of academic resources are now bookmarked on computer desktops dedicated to specific and common modes of production.  “Information-literacy” is recast as “design-thinking,” with information seeking and evaluation still having an integral role in project-based inquiries that require contextual investigation, conceptual innovation, and creative iteration.

Spaces once devoted to shelving of printed resources (which are still present in the library in more compact and coordinated ways) are now dedicated to hosting of digital tools and data storage for problem-oriented student projects, which engage multiple literacies and multiple dimensions of creativity for student research papers and other innovative projects.

The Maker Lab’s “flipping” of the conventional institution of higher education is also seen in its realignment of community and university partnerships. For over thirty years, this type of partnership in the U.S. has focused on the creation of university projects and partnership that are “technology transfers,” moving innovative products and services out from the research arm of the university into the production and marketing environment of the business world.  This model is shifting and being recentered in the university due to increasing awareness of the importance of:

  • Experiential student learning that engages the broader community, and
  • Community service by the university that accelerates innovation in the community through participation of faculty and students.

A number of such innovative university-community partnerships are being formed in the Maker Lab.  This past November, for example, the Maker Lab’s collaboration with Captured Dimensions was on display at the Smithsonian’s X-3D Conference in Washington D.C. At the cutting edge of photogrammetry and three-dimensional printing, this partnership is leading to both exciting new approaches to the preservation and accessibility of cultural artifacts, and also new opportunities for ACU students to connect their interests and community needs to cutting-edge developments in the representation and remaking of our physical world.

From student learning, to faculty relationships, to library identity, to community partnership, the ACU Maker Lab is a catalyst for redesigning the educational enterprise at ACU, and hopefully at other universities. We want to share with you in this revolution. We welcome you to contact us, and to visit us at the ACU Maker Lab.

Dr. John B. Weaver is Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology at Abilene Christian University.