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Meet the Makers - November 2016

The maker movement has revolutionized how science centers and museums reach guests, and has implications for the industry as a whole

by Prasana William

A crowd of pint-sized kids gathers around a roller coaster at the National Maker Faire in Washington, DC. But this isn’t like any ride we’ve covered here in Funworld. No, the kids are rolling marbles down a paper roller coaster, designed and assembled by amateurs who value the learning experience of building from scratch.

They’re part of what is being called “the maker movement”—
a shift toward hobbies that involve creating objects by hand and tinkering. Increasingly, science centers and museums are adopting maker activities. In many cases these exhibits are expanding into installments delightfully called “makerspaces.”

“What’s interesting is it’s not far from what science centers—specifically hands-on museums—have wanted to do and have done with their guests,” says Brandan Lanman, vice president of visitor experience at Orlando Science Center. “We already do hands-on, inquiry-based, problem-first methodology on our exhibit floor. I think what the maker movement has been able to do is put a name to it, put a face to it, and provide access to unbelievable tools.”

In the following pages, Funworld explores how the maker movement has shaped facilities around the world. Science centers and museums are shifting their attention to engaging guests as active participants in a sensory experience with physical rewards. And it’s a move any attraction could follow.

What Is a Maker?

“Was something created? Then it was a maker activity,” says AnnMarie Thomas, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering and founding executive director of the Maker Education Initiative. “In my view, the best ‘maker activities’ are ones where there isn’t a single correct way to do things, and the maker can bring their own ideas and creativity to the endeavor.”

Maker activities involve creativity, problem solving, and self-guided exploration—embodying the DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit that defines an age where disruption is the key to progress. They often employ principles of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) and always encourage originality.

According to “The Maker’s Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution,” by Andrea Maietta and Paolo Aliverti, humans have always been tinkers —taking things apart and reassembling them to see how they work. Access to hand and digital tools is now widely available, as is the knowledge needed to use them, thanks to the Internet. People are showing an increased interest in making things that would previously have been out of their scope of knowledge—whether that’s coding an arcade game or building a wooden table.

Faire Factor

The best way to understand what it is to be a maker is to visit a Maker Faire, produced by Maker Media, the organization credited with founding the movement and connect­ing makers globally. Billed as “the greatest show (and tell) on Earth,” Maker Faires are perhaps the most visible faces of the maker movement. In 2016 alone, 190 Maker Faires were scheduled to take place all over the world. These hubs of ingenuity gather hobbyists, crafters, engineers, and other types of makers to share both the process and the results of their creations.

Participation in Maker Faires has provided attractions with access to the maker world—either as a source of inspiration or a partnership opportunity. Before KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, opened in 2014, its organizers participated in a Mini Maker Faire—a smaller version of the full-scale Maker Faire and concentrates on local maker culture.

“We were able to see early on what was attractive and what people would gravitate to in terms of activities, so we prototyped activities at these events,” says Claire ­Cocciole, director of maker and community partnerships at KID Museum.

From those activities, their makerspace has grown to include an open activity space, textile lab, woodshop, and fabrication lab.

Whereas KID Museum sprouted from its Maker Faire roots, Maker Faire Orlando grew with the help of the established Orlando Science Center. The first Orlando Mini Maker Faire was organized in 2012 by board members of The Maker Effect Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting makers in the Central Florida community. Orlando Science Center exhibited at that first faire. “We clearly saw the overlap between their mission and our event,” says Jessica Eson King, co-founder and vice president of The Maker Effect Foundation. “We could not have grown Maker Faire Orlando at the scale we have without their support.”

The next year, Orlando Science Center hosted the event. “We took on all the logistic planning, the cost of business to run the event, and volunteer recruitment,” says Orlando Science Center’s Lanman. “What they got to focus on was what they loved the most, which was procurement of makers and working with those groups of people and getting them excited about the event.”

Maker Faire Orlando soon outgrew the science center. This year, Orlando Science Center served as a partner, and is preparing to launch its own makerspace, continuing the mutually beneficial relationship between the movement and attractions.

How to Make a Makerspace

Before creating a makerspace at an existing attraction, as Orlando Science Center plans, it’s important to understand its essential components. A makerspace provides the tools needed to make (whether 3-D printers and woodshop equipment or glue and construction paper) and some guidance in how to use them. “You don’t have to think big for this. Any place where people create things becomes a makerspace,” Thomas says. “It’s really seeing ways you can allow your visitors to engage with the material in a personal way, physically. You’ve created something, instead of just buying it. You had to figure out how to piece it all together.”

A teaching component is what distinguishes a makerspace. At KID Museum, you will find a well-equipped woodshop, but there are also workshops on using the tools so guests are equipped to return to create personal projects.

There’s also room for open play. A central space at KID features stations with tools, materials, and projects that teach how the materials and tools work. On one summer day, day campers work with circuits and household batteries to learn about electrical input and output, and wire a simple motor to create a drawing tool. High school apprentices are present to guide the experience, but not instruct.

Maker activities help foster a sense of achievement, according to KID Museum’s Cocciole. At school, failing is not an option and leaves children feeling frustrated when they do. At KID Museum, “we’re happy to provide an outlet for that frustration because it leads to accomplishment.” Kids have unlimited chances to succeed. Thomas concurs, saying persistence is built when maker activities give kids “the ability to conceptualize an idea and see it through to completion.”

Maker activities also feature an element of personalization. “Giving kids the ability to put their own stamp on it—that’s the hallmark of a really good maker activity,” says Thomas. “[You] have something where they’ve left their mark instead of passively taking in information. They have to actively create something.”

Makers as Guests

The maker movement can influence the broader attractions industry in many ways. Facilities can capitalize on the movement with retail items that allow for personal experimentation, personalization, and long-term engagement. “Typically, [a maker activity involves] things that aren’t being made to just be stuck on a shelf,” says Thomas. “They’re actually creating things [they’re] going to engage with. You see kids creating costumes they’re going to wear. It becomes a part of their creative play at home. That’s probably more powerful than creating a knick-knack they’re going to stick on a shelf.” The personalized product connects with the desire for bespoke experiences guests are looking for more and more.

From a guest engagement perspective, maker activities create the multi-generational environment that has become the hallmark of family experiences at attractions in the past decade.

“Some of the museums I’ve worked with have seen adults getting right into the activity with their kids,” says Thomas. “Suddenly, when they’re invited in too, the adults do put down that [electronic] device and work on their craft. It’s a different sort of engagement.”

Grandparents and teenagers get in on the act, too. Older generations that did work with their hands are teaching woodworking or textile skills at makerspaces. Orlando Science Center has seen teens drawn to making activities. “They’re a tough audience, a very critical audience,” says Lanman. “Once they’ve seen it they’re ready to move on. [The maker movement] is moving fast enough that almost every time you come back, we’ll have something new in this space that you can learn about and think about. [Teens] are savvy enough to start doing [activities] on their own, and finding those opportunities and tools.”

Collaboration Is King

Much like the maker movement itself, the key to a successful makerspace is collaboration. “Whether it’s the public in our space collaborating or we as the people behind the scenes, you’re really just feeding off each other and growing something that not one person can do alone,” says Cocciole. “It’s about sharing experiences. When we work together it’s beautiful.”

In the following section, Funworld gathered the maker experiences of attractions around the world. To learn more about how this movement has impacted the industry, read on.

Define the Space to Create

Tucked away in an industrial complex outside of Orlando, you’ll find FamiLAB. In what looks a bit like an incredibly organized mad scientist’s lab, there are shelves of car parts, computer pieces, deconstructed toys, and more miscellany towering above woodworking machinery and circuit-board strewn work tables. It’s a candy shop for weekend tinkers, garage engineers, and makers of all sorts, but what is it exactly?

Makerspaces have a close kinship with fabrication labs and hackerspaces. While sharing some of the same equipment and a dedication to creation, the spaces do have distinct functions:

Hackerspace: Historically, these spaces were places for computer programmers to gather and code or work on physical prototypes. They still maintain this focus and provide the tools, if not the instruction, to complete these goals.

Makerspace: A makerspace focuses on learning and puts great emphasis on education. This area is considered family-friendly and involves workshops to teach skills.

Fabrication labs: These spaces are home to equipment used in fabrication, like 3-D printers, CNC fabrication machines, welding machines, woodworking tools, and more.

You’ll find elements cross-pollinating between different types of creative space. Many makerspaces have 3-D printers and hackerspaces can have woodworking tools, for example. So what is FamiLAB? A little bit of all of them.

Make Space for Makers at Your Attraction

The maker movement has had an impact beyond museums and science centers. Here are a few ways other attractions have taken up the cause:

  • “Build-you-own lightsaber” at The Star Trader at Disney Springs gives guests the chance to customize their own Star Wars souvenir.
  • Imagination Zone at Legoland Florida provides many hands-on opportunities including free-play with Lego bricks, programming computerized Lego robots, creating racing vehicles, and more.
  • Build-A-Bear Workshop has been an increasingly popular interactive retail attraction in malls.
  • Hershey’s Chocolate World offers the “Create Your Own Candy Bar” experience, where guests choose the ingredients of their bars, customize their wrappers, and walk through a factory-like workshop.