NYU Tandon School of Engineering MakerSpace

Research Assistant

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering MakerSpace is a collaborative workspace and lab that encourages students and faculty to engage in innovative and entrepreneurial activities. As a Research Assistant I worked with Professor Anne-Laure Fayard on qualitative research and Victoria Bill, the MakerSpace manager and quantitative researcher, on understanding user needs and optimizing the new space.

Methods

I conducted observations and in situ interviews in the MakerSpace and comparative maker spaces on campus. A total of twenty-one open-ended interviews were conducted. At the beginning of the project, stakeholder interviews were conducted with participants in the design of the MakerSpace: three with members of the administration, three faculty members, and three students (N=9). Additional interviews with students were conducted (N=12).

Patterns in User Behavior

The open plan space and concierge desk were designed to invite newcomers to ask for help. However, the observations and in situ interviews indicated that many users coming to the space did not feel welcome. Often newcomers’ first interaction with the staff was negative, telling them no food allowed or pointing to a machine to swipe their ID card. Many students ended up sitting in the foyer area outside of the MakerSpace, which has become a buffer space for students to meet and food is allowed. While the space had furniture on wheels for flexibility, the cleanliness of the space and persistence of the original layout in rows of tables likened a library more than a place for creativity and experimentation. Students reported feeling on display and did not want to mess up.

Equipment and Space Usage

Most students used the space for homework or 3D printing personal projects, mainly on the Ultimakers since the materials were free. A variety of implicit barriers impact student participation including fear of failure, cost, gender, and lack of training. Students reported feeling intimidated and wanted to see examples of student projects and additional entry-level trainings. The concierge displayed some student work but many students inquired about purchasing objects rather than how to make them. One team project was showcased in the space while other teams did not have a visible presence to demonstrate the work students can and are doing in the space.

Reported usage in the quantitative data was consistent with our qualitative findings. Most users attended the safety orientation, which is required before use of the 3D printers and attending other training sessions, and attendance for other trainings dropped off sharply. Working on personal projects was the top reason students came to the MakerSpace with 63% of respondents reporting this, the second highest reason being for homework at 55%. By far 3D printers were the most popular equipment used by 62% of respondents, which was reflected in observations of the Ultimakers as the hub of activity.

Communities of Users

It was found – in line with the literature on communities of practice – that the MakerSpace community is composed of four main group of users: the student TAs, who are a very closed group; a small group of core expert users (15 to 20 members, mostly male students) who are often had prior connections with the TAs; regular users who seemed to be using the space mostly for its co-working and meeting facilities, and some infrequent users. The observations and informal conversations with other students in the space suggest that there was a strong in-group vs. out-group distinction that made it difficult for students who were not part of the TA or core users group to engage with these groups. Additional trainings, workshops, and student club collaborations could create new pathways that might increase serendipitous interactions among different sub-communities.

The neutral and negative responses to meeting other majors, meeting others with similar interests, and preference to work alone suggest the limited community involvement between core users and newcomers.

Prototyping

Turning insights into action, we partnered with the MakerSpace management to design, test and iterate on spatial and organizational design solutions to foster a collaborative and inclusive environment.

For example, moving the ID card swipe machine contributed to more welcoming and positive interactions with staff members, as well as an increase in compliance with ID card policy and attendance data collected. The lounge chairs were moved from the middle of the space, where students were observed sleeping, to the entrance of the space. This served the need for an informal social meeting place observed in student use of the outside foyer, and observations of this change were positive.

Recommendations

Spatial and organizational recommendations included:

  • create areas with a sense of privacy to encourage experimentation
  • display available tools and materials in the open
  • showcase student projects in an exhibition area and on screens
  • create a “needs and wants” wall for students to build teams
  • train TAs to mentor and partner with students on projects
  • have a standard system in place for when ID is required and reduce number of requests that require ID