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UNC SILS researchers aim to create more equitable makerspaces

Assistant Professor Dr. Maggie Melo uses a virtual reality headset in Manning Hall on Feb. 22, 2022.

The Equity in the Making Lab at the UNC School of Information and Library Science hopes to establish greater equity for students from underrepresented communities at the University and other college campuses through a virtual reality makerspace.

A typical makerspace is a collaborative learning environment, said Maggie Melo, an assistant professor in the school, who is leading the project. These spaces will often have a variety of modern technologies, like 3D printing, laser cutting and microcontrollers and electronics.

Rachel Rodney, a first-year doctoral student at SILS, works as a research assistant at the Equity in the Making Lab. While obtaining her undergraduate degree in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington, Rodney worked in makerspaces located on campus. 

She didn't go into a makerspace herself until it was required for a class.

“I felt sort of uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to use any of the tools, I didn’t know what I should even be making in a makerspace,” Rodney said. 

In that class, each week she had to build a prototype with a different type of tool or machine, allowing her to get acquainted with the tools in a makerspace. Rodney said a makerspace should not only include materials that people need and want to use, but should also provide a space people are willing to fail in.

“I used to do research on makerspaces in Seattle, and one of them had a bell you would ring anytime whatever you made failed,” Rodney said. “What I really like about makerspaces is it has room for you to figure things out as you are going along.” 

The EITM Lab's project, titled “Equity in the Making: Investigating Spatial Arrangements of Makerspaces and Their Impact on Diverse User Populations,” is funded by the National Science Foundation, who awarded Melo a $715,000 grant in 2020 for five years of research.

Melo first came up with the idea for this project while obtaining her doctorate at the University of Arizona. During her time there, she co-founded the university’s first interdisciplinary makerspace in the science and engineering library. 

“One thing that I noticed was that students would walk up to the threshold of a makerspace, look inside and decide to walk away," Melo said. "Over time, I began to recognize that it was usually students from underrepresented communities walking away.” 

Research done in the virtual reality makerspace will allow the EITM Lab to understand why a student from a historically underrepresented community may choose not to enter the makerspace, she said.

The five-year project — currently in its second year — is split into different phases. 

Laura March, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at SILS, works at the EITM as a researcher. March worked closely with Melo during the first phase of the project, which took place last year. 

"We interviewed makerspace leaders for schools at the UNC System across the whole state of North Carolina to learn how they define the makerspace, what some of those defining characteristics are, and how that might contribute to why students from underrepresented communities choose not to enter these spaces," March said.

The project is currently in phase 2, during which Melo and Rodney will be recruiting students from underrepresented communities to use the virtual reality makerspace and share their gut reactions and first impressions. 

As they engage with the space, they will be reporting their observations out loud. 

“So as they are walking around they are kind of thinking about what the space looks like, but also importantly, what it feels like, because I think that’s a major component to get a better understanding of it,” Melo said. 

Once the second phase is complete, Melo said the intention is to take the data they found and implement it into one of the four physical makerspaces on UNC’s campus, in Murray Hall, Carmichael Hall, the Hanes Arts Center and Kenan Science Library. Melo said this will allow them to see how these ideas can be implemented physically and if there are ways to encourage more students to use the space.

The VR makerspace will be both open sourced and browser based. Melo hopes this research will benefit not only the UNC community, but also other campuses across the U.S., so they are able to get a better sense of how their community experiences a makerspace. 

The makerspace will also have an open educational resource, like a textbook, that accompanies the research, which allows those viewing the research to follow Melo's protocol and implement it into their own local context. 

Through this research, the EITM hopes to make makerspaces a more inviting and welcoming environment that students will not turn away from at the door.

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"It would be so awesome if all the SILS students could start using it to work on projects for their classes," Rodney said. "Making is a really important part of the learning process because it gives you that exploratory piece and that hands-on element that can be really useful in understanding concepts.” |