One of the reasons that I was drawn to UNC was the fact that the university seemed to have endless resources. These resources ranged from sports facilities to class tutoring to the hundreds of student clubs on campus. One resource that I was pleasantly surprised to learn about was BeAM, which is a group of makerspaces with a plethora of machines and information to help students design products; some of these resources include 3D printers, laser cutters, and tools for wood shopping or metalworking. John Burke, from Miami University Middletown, makes a very interesting point about makerspaces in general, saying they are intriguing because they allow students to be creative and explore learning opportunities outside of the typical classroom (2015, p. 497). However, these spaces often seem to be used to lure students to campus without truly being utilized to their full extent. I did some initial research, which seemed to support the fact that many students take advantage of this resource, yet I was unable to find out how the space truly fulfilled its purpose of promoting design and entrepreneurship. Thus, I was excited to explore the methods used to best achieve this purpose, leading me to my main question: How does BeAM encourage actions such as creative thinking and collaboration among its users in order to aid in the overall design process?
Before understanding my question, it is important to address what exactly a makerspace is, and it is actually quite simple: it is a place where students make things. The whole concept is to allow for students to design and manufacture products with as many different machines as provided by the university. Makerspaces breed creativity not only through individual design but also through peer collaboration. Eric van Holm, a professor from the University of New Orleans, claims they are becoming increasingly common throughout the nation as they create dense networks that allow for ideas to take off and come to fruition (2015, p. 28). With that being said, each university is very different; no two makerspaces are the same because the values of each university’s students should dictate what the space offers and how it makes use of its resources. Nonetheless, Morgan and Wendy Hynes from Purdue University believe that it is still important that the makerspace is a common working environment for the majority of students in order to be effective (2018, p. 870). The word “majority” is key here because the goal of a makerspace is to provide the opportunity to create prototypes for all students and not just certain groups, such as those involved in the Applied Sciences here at UNC. If we look specifically at the University of North Carolina, BeAM’s mission statement is as follows: “We aim to make everyone feel empowered to reach their full making potential – if you’re interested in making, you belong at BeAM” (2020, para. 3). I was hoping to find out through this study if the makerspace reinforced this statement, and if so, what methods it used to aid in reaching one’s potential.
Observational Data and Analysis
My first observation left a quick impression, as I immediately saw how attentive the staff at BeAM were. They even seemed excited to be observed when I told them why I was there. They worked in groups with the students that were inside the makerspace, and they even allowed me to give my input. I felt included, and it made me more willing to share my thoughts although I was an outsider. I found this to be a key aspect of BeAM because I know that it is through collaboration that good ideas can be polished until eventually perfected. Not only was there a surplus of machines there, but there were also spaces surrounding the makerspace meant specifically for the exchange of ideas. The space did not have an unusual demographic, which was definitely a positive sign. They want as many people to use the space as possible, so it was relieving to see that no group was excluded. Overall, I left the makerspace impressed at the exchange of ideas even with the precautions due to COVID-19.
For my second observation, I went to the makerspace in order to create something on my own, and it actually changed my perspective to an extent. I wanted to immerse myself in the action of using the machines available at BeAM, as well as learn more about the entrepreneurial pursuits that the makerspace supports. Through conversation, I learned about multiple opportunities that undergraduate students can become involved in as an aspiring entrepreneur. The most promising opportunity is the UNC Makeathon, which is a competition that allows for entrepreneurs at North Carolina to pitch their ideas and really turn them into reality. While not all entrepreneurial pursuits pertain to creating products, those that do have a huge advantage with what BeAM offers, especially in the Makeathon competition.
I also experienced the input of the staff as I laser cut a jewelry box for one of my classes. They truly wanted to help and they had an immediate fix for any problems. They also did not hesitate to critique what I was doing, and I found that it was important to keep an open mind and be receptive to constructive criticism while in BeAM. After this experience, I was very excited to continue visiting and receiving design help from the staff at BeAM.
Following my observations, it was clear that collaboration is not lacking in the BeAM makerspace. The space still has a steady flow of users despite the current pandemic, and the workers jump at any opportunity to help students improve their designs. While collaboration among students at BeAM may be down from the usual level, the actions of the BeAM staff indicate that this intimate exchange of ideas will be revived after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided. Not only do their actions provide evidence of collaboration and creative thinking, but the physical resources do as well. There are plenty of meeting spaces and the open design of the space allows for students using completely different machines to interact nonetheless. Models and instructions fill the walls of the space to offer guidance and inspiration to any students who may be struggling. Finally, the fact that constructive criticism was provided without hesitation supports another important finding as well: sometimes creativity is found in unwarranted help. I can say that I am confident that entrepreneurship and individual creativity could easily flourish in this space. No student is alone in the design process once entering BeAM, turning it into a much easier task. I am glad that I was able to answer my research question, but I am more excited that I saw how collaboration and creative thinking could lead to life-changing designs. Not only is this positive for the university, but the brilliant students combining their knowledge at BeAM can become entrepreneurs that change the world, all stemming from the culture of collaboration promoted by the makerspace.
BeAM. (2020). “About BeAM.” BeAM: Be a Maker. https://beam.unc.edu/about/.
Burke, J. (2015, April 16). Making sense: Can makerspaces work in academic libraries?
Presented at Association of College & Research Libraries Annual Conference, Portland, 2015, http://sc.lib.miamioh.edu/handle/2374.MIA/5212.
Holm, E. J. V. (2015). Makerspaces and contributions to entrepreneurship. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 195, 24–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.06.167
Hynes, M. M., & Hynes, W. J. (2018). If you build it, will they come? Student preferences for Makerspace environments in higher education. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 28(3), 867–883. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-017-9412-5.
Featured Image Source: Keith Isaacs Photo. (2020). [Digital Photograph]. BeAM @ UNC. Retrieved on October 14, 2020 from beam.unc.edu