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What The Maker Movement Needs To Learn

November 18, 2015


Vincent Purcell is a Baltimore-based maker who teaches about making culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He currently serves as an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow, where his work centers on the use of technology and design to address and solve critical social and environmental issues. Impact Design Hub asked Vincent to give us an overview of a few projects in the realm of maker education that are working towards greater inclusion and impact.

VentureWell-Vincent1Open any issue of Make: magazine and you’ll find an extraordinary breadth of inventive hacks and imaginative uses of technology, all embodying the can-do, DIY spirit of the maker movement and its associated makerspaces and innovation labs around the world. On its face, this movement is inherently educational – it’s about communing with other makers, hackers, engineers and tinkerers; it’s about learning by doing and educating one another. Anyone can make and so anyone can learn. But despite its ethos of open-source access and democratic, non-hierarchical structures, making isn’t quite the equitable playing field it aspires to be.

The problem is that, for the most part, access to a high level of education and resources are an invisible requirement to participate in the first place. Making as an act is universal; makerspaces and forums, on the other hand, are largely restricted to those with social or economic capital. This is the central paradox: a movement that is meant, in theory, to be about openness and inclusion often reflects and reinforces exclusion in practice. Women, people of color, and those experiencing poverty are drastically underrepresented in this movement. The barriers to entry are invisible but daunting, and making remains, for the most part, a playground of the privileged.

But there is hope! There are leaders and pioneers around the world resisting this dynamic and working to make the movement more inclusive through the power of education. Here we examine three such projects devoted to maker education for social impact that combine tangible work to improve lives with an effort to create a radically more inclusive maker community.

Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M.


Venneasha Davis is a 6th grade teacher in the Woodland Hill School District just outside of Pittsburgh. Three years ago, Davis founded a group called Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M. with the goal of empowering middle school girls through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education. Davis emphasizes that the name Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M. – as in “self-esteem” – is an important part of helping her girls be successful. Many of her students are girls of color and come from low income families, and face formidable barriers to entering the STEAM field due to cultural differences, lack of resources, low visibility of role models, and generally unresponsive education models.

Just as important, was building a program that actually taught them what they wanted to learn. “I went out and surveyed a bunch of middle school girls,” Davis explains, “and overwhelmingly those interests were dance, photography, computers, hair”. One of Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M.’s most popular units is called Beautistry, where, among other things like soap making, Davis teaches her girls about chemistry and the Periodic Table by making lipstick and lip gloss in colors like Lithium Pink, named for the color the element makes when it burns. Davis built her program as a model for educators to craft curricula for the students they actually teach, not some cultural construct of what a student should be, and respond with truly culturally-relevant ways of teaching important STEAM concepts.

The future looks bright. The program is expanding its curriculum to teach digital fabrication with 3D Printers, and food systems and sustainability through aquaponics. After showing off their work at the 2015 Pittsburgh Maker Faire, Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M. caught the attention of a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In the coming year, a budding partnership with the university will allow students participating in Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M. to take more advanced science classes and put them on a fast track for studying STEAM in college.

Public Workshop


In Maryvale, a neighborhood on the west side of Phoenix, Arizona, students from Western School of Science and Technology are building a structure that will soon house the state’s newest makerspace. Alex Gilliam, founder of Philadelphia-based Public Workshop and it’s TinyWPA project, is on site as part of the West Phoenix PlayMakes partnership to empower youth to design, plan and build positive spaces in this underserved community. In a few short weeks, Gilliam has led the youth team from sketching and creating concept models to guiding them in the daunting task of constructing a full-sized building in just a week. His students are learning the basics of architectural design and carpentry while creating a place that will serve as a center for learning through making at their school.

Public Workshop doesn’t parachute into a community with power saws and measuring tapes. Instead, Gilliam partners with groups already on the ground, shaping design and maker education to address an already existing need. Much like Davis’ work with Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M., Public Workshop aims to be culturally relevant and meaningful by training youth in the tools and processes to build “small scale, big impact” projects with everyday materials. The impact of their work can be seen around the country in the vacant lots transformed into exercise parks, D.I.Y. playgrounds made from scratch, and other spaces designed and built by youth in underserved communities.

The goal is empowerment as much as skills-building or beautification. Public Workshop engages youth throughout the country “to shape the design of their cities.” Whereas urban planners can take months pouring over plans to improve communities full of vacant lots, crumbling infrastructure, and decrepit schools, Public Workshop takes a get-it-done-yesterday approach, working directly with the young people who live in these communities so they can take the future into their own hands.

The Recompiler

Today’s maker movement embodies what many have referred to as the “hacker ethic” – the need to explore, to take apart, and understand. But one area that is seldom explored is the question of who gets to be defined as a ‘hacker,’ and whether the social system of the maker movement might need some hacking of its own. Audrey Eschright, an avid Portland, Oregon-based open source contributor, found a niche that magazines like Make: or 2600 hadn’t filled with the recent launch of her self-described “feminist hacker” magazine, The Recompiler. The Recompiler challenges the exclusivity of the maker movement and STEAM by creating an intentional forum for feminists and others excluded from the mainstream maker media to talk tech. Audrey’s goal is simple and direct: “to help people learn about technology in a fun, playful way, and highlight a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences.”

In a space suffering a lack of racial, gender and economic diversity, The Recompiler’s spin is refreshing. Much of the magazine’s content is derived from the Portland-based inclusive tech group Women Who Hack, and covers everything from ruminations on serving as a system-admin for activist movements to wrestling with the mathematical concept of infinity. So engaging is the voice and content of the magazine that it’s easy to forget how radical a venture this is in design – a technical magazine compiled and written almost entirely by women is essentially unheard of in the maker world. That, in and of itself, makes The Recompiler profound and political in a heavily male-dominated profession. Eschright has published both a pilot issue and and inaugural issue, both available freely online. The magazine is slated to be released quarterly, both digitally and with an accompanying print publication. Issue number one has already sold out.

Educating A Movement

Davis, Gilliam and Eschright are just a few of the many people operating just under the radar, working to resolve the problem of inclusion in making. With groups like theirs and others springing up around the country, such Girls Who Code or Hack the Hood, we’re beginning to see a groundswell of activity towards including women, people of color, and other traditionally underrepresented groups of makers. We still have a long ways to go for these groups to hit a stride in mainstream coverage and respect in the maker community, but in a society where inequity runs deep, perhaps the Maker movement has the potential to tip the scales toward justice. To do that, however, we will have to go beyond simply making for social impact with our individual projects; to truly realize the ethos of an open-source, democratic community, we need to educate those most in need, highlight role models who look as diverse as we as humans are, and shift power to underrepresented people who themselves can design and build appropriate solutions to critical social challenges.

Images and video courtesy of Vincent Purcell, Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M., Public Workshop, and The Recompiler.


  1. Thank You. This is a great article!

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