In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Source Hardware
September 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 3
The articles in this issue look at how the development and use of free and open source hardware (FOSH or simply “open hardware”) are changing the face of science, engineering, business, and law.

The Maker Movement and Engineering

Friday, September 15, 2017

Author: AnnMarie Thomas and Deb Besser

With calls for increased preK–12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) (NAE/NRC 2009) and discussions of the need for more hands-on and design experiences in college-level engineering curriculum (Prince 2004), the growth of the maker movement offers promise and opportunity. And in the context of open source hardware, we note particularly the importance of sharing and collaboration among makers. From the beginning, open source hardware and online project instruction websites and forums have been critical components of the maker movement (Gibb 2014).

The past decade has seen dramatic growth both in the number of maker-spaces, Maker Faires, and other maker gatherings (Dougherty 2016) and in the presence of maker curriculum in schools and libraries around the United States and the world. We believe it is important for engineers and engineering educators to learn about this trend and consider using maker methods to introduce students to engineering and build their technological literacy.

A Brief History of the Maker Movement

What is “making”? And how does the growth of the maker movement create opportunities for engineering and engineering education?

Definition of Terms

Before addressing the connections between the maker movement and engineering, we define some of the terminology. Humans have always been makers of things, from food to shelter. The drive to make is essential to the species’ survival. What the current maker movement has created is a sense of identity and community.

A maker can be defined as someone who makes something. The simplicity of that statement probably contributed to the growth of this movement. Defining disciplines is generally not a simple task (as evidenced in a paper on how faculty members define engineering; -Pawley 2009), and this is particularly true in the maker movement, where there is no authoritative body determining what is or is not “making,” and who is or is not a maker.

Makers self-identify and can use the designation with no application process, degree, certification, or other formalities. The term “making” has grown to encompass a broad swath of disciplines and activities, from robotics to cosplay to the use of toothpicks to create cityscapes. The inclusive nature of the term means that there are innumerable opportunities for inter-/cross-/-antidisciplinary work.

Make: Magazine and Maker Faires

The modern maker movement can be traced to Make: magazine, first published in 2005. It features profiles of artists and engineers, step-by-step instructions for -projects, and reviews of maker and do-it-yourself books and products. As readership of the magazine grew, founder Dale Dougherty and his team decided to try an in--person maker gathering (Bilton 2010):

Maker Faire started from the ideas in the magazine. We were covering lots of interesting people and I thought it would be interesting to bring them all together in one place. They did such different things, but they had a lot in common.

The first Maker Faire was held at the San Mateo fairgrounds in April 2006, with over 300 makers and 20,000 attendees. Ten years later there were 191 Maker Faires, totaling over 1.4 million attendees.[1] In 2014 the White House held a Maker Faire on its grounds, complete with a mobile fab lab (fabrication laboratory), an electric giraffe, and a family showing their pancake printer.

The Maker Faires and Make: magazine are just two manifestations of the current awareness and celebration of making.

Making in K–12 Education

Learners in makerspaces actively engage in higher-order analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as they create and redesign (Bonwell and Eison 1991). And there is evidence that active learning improves student attitudes, increases retention, and attracts underrepresented students (Freeman et al. 2014; Prince 2004). Making as a formally recognized component of K–12 education is a growing area of research (e.g., Halverson and Sheridan 2014; Wohlwend and Peppler 2015).


As with other aspects of the maker movement, there is no single prescribed way to implement making in K–12 settings. Instead, grassroots networks share best practices, curriculum, and discipline integration strategies.

The Maker Education Initiative ( is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “[provide] educators and institutions with the training, resources, and community of support they need to create engaging, inclusive, and motivating learning experiences through maker-centered education.” It has taken a leading role in gathering maker educators and resources through digital and in-person events and resource libraries.

In addition, books such as Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators (Honey and Kanter 2013), Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom (Martinez and Stager 2013), and Makeology: Makers as Learners (Peppler et al. 2016) show the breadth and depth of creativity in maker programs and makerspaces.

Makerspaces and Fab Labs

A common starting point for incorporating making in a community, school, or other venue is the creation of a dedicated space, often called a makerspace, to encourage making activities.[2] These open places for experimentation and creation with tools and technology can be seen as an extension of the fab lab concept and network. The “fab lab” concept was introduced in the early 2000s by Neil Gershenfeld (2005), and there are now hundreds of fab labs worldwide.[3]

While every fab lab could be considered a makerspace, the reverse is not necessarily true. Fab labs that are part of the Fab Lab Network ( subscribe to a core set of materials and a knowledge-sharing community ( Makerspaces encompass everything from a full fab lab to a corner of a classroom with tape and scissors.

Shared Attributes of Makers and Engineers

After attending a Maker Faire, one of us (Thomas) realized that many of the attributes of makers are useful to develop in engineering students. This led to a project of interviews with dozens of makers about their childhoods. The interviewees included National Academy of Engineering members such as Woodie Flowers and David Kelley, technology business owners including Lenore Edman and Nathan Seidle, and educators like Jane Werner and Kipp Bradford. Most of them grew up well before “maker” became a common term and long before Make: magazine and Maker Faires. Despite pronounced differences in where and how they grew up, common themes emerged in nearly every interview. Below are the shared characteristics that we propose constitute a “maker mindset” (Thomas 2014, p. 5):

  • Makers are curious. They are explorers. They pursue projects that they personally find interesting.
  • Makers are playful. They often work on projects that show a sense of whimsy.
  • Makers are willing to take risks. They aren’t afraid to try things that haven’t been done before.
  • Makers take on responsibility. They enjoy doing -projects that can help others.
  • Makers are persistent. They don’t give up easily.
  • Makers are resourceful. They look for materials and inspiration in unlikely places.
  • Makers share—their knowledge, their tools, and their support.
  • Makers are optimistic. They believe that they can make a difference in the world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these traits have much in common with the values, attitudes, and thinking skills identified as “engineering habits of mind”: systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, and attention to ethical considerations (NAE/NRC 2009, p. 152). And research reveals common education pathways among makers and engineers (Foster et al. 2014; Jordan and Lande 2013; Lande et al. 2013)—many self-identified makers have some formal education in engineering.

The maker traits are also echoed in a popular book on broader habits of mind, with the subtitle “16 Essential Characteristics for Success” (Costa and Kallick 2008, p. xxi), that describes a disposition open to critical and creative problem solving and calls for “responding with wonderment and awe,” “taking responsible risks,” and “finding humor.”

Engineering Education and the Maker Movement

Makerspaces are now a common feature of college campuses (Barrett et al. 2015), and in 2016 the International Journal of Academic Makerspaces and Making was launched as a peer-reviewed outlet “to enable the sharing of best practices in academic making.” In addition, engineering colleges and universities have begun to ask students about their involvement in the maker movement. For example, MIT’s undergraduate application offers the “Maker Portfolio” option, described as “an opportunity for students to showcase their projects that require creative insight, technical skill, and a ‘hands-on’ approach to learning by doing.”[4]

What can the fields of engineering and engineering education learn from the maker movement? Much of what is emerging about the role of making in education, particularly engineering education, confirms prior findings on student learning.

Often when education designers refer to Bloom’s taxonomy, there is a tendency to focus on the cognitive domain (Bloom et al. 1956). But the taxonomy also includes the psychomotor and affective branches of learning. When people are actively creating with technology they are naturally engaging these two domains. The affective includes motivation, attitude, enthusiasm, values, and appreciation, and these self-directed attributes are essential for curious creating, risk taking, and playful making.


The maker movement is not, unfortunately, immune from the diversity challenges seen in the STEM subjects and in engineering in particular. But a growing body of work is looking at how some maker projects and activities may be effective in getting more women interested in STEM. For example, e-textiles (a common staple of Maker Faires and programs) are broadening participation of women in electronics (Buechley et al. 2013). And diverse communities are being supported in computer programming by the Scratch language, which has become an integral element of many youth maker programs (Resnick et al. 2009; Roque et al. 2016). Research is being conducted on new ways to assess and describe the learning that takes place in maker settings (Petrich et al. 2013).[5]

A 2012 study commissioned by Maker Media and Intel surveyed 789 Maker Faire exhibitors, Make: magazine subscribers, and Make: newsletter subscribers about their attitudes, behaviors, and demographics. Given a list of 28 categories and asked which words “describe [them] as a maker,” “engineer” was the third most common selection (after “hobbyist” and “tinkerer”). Still, only 23 percent of the respondents chose it (-Dougherty 2012), suggesting that, while related, makers and engineers do not see these fields as comparable. There is much to be celebrated and learned from both cultures and communities.


The maker movement has displayed rapid growth in the United States and globally. Making and engineering are complementary. As engineering education at all levels embraces making, it presents opportunities to introduce a new audience to technology, engineering design, and collaborative problem solving.

Making provides a new lens through which content and activity traditionally thought of as engineering (such as circuit design, machining, and computer programming) can be seen in a new light. Rather than restricting such activities to engineering classes and careers, through making they are accessible in community centers, fab labs, libraries, and K–12 classrooms—and they invite fun, creativity, and collaboration.


The authors would like to acknowledge the very helpful work that Cameron Fletcher did to enhance this article’s organization, clarity, and coherence.


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Bilton N. 2010. One on one: Dale Dougherty, Make Magazine and Maker Faire. New York Times, May 21.

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Dougherty D. 2016. Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

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Honey M, Kanter DE, eds. 2013. Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators. New York: Routledge.

Jordan S, Lande M. 2013. Should makers be the engineers of the future? Frontiers in Education Conference, September 23–26, Oklahoma City.

Lande M, Jordan SS, Nelson J. 2013. Defining makers -making: Emergent practice and emergent meanings. Paper presented at ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, June 23–26, Seattle.

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Petrich M, Wilkinson K, Bevan B. 2013. It looks like fun, but are they learning? In: Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators, eds. Honey M, Kanter DE. New York: Routledge. pp. 50–70.

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[2]  The Makerspace Playbook (2013) walks through the steps to set up a makerspace, considering place selection, tools and materials, safety, projects, and a number of other aspects. It is available at Playbook-Feb-2013.pdf.

[3]  Information is available from the Fab Foundation (


[5]  See also the Maker Ed Open Portfolios Project, Research Brief Series (

About the Author:AnnMarie Thomas is associate professor, University of St. Thomas School of Engineering and Opus College of Business, and director, Playful Learning Lab; Deb Besser is chair, Civil Engineering Department, School of Engineering, and director, Center for Engineering Education, both at the University of St. Thomas.