Makerspace, a new workplace concept that emphasizes collaboration, innovation and cutting across different disciplines, is driving a $17 million grant at California Community Colleges.
Makerspace reflects the new economy where employees often work collaboratively, play off of each other’s ideas, inspire each other and develop better solutions jointly, explained Von Ton-Quinlivan, a vice chancellor at the California Community Chancellors Office who focuses on workforce and economic development.
Ton-Quinlaven, a native of Vietnam who emigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and graduated from Georgetown University, said, “There’s a premium placed on the ability to experiment. Makerspace allows for someone who wants to try something one way, but if it doesn’t work, try it another way.”
“Our community colleges are focused on doing what matters for jobs and the economy. If you follow the economy, many are driven by STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. And the makerspace movement is one way for us to further develop STEM skills,” Ton-Quinlivan noted.
The grant launched in fall 2016 lasts for three years. Initially, noted Ton-Quinlaven, it intended to issue grants to 10 community colleges of the 63 that submitted letters of interest out of the 133 two-year colleges statewide. “The level of interest surprised us. We began rethinking the structure of the grant to be more inclusive than just ten,” she said. It decided to award mini-grants, including those already with makerspace programs and others just starting out.
Larger grants offer $100,000 a year for three years or $300,000, and smaller grants offer from $15,000 to $25,000 annually, she said.
The diversity of the students attending California’s 113 community colleges attests to the fact that many minority students will be taking advantage of makerspace programs. California’s community colleges on the whole consist of 42 percent Latino students, 27 percent White, 15 percent Asian and Filipino, six percent African-American and four percent multi-ethnic.
California’s community colleges are nurturing the four c’s—creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. The world of work is changing, and makerspace enables community college graduates to keep pace with it, she suggested.
“We want to create the kind of environment that allows students to experiment with different types of careers including 3-D printing, woodworking or becoming a machinist. It encompasses a range of skills where you can become technicians in building trades or an entrepreneur that sells goods to Etsy,” Ton-Quinlivan described.
Moreover, Ton-Quinlivan noted that these skills blend into what community colleges specialize in: mastering applied learning. Hands-on learning has always been emphasized at community colleges, and these skills ratchet them up a notch.
The program also involves a slew of industry partners that offer mentoring and internships to support the learning that goes on within the community college and the makerspace concept. Examples of firms participating include Adobe, Intel, Northrop Grumman and AT&T.
Asked how the large Latino and minority population can benefit specifically from this grant and the makerspace movement, Ton-Quinlaven prefers to not focus on particular ethnicities. “We want to create more opportunities for students of all types to acquire these skills early and often. Who knows how they will be inspired? she responded.
While liberal arts students will also participate in makerspace programs, Ton-Quinlaven said that STEM students fit naturally into it. STEM fields involve “critical thinking and problem solving. These are aptitudes that can take you further into STEM careers. If you want to be a biotech technician or go into advanced science, these skills transfer directly into STEM fields,” she noted.
Asked what three outcomes she’d like California community colleges to derive from participating in the makerspace program, Ton-Quinlaven identifies: 1) acquiring critical skills will help students succeed in many fields; 2) introduce a bevy of new fields that haven’t been considered previously in health, robotics, medical technology and machinery; 3) mastering “soft” skills of communicating effectively and collaborating will help students thrive in many fields.
Sierra College, located in Rocklin, Calif., about 20 miles from Sacramento, was one of the community colleges selected to participate in the $17 million, three-year grant. The grant gives bite to the initiative launched by the White House to create a “nation of makers.” With robots already here and increasing, and jobs lost overseas, the U.S. must take the initiative to train community college students for a new workforce.
But Carol Pepper-Kittredge, director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at Sierra College, which helps businesses connect with future workforces, explained that makerspace programs are not new to the college. In fact, Sierra established a partnership with profit-making Hacker Labs where students come to study, congregate with people of different disciplines and meet with business leaders. “We know that this model is working for us,” Pepper-Kittredge pointed out.
At Hacker Labs students of all majors participate. “We have students majoring in economics or philosophy. Whether you’re developing a new product, computer app, a new system, a social good, it all requires a lot of cross collaboration and different skill sets,” she explained. Combining an accounting major who knows about finance with a marketer can produce positive and surprising results.
Spending time in these makerspace labs can produce results that differ from traditional classroom learning. Outside of classrooms or labs, “students often need more time to play, more time to think, cogitate, experiment, try and fail. Makerspace gives students an opportunity to explore new ideas, build additional and new skills, connect with businesses, industry and the community, and provide them with work-based experience,” she said.
Sierra College encourages faculty to participate. “We’re looking to weave faculty in. At our space, we offer faculty free membership. We see it as an open lab for students and faculty to go and explore after class,” Pepper-Kittredge noted.
Though the makerspace community college grant was just getting off the ground, Sierra College has already had meetings with businesses such as Adobe to see how it could get involved. “My expectation is they will be connectors for the community college with business and industry,” she said. Adobe is already exploring adapting some of its products into the community college classroom.
Each participating community college, like Sierra College, Pepper-Kittredge noted, “will develop its own network of businesses, which will help drive what internships are available. These businesses will connect to suppliers, partners, businesses, at a local to global level,” she said.
Pepper-Kittredge envisions that what transpires at makerspace will influence the curriculum at Sierra College. “We hope that it opens up possibilities for students to define what they want to do with their work life and help create new opportunities,” she said. In the past, students taking an entrepreneurship class would take a year to learn how to write a business plan. Working at makerspace, they learn quickly how to test a business concept and define a target market, two keys to a successful business plan.
Pepper-Kittredge notes that Latino students have had lower success rates in college than other students. She’s hoping that makerspace will exert a major influence on Latino students and “take their passion and help them define what they want to do,” she said. She’s hoping that it raises the number of associate degrees and motivates more Latinos to move on to bachelor degrees.
She says programs like makerspace should inspire more students to pursue “entrepreneurship earlier in their career and test them out through student competition and internships.” •