International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces (ISAM 2022)

Dr Peter Mylon presenting at ISAM 2022

It was great to be back in Atlanta, having started my makerspace journey there five years previously. In 2017, having received some funding to explore a range of makerspaces in the US, I had visited prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Penn State and seen different models of makerspace. But it wasn’t until I got to Georgia Tech and spoke with Professor Craig Forest, founder of the Invention Studio, that I was sold on the student-led model, having seen the thriving maker community there, and brought it back to Sheffield, resulting in the creation of the iForge, the UK’s first student-led makerspace (read more about it here). 

In 2017, the Invention Studio had already significantly expanded from its inception in a cupboard in 2009. However, it now covers a vast footprint with a range of facilities including a wood room, a metal room, a large 3D print farm and ‘Craftland’. 

Furthermore, the Invention Studio’s student-led model has been taken on by groups of students in other departments, so that they now have six makerspaces around the campus, including dedicated facilities for Materials Science, Aerospace, Electronics etc. This organic multiplication of makerspaces is an interesting model compared to the more politically fraught ‘big centralised facility’ approach. While it may not have been a deliberate strategy, it has allowed for a significant expansion, both in terms of space and the number of students served, without the need for institution-wide agreement and large-scale fundraising. Back in Sheffield, we are now looking at how we can use our existing facilities more effectively to support more making across the University.

On the other extreme, whilst in the US I also managed to make a flying visit to the Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University. This seven-storey innovation centre and makerspace includes space for prototyping, fabrication, projects, entrepreneurship and an enterprise incubator. It was supported by substantial alumni donations, but is certainly something to aspire to! 

Sears think[box], Cleveland, OH

Back at Georgia Tech, Ryan and I caught up with Craig Forest and shared our own progress since we last attended ISAM at Stanford, CA, in 2018. At that conference, we shared ‘Five Misperceptions You Need to Overcome When Starting a Makerspace’, detailing the lessons we had learned in setting up the space, which has since been shared with many starting out on their makerspace journeys. In the intervening four years, iForge has grown from a corner of a lab run by a handful of students to an established facility across three sites (iForge Makerspace, iForge Digital and iForge: The Engineering Centre), run by 65 student ‘Reps’ and with a large user base (over 3000 visits last semester!). 

From L-R: Pete Mylon, Craig Forest and Ryan Jones

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had as we’ve expanded has been the popularity of the space with module leaders – we have at least a dozen ‘design and build’ modules making significant use of the iForge, with many of these having introduced practical elements as a direct result of the iForge’s existence. At ISAM ‘22, we were able to share how we have coped with the demand. While the iForge initially experienced large queues, which led to some disgruntled students and module leaders, we introduced other ways of giving students access to hands-on making (the ‘Pop-Up Project Space’) and other ways of getting things made that offered different learning outcomes (service manufacturing). Giving students a range of options has meant we are able to support more making without overloading the facilities (and more importantly the students who staff them!).

Sharing our experiences with hundreds of makers from across the world (as far as New Zealand!) was a great experience, and the response was encouraging – many others were battling with the same questions and found our candour about the challenges refreshing.

I always find that the best thing about attending conferences is the networking – building new relationships, discussing potential collaborations, and of course eating good food! In addition to our Antipodean colleagues, we also met some closer to home, and have been working with them on a plan to bring ISAM to Austria in a couple of years, which will reduce both our carbon footprint and the budget we have to beg the department for! In the meantime, we got a few international sign-ups for our own conference, UNIMAKER, that serves UK-based makers in HE as well as those further afield. 


All in all, it was a fantastic experience, an opportunity to showcase the fantastic work of the iForge, and provided plenty of food… for thought, so keep an eye out for developments in Making at Sheffield in 2023!

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