New research highlights role of STEM making in addressing equity in historically marginalized communities

Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2017). FABLEARN 2017 Proceedings. In Proceedings of FABLEARN Conference 2017, Stanford, USA, 4 pages.

Summarized by Justin Preston


Inequality and underrepresentation of youth from historically marginalized communities have been stubbornly persistent in STEM fields. However, with the advent of maker spaces, and the associated maker movement, there are hopes that these processes can help to break down barriers marginalized communities and populations experience in entering and maintaining involvement in STEM fields. There has been little research to date, though, around how youths from such communities sustain their engagement in STEM maker programming.

First, some clarification. When referring to “maker spaces”, the authors are referring to a classroom or other space filled with a wide variety of tools and materials with which youths can experiment and explore ideas together, creating and inventing solutions for problems that are of interest to them. “Making” in this context, then, is what youths do when in these maker spaces.

One of the issues facing such maker programs, though, is described as the “keychain syndrome,” where involved youth spend their time creating trivial projects that do not sustain meaningful engagement or progress towards more complex projects.

To work against this trend, and to imbue maker spaces with an emphasis on equity and justice, the authors tied three dimensions into their maker spaces and groups.

  • Historicity – emphasizing that making always takes places in particular spaces and times which are influenced by institutional, societal, and individual histories;
  • Remixing resources, tools, and norms in order to foster nontraditional outcomes and creating new norms;
  • Identity work – understanding what a person is and can be in the context of making and idea creation.


The authors of the present study utilized several different methodologies in their work. The first aspect of their work was concerned with community centered making. The authors worked in concert with mentoring programs to establish STEM making spaces, emphasizing iterative and generative making space activities, as well as community ethnography. The aim was to embed local knowledge and practice into making and engineering design, bringing the needs of the community into the creative ideas of the youth.

The data collection was carried out as a longitudinal ethnographic study, grounded in the idea ethnographic tools can examine and transform inequalities from multiple perspectives in an inequitable world. Data were generated from 41 youth team projects between 2013 and 2017, and were coded using open coding and the method of constant comparison.


Across projects, participating youth identified problems facing their communities that were linked to their community’s unique history and context. Further, they engaged with community data to determine justifications for which project ideas were most urgent. Youth also noted a prominent lack of access to resources facing those in their community. Other intersectional experiences included, for example, lack of a childhood (n=10), geography/climate (n=9), urban infrastructure (n=8), health/disability (n=8), bullying (n=7), sexism (n=5).

One project, for instance, sought to address the fact that they were concerned about getting hurt in the dark, and sought to generate projects that would bring light into areas with broken streetlights, for example. Such projects included light-up scooters, light-up umbrellas, and other similar ideas.

Across projects and designs, youths and mentors began to see the problems they were facing as bigger than themselves. Such expanded considerations are useful in helping to foster ways of talking about and opposing systemic injustice.

This expanded frame of reference enabled the youths and their mentors to engage in a process of co-making, including the co-creation of design problems and solutions with a wide range of stakeholders. When mentors would run out of ideas, they were able to engage community members to help generate new solutions. This created an ongoing dialog with the community, which snowballed into more ideas and solutions to immediate problems.

Implications for mentors and programs

Those organizations emphasizing STEM learning or even including it as a component of their program can help to foster more engagement with youth as well as their communities when taking a community-centered making approach. Such an approach demonstrates the implications of STEM beyond the textbook and brings it to life in their day to day experiences. This can also foster greater engagement with STEM, but it is necessary that the program puts in the time and resources to make it a reality.

As the authors state in closing, “Equity in STEM-rich making is possible when co-created in locally-centered, community makerspaces where youth can be empowered to collaboratively frame problems and design solutions to authentically address injustices in their everyday lives.”

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