Makerspaces, Training, and Engagement:
Using Digital Games Both to Encourage Engagement in University Makerspaces and as a Framework to Drive Student Learning
by Colin Nickels
The University Makerspace Network (UMN) at my home institution has a problem. Currently, the UMN has a small number of users who invest the time to learn and fully exploit the tools and technology available. This problem can be traced to two root causes: lack of engagement and an unclear path for progress. I propose a two pronged approach to this problem: incorporating a framework for skill progression based on digital games and using actual digital games to build engagement in the UMN. I invite the University makerspace community to adopt digital games as part of their curriculum and engagement strategy.
Currently, the UMN has two 2 makerspace locations and is opening a third in August 2016. The network has just over 500 registered users. The primary means of recruiting new users is through workshops, word of mouth, the student maker group, and course integration. When a new user comes to the UMN they have to complete a large amount of paperwork and a basic safety orientation before gaining access to the lowest level tools. Additional training is required to use the more dangerous or complicated equipment. This training is conducted in scheduled group sessions or through dropiin training on Friday afternoons. As users gain additional levels of access, their status is updated on physical paper forms and a digital spreadsheet. There is no set order to these different training topics, nor is there any external motivation to learn more skills. Each user must choose level of training they want to attend in order to complete their personal project. While this current system is effective in terms of staff time spent training students, it does not drive engagement.
Digital games can ameliorate this situation in two ways: they can provide a framework for increasing skill levels in a making environment and they can help encourage independent inquiry and curiosity about making. I propose adopting two improvements to the current system based on digital games. First, the UMN should create a framework of skill progression in a similar manner to crafting systems in games (see World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Terraria, or Don’t Starve as examples), second the UMN should incorporate the use of games that feature crafting and design into their workshop curriculum in order to help drive engagement, inspire users of the space, and encourage independent discovery. Academic study of digital games reveals that they are uniquely capable of supporting these goals.
Digital games drive engagement (citation needed), they encourage exploration through play (citation needed), and they drive epistemic inquiry (citation needed). Users will engage more frequently, for longer periods of time, and have a better understanding of what to learn next. They will be able to compare their progress with others and see what skills are available to learn through the UMN. Adoption of digital games will lead to increased growth, greater engagement, and deeper inquiry.
Motivation in Games
Here’s a quick video about using games to drive real change:
Digital game based learning has been the subject of much research and has a solid pedagogical basis. Two main areas of research are motivation in DGBL and transferrability of knowledge. DGBL has been shown to improve learning and increase engagement.
Van Eck (2006) summarizes many other researchers when he states, “A majority of people believe that games are engaging, that they can be effective, and that they have a place in learning.” (p. 17) That games drive motivation has been clearly established. Turkay et al (2014), in a study about feedback in games being used as an educational tool, say, “feedback in the form of leaderboards can be motivating” (p. 9). They also state, “embedding player choice into a game [supports] engagement and motivation.” (p. 11). Habgood and Ainsworth (2011) explored intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation in games and discovered that intrinsically motivating games, defined as “games [that] deliver learning material through the parts of the game that are the most fun to play, riding on the back of the flow experience produced by the game and not interrupting or diminishing its impact” (p 173) has “benefits in terms of both motivation and learning outcomes.” (p. 202).
Shaffer (2006) investigated DGBL in terms of “Epistemic Frames” which he defines as “a mechanism through which students can use experiences in video games, computer games, and other interactive learning environments to help them deal more effectively with situations outside of the original context of learning.” (p.223). He found that “students can use experiences in video games, computer games, and other interactive learning environments to help them deal more effectively with situations outside of the original context of learning.” (p. 224) His study revealed that students can take knowledge they’ve generated through play and apply it to real work context.
Academic study of pedagogical aspects of DGBL has also yielded some best practices and guidelines for the adoption of DGBL. Puedenta’s (2014) SAMR model and Brom, Sisler and Slavik’s (2009) ALE framework offer some guiding principles.
The SAMR Framework developed by Puendenta (2014) describes four different levels of implementation of digital game based learning: Substitution, Augementation, Modification, and Redefinition. The highest level use is Redefinition defined as “Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable.” (p. 1) His framework describes practices for the adoption of any technology into the teaching curriculum, but easily applies to DGBL.
Brom, Sisler, and Bravik (2010) offer the Augmented Learning Environment (ALE) framework for adopting the use of games in the classroom. It’s central tenants are:
- Grounding the game content in everyday context, which helps with formulating learning objectives and offers students options for solving “nearly real-world problems”.
- Integration of appealing game play directly into formal lectures without compromising the learning or gaming aspects of the game; debriefing and classroom lectures are directly relevant to the game and partially take place in the game.
- Exploiting information-seeking behaviour, helping students to contextualise gaming materials with a real-word context and vice versa, enabling the transfer of knowledge.
- Creating supplementary materials and courses for teachers.
- Describing the learning environment in terms of what it visibly offers students and students: that is, in terms of affordances.” (p. 39)”
These guidelines are based on a case study of actual course implementation of a digital game: Europe 2044. They describe “the most important pedagogical feature of Europe 2044 is the intersection of the game space and the schooling space. They blend in the real environment in the classroom, unifying the gaming, learning, and teaching processes in the same time–space framework.” (p. 37)
My university houses a system of makerspaces (I will refer to this network as the UMN). The goal of the UMN is to “Inspire every [student] to Take a Risk, Make a Difference, and Be A Maker.”(http://beam.unc.edu/about-us) The UMN seeks to accomplish this through three paths: space, community, and course integration.
The UMN has three locations. Two currently operating; one opening in August 2016. The first space to open is housed in a branch library. This makerspace, which I will refer to as the Library makerspace or LM, is staffed by librarians and graduate student assistants. This space offers 3D printing, 3D scanning, sewing, electronic prototyping, and manipulatives for design thinking. The LM offers a series of workshops as well as one on one consultations. The LM collaborates with university faculty to create custom course content. While LM staff operate the 3D printers, all other equipment is directly available to users. Users must complete training in the form of reading standard operating procedures and watching short instructional videos in order to gain access to the sewing machine and the soldering iron.
The second UMN location to open is located in the art department (I’ll refer to this location as the art makerspace, or AM). The AM offers direct access to 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, a laser cutter, a 3-axis CNC mill, a miter saw, a track saw, and several woodworking hand tools. In order to use the AM, a student must first attend a basic safety orientation, fill out a registration form, and sign a waiver of liability. After completing these steps, a new user is only allowed to use hand tools. A user must complete additional training to gain access to more advanced tools like the woodworking equipment or the laser cutter. While the digital fabrication tools each have their own distinct training, the woodworking equipment is organized into two levels of access with a different training workshop for each.
The third UMN location, set to open in Fall 2016, is intended to be the central hub space (I’ll refer to this one as the Hub). The Hub will have similar equipment and policies to the AM, with the addition of electronic prototyping, a classroom space, and a large metalworking shop. Access, safety and training policies will be largely the same as at AM. The Hub is designed to be used both as instructional space for classes and as open shop space for regular users.
The UMN wants to do more than just provide access to equipment that would otherwise not be available: the UMN wants to build a community of makers. To help build this community, the UMN provides open hours at each location attended by full-time staff and part-time student assistants. The UMN builds community by engaging with users in workshops, open access hours and on specific projects. The vision of the making community is to allow and encourage users to educate each other and share their experience and skills with other less knowledgable users. The UMN wants to create an environment of collaboration where accidental encounters lead to collaboration and creation.
Areas for Improvement
The current system could be improved in two ways: making the training process more cohesive, and reaching more potential users through less intimidating workshops. The current training process is disjointed and unclear. This is in part by design as the UMN was reluctant to force users to learn machines or skills that they do not intend to use. The result, however, is that users do not know what they should learn next and when they finish their project, often stop coming to UMN spaces because they lack any reason to return.
Second, current workshop topics include introductions to 3D printing, 3D scanning, 3d modeling and Arduino (an electronics prototyping platform). New users often find these topics intimidating because digital manufactuing is a foreign concept to them: they often do not know what is possible or even where to begin. As a result, workshops are frequently poorly attended.
Incorporating Digital Games
The adoption of digital game based learning will improve the UMN’s participation levels, their short and long-term engagement, and provide increased motivation for UMN users to complete additional training. I invite the UMN to adopt game based learning in two different ways: the development of game-based workshops and the creation of a skill framework in the style of crafting mechanics in digital games. These two methods will engender greater engagement and reach a new set of potential users.
Game Based Workshops
Currently, workshops offered by the UMN are poorly attended. While they can easily accomodate 12 attendees, the UMN frequently sees only 3 or 4. As workshops are one of the UMN’s primary means of attracting new users, increasing attendence is a high priority. Digital games will boost attendence by attracting a user group that is intimidated by current workshop topics, and inspiring new users through self-guided exploration and play. Games like Minecraft and Terraria offer complicated systems for crafting and circuits that are easy to learn and map directly to the physical world of the UMN. They also allow for independent exploration outside workshops. Once a user has been exposed to the basics of Minecraft or Terraria, they can continue playing and learning on their own. They can come back to the UMN with added insight and new ideas.
A Sample Workshop – Simple Circuits through Minecraft Redstone
Minecraft is a wildly popular online game of exploration, discovery, and building. In Minecraft players can delve into the deep mines, caves and dungeons, explore massive worlds with diverse biomes, and build creative structures. Minecraft also features a fairly sophisticated system of automation and circuitry called redstone. Redstone blocks can transmit power, activate pistons, and detect states (a more comprehensive explanation of what Redstone can do can be found here: http://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Redstone_circuit). Redstone emulates the very basics of electronic engineering in a very approachable and non-intimidating way.
One Minecraft-based workshop start by presenting a series of examples of what redstone can do, followed by a series of challenges. Each participant will see an example behavior (a light blinking, a door closing, etc…) and then try to figure out the components and configuration necessary to create that behavior. Each user can move at their own pace and can consult with others nearby. After each challenge, the group will review one or two different solutions (solicited from the participants) before moving onto the next challenge. After completing three challenges (or as many as time allows), the facilitator of the workshop will show some of the same circuits created with actual electronic components, thus connecting the digital framework with real-world context.
Here’s a youtube video example of some Redstone challenges:
This workshop accomplishes three things: it introduces the basics of electronics, it encourages independent experimentation, and it creates and atmosphere of collaboration. Furthermore, it does all this while lowering the barrier to entry and potentially attracts a new group of users: those less intimidated by Minecraft than by actual circuits. This workshop reduces a complicated and daunting subject: electronics, to a playful game of challenges.
Framework for Training
Crafting has become a very popular feature in games, with games like Terraria, World of Warcraft, Don’t Starve, Minecraft, and Stardew Valley selling millions of copies. (Citation needed). The idea of collecting ingredients, processing them in some way, and then combining them has proven to be a very popular game mechanic. One feature of most crafting systems is a scaffold for skill progression: (e.g. a player has to first make something in wood, to learn how to make something better in metal.) I propose that the UMN adopt a similar framework.
Digital Games as a Model
This framework provides a clear path forward. From novice to expert, it is clear to see what skills each user has and which she has yet to acquire. This benefits the UMN in two disparate ways: engagement and assessment. Because there is now a clear path of what tool and skill comes next, each user will have external motivation to return to UMN locations and learn new skills. They will be able to compare their ‘level’ with their peers and compete to complete more advanced training. (citations about metagame and motivation)
Second this framework will help with assessment of the UMN’s performance in terms of which tools and trainings are more in-demand and which users are more likely to volunteer time to teach others. The difference between the number of users who have completed Woodworking Two and not Woodworking Three can be a strong indicator that Woodworking Three is too hard, offers skills that are not in demand, or should be reconsidered. Having different levels skill makes it easy to operationalize abstracts like engagement and buy-in. The UMN could set goals for each level and quickly compare year over year performance in terms of new users reaching each level. Additionally, the users with the highest level are likely to be the most active members of the UMN. These users can be recruited as volunteers, student employees, or focus groups for new services and equipment.
Brom, C., Šisler, V., & Slavík, R. (2010). Implementing digital game-based learning in schools: augmented learning environment of ‘Europe 2045. Multimedia Systems, 16(1), 23-41.
Habgood, M. P. J., & Ainsworth, S. E. (2011). Motivating children to learn effectively: Exploring the value of intrinsic integration in educational games. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20(2), 169–206. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2010.508029
Puendenta, R. (2014, September 24). SAMR and Bloom’s Taxonomy: Assembling the Puzzle. Retrieved from https://www.graphite.org/blog/samr-and-blooms-taxonomy-assembling-the-puzzle
Shaffer, D. W. (2006). Epistemic frames for epistemic games. Computers & Education, 46(3), 223–234. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.003
TED. (2010, March 17). Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dE1DuBesGYM
Turkay, S., Hoffman, D., Kinzer, C. K., Chantes, P., & Vicari, C. (2015). Toward understanding the potential of games for learning: Learning theory, game design characteristics, and situating video games in classrooms. Computers in the Schools, 31(1-2), 2–22. doi:10.1080/07380569.2015.890879