Maggie Melo, Assistant Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), has been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study how the physical and affective characteristics of makerspaces encourage or inhibit participation by students from marginalized communities.
The NSF CAREER award will provide more than $715,000 in funding over five years to support the project, titled “Equity in the Making: Investigating Spatial Arrangements of Makerspaces and Their Impact on Diverse User Populations.”
According to Melo’s grant proposal, as makerspaces have grown in popularity and importance at universities across the U.S., educators have struggled to attract users from marginalized undergraduate communities, particularly Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).
Melo believes a student’s first impressions of a makerspace can significantly affect their attitude and future behavior.
“When you’re visiting a university makerspace, it isn’t uncommon to see students stop at the door, peer inside the room, and within a matter of moments, walk away,” Melo said. “This interaction may seem banal, but it has profound implications for makerspace educators as they strive to engage with students from diverse backgrounds.”
Through interviews, surveys, and naturalistic experiments conducted in both physical and virtual reality (VR) environments, Melo and her team will seek to develop a better understanding of the everyday life information seeking (ELIS) practices that students perform when deciding whether to use a STEM-rich learning environment like a makerspace.
The research will evaluate both macro features, such as the paint color of the walls, the arrangement of furniture, and the organization of various tools and technologies, as well as micro details, such as the background music, lighting, projects on display, signage, and decorations (e.g. laser-cut Star Wars fighter jets hanging from the ceiling).
Melo will be working closely with Carolina’s BeAM, a network of makerspaces that serves approximately 4,000 students during the academic year. Through this partnership, Melo will re-design the training curricula for staff members with attention to equity and inclusion. She and the BeAM team will also pilot a re-designed makerspace that embodies key findings from the research program.
In edition to publishing through open access venues, Melo plans to circulate an open-source VR makerspace simulator for communities, STEM educators, and administrators to leverage for their own design and re-design efforts. She also intends to work with BIPOCand women-owned businesses to develop the necessary tools for the project.
Melo joined the SILS faculty in 2018 after completing her PhD at the University of Arizona, where she co-founded and operated an R1 makerspace for over four years. Her NSF-funded project will support two doctoral student research assistants.