What is: makerspace, hackerspace, Fab Lab, FabLearn?

What’s in a name?

In the past decade, the terms makerspace, hackerspace, and fablab have come on the horizon. These are new names for what people have always done—come together to fix things, make new things, and learn from each other.

These spaces support learning and doing in a way that redefines both traditional schooling and traditional manufacturing. Smart tools, rapid prototyping, digital fabrication, and computational technology combine with the global reach of the internet to share ideas, solutions to problems, and best of all, the actual designs of things you can make yourself.  These spaces are launch pads for a future where people of all ages can be agents of change rather than objects of change.

[“The best place to learn about making in education” – Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute]

In Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we use the term “makerspace” generically to describe these kinds of spaces, and also explain some of the history behind makerspaces, fablabs, and hackerspaces.

Here are some Google search trends on these terms:

Google Trends - Makerspace, Hackerspace, Fablab
Google Trends – makerspace, hackerspace, fablab – Jan 2004 – Dec 2016
Makerspace, hackerspace, fablabs interest by region
Makerspace, hackerspace, fablab – interest by region

What is…

  • Hackerspace – “Hacking” is both the action and belief that systems should be open to all people to change and redistribute for the greater good and often done for fun and amazement. It’s unfortunately recently gained the connotation of illegal and invasive computer activity, which was not part of the original meaning. Hackerspaces are more prevalent in Europe than the US (and apparently Australia, see the map). A hackerspace is typically communally operated. There are many models and no common set of requirements. Hackerspaces.org has a wiki with over a thousand active spaces listed.
  • Makerspace – Since MAKE magazine debuted in 2005, the word “making” has been adopted as a softer, safer alternative to hacking. This is especially true in K-12 schools, libraries, museums, and youth centers where the subversive aspect of “hacking” might be seen as negative or even criminal. You can see on the Google trends graph (above), that searches for the term “makerspace” started gaining momentum around 2013 as “hackerspace” started trending downward. “Makerspace” is now catching up with “fablab” (especially in the US). There is no single organizational body or rules about what a makerspace should be.
  • Fablab – Short for “fabrication lab,” fablab is a generic term, a nod to Fab Labs (see next) without formally joining the network. Even though the “fab” refers to digital fabrication, the activities in fablabs aren’t restricted to 3D printing and laser cutting. They run the gamut of physical and digital construction, using tools, crafts, and modern technology.
  • Fab Lab –  The non-generic use of the term refers to spaces and organizations who participate in a network run by the Fab Foundation led by Neil Gershenfeld and Sherry Lassiter of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. Neil Gershenfeld is the author of the 2005 book “Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication” that predicted much of the impact that personal fabrication tools would have on the world. As of October 2016, the Fab Lab network includes 713 Fab Labs worldwide. All Fab Labs have a common charter and specific requirements for space and tools including digital fabrication tools, milling machines, cutters, CNC machines, etc. Every Fab Lab is required to have free and open access to the public and participate in the network.
  • FabLearn Labs – Formerly known as Fablab@school, FabLearn is run out of the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLTL), a research group led by Paulo Blikstein within Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. These K-12 school-based labs, developed in collaboration with university partners internationally, put digital fabrication and other cutting-edge technology for design and construction into the hands of middle and high school students. The goal of FabLearn Labs is similar to the Fab Lab network, but with a focus on the special needs and practices that support K-12 education.

Other space names

  • Tool sharing co-operatives, clubs, and community workshops – The are an infinite variety of non-profit and commercial organizations offering community tool sharing, classes, or incubation space for all ages. They usually offer different kinds of fee-based membership packages, but even commercial spaces may offer some free access in the spirit of serving the local community. These spaces offer different configurations of equipment, some focusing on heavy power tools, some offering artistic tools and space, while others are more electronics and computer-oriented. They also organize around different principles including community support, job training, DIY workspace, after-school/summer youth activities, small business incubators, recycling, or art studio. Some are adult only, while others have activities for youth and families.
  • School – Don’t forget that there is a long tradition of hands-on learning spaces in schools variously called labs, studios, shops, libraries, and even classrooms! It doesn’t have to be a new space with a new name. Libraries don’t have to change their name to be a place where hands-on activities are as important as the books on the shelves. While a refresh is always good, a school makerspace should not mean throwing away books or closing the auto shop. There is incredible potential to be found in integrating these activities—and integrating the segregated populations they tend to serve.
  • Libraries, museums, community centers and other local organizations are embracing the makerspace concept, with modern technology updates to hands-on activities and discovery centers beloved by generations of young people.

What’s the difference? What’s best?

As you can see, the differences are mostly historical, with increasing overlap in the terms. There are so many different models, with different missions, organization structures, and audiences, that it’s difficult to pin it down.

When these spaces serve children, the term “makerspace” is more prevalent than “hackerspace” simply because it sounds safe and legal. A few years ago, “fablab” was slightly more widespread globally, but I believe that “makerspace” has overtaken it in popularity. In any case, there is little difference between the generic use of fablab and makerspace. Makerspaces are now found in many K-12 schools, colleges/universities, libraries, museums, and community organizations. There is no special list of required tools, nor do makerspaces have to belong to any organization.

This looseness has pros and cons, of course.

Flexibility sets a low bar to entry

The benefit of a looser definition of makerspace is that it can be more inclusive and flexible. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or even have a special space. Anyone can have a makerspace; any place can be a makerspace. And as we claim in our book, Invent to Learn, every classroom should be a makerspace, where children make meaning, not just ingest facts to prepare for tests.

But while one makerspace may be a fully stocked industrial warehouse of cutting edge digital fabrication equipment, another is a box of craft materials, and others are everything in between. How do we even talk about, much less come to consensus about what works? How do we communicate best practices or any practices, for that matter? If everything and anything can be a makerspace, what is the value?  What can we point to and say is special and different? We just don’t want to rename spaces and do nothing else. If “makerspace” comes to mean any space where kids touch something other than a pencil, then it means nothing.

Commonality provides context

One benefit of the formal Fab Lab model is that every space has similar tools. When they share information, plans, and processes, there is a better chance that it will make sense in other spaces. There is an expectation that every Fab Lab will participate in the network, learning and growing together while maintaining individual differences. This creates strong ties between spaces and a strong identity for the participants. There are events and opportunities for members like the Fab Lab conferences and Fab Lab Academy which offers credit and diplomas through nodes of the Fab Lab network worldwide. They can participate in global efforts like building sustainable wireless internet infrastructure, fabbing solar houses, and tracking global environmental data.

The FabLearn Labs have a similar model focused on K-12 makerspaces, with some requirements that create a cohesive network, but local flexibility for groups of schools such as the Denmark network.

Money required… for now

The downside of the Fab Lab requirements is that not every organization can afford the full list of tools. Since the Fab Lab charter requires open public access, they can’t charge membership fees. It’s a constant challenge to keep the doors open, the lights on, and to maintain staff and equipment. Some Fab Labs are associated with local universities, community organizations, or foundations that assist with the financial aspect, but others just get by. There is no doubt that money can be a limiting factor.

But this is just Fab Lab 1.0. The longer term vision, Fab Lab 2.0, is that a Fab Lab should be able to  make a Fab Lab—but that is still in the future.

Global Fab Lab network – there are lots of them.

As with most things, there is no one right answer. Or rather, the right answer is the one that works for you and your community.

Networks, nodes, and identity

All of these space names imply similar ideas, and in fact, many spaces identify with multiple missions. You will find makerspaces listed on the Hackerspaces.org website and many Fab Labs that have close partnerships with K-12 schools. There are many spaces that create their own name in the spirit of their unique mission.

The first Fab Lab established off the MIT campus was the South End Technology Center in Boston. The center serves the community with low cost technology training, but also has  innovative youth-led, youth-taught programs. The Youth Education Director at SETC  is Susan Klimczak, who is also a Senior FabLearn Fellow and shares her expertise with educators around the world. This is just one example of how spaces can embrace multiple identities and belong to  multiple networks to the benefit of all.

I don’t mind that there are many names for the spaces and experiences that people are having. It reflects the way people really learn, in unique and personal ways. There is no reason that every learning space, including the name, should not be unique and personal as well!

Learn more about making the most of your space – no matter the name in Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

[“The best place to learn about making in education” – Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute]

Coding or programming?

In recent years, it’s become popular to call the act of programming computers “coding.” Some people claim that there are differences, that there are no differences, that it depends on the level of the language used, or that coding implies informality and therefore is less thoughtful or skilled than programming. Wikipedia seems to be trying to parse that difference in its definition of computer programming.

My personal experience being in software development over the time this vocabulary shift happened is that both the act and the terms slowly merged. When I started programing (back in the stone age) HTML and websites did not exist. My job title was software engineer and my job was programming computers. The term “coding” simply didn’t exist.

Programing a computer meant designing algorithms and creating the machine instructions that would react to the real world, do complex math or data manipulation, and output results. This applied to programming jet navigation software or programming games. (And I did both!)

After the web and HTML appeared, people were hired in technical positions to make websites. HTML is a markup language, not a programming language. HTML “marks up” the text, just like a human editor does, and controls how text is displayed, like making certain words bold. Way back when, it was pretty simple and making websites was called scripting or coding.

You programmed computers—you coded websites. I can’t say that in EVERY job in every industry this was true, but in my world at that time this was a big distinction in hiring, job descriptions, and pay.

As time went on, websites and the languages used to create them became more complex. Websites are no longer passive,  simple text manipulation. The line between the network and computer became less distinct, and the functions, tools, and practices merged.

There was never one day when people said, OK, coding now equals programming, it just happened. Coding or programming? Whatever you choose, it’s a vocabulary shift that is here to stay.

What’s new for 2017!

Coming soon –

FETC (Orlando) – 2 workshops, 2 sessions and a breakfast keynote for FAME (Floria Association for Media in Education) Jan. 25-27.

Educon 2.9 (Philadephia) – What the E? A Modern Understanding of Engineering in STEAM. Jan 27-29.

EdTech Teacher Innovation Summit (San Diego) – Design, Making, PBL and Leadership (Feb 7)

And soon after that – Victoria (Australia), Hong Kong, Calgary, San Francisco, Denver, Barcelona, Denmark, and who knows what else!



Going to ISTE in San Antonio! See you there.

I’m excited to have several accepted sessions at ISTE, the International Society of Technology in Education.  It will be in San Antonio June 25-28, 2017. Hope to see many old friends and new!

Make It, Wear It, Learn It

  • Monday, June 26, 10:30–11:30 am CDT (Central Daylight Time)
  • Building/Room: (specific location available in May)

Before You Build a Makerspace: Four Aspects You Must Consider

  • Wednesday, June 28, 9:00–10:00 am CDT (Central Daylight Time)
  • Building/Room: (specific location available in May)

Everybody Wins When Everybody Codes  – with Jane Krauss

  • Monday, June 26, 9:00–10:00 am CDT (Central Daylight Time)
  • Building/Room: (specific location available in May)

Learning to Code: Are block or text-based languages best?

Learning to code with Snap!Many people assume that graphical, or block-based interfaces for programming are a “baby step” in learning to code. Not true! This article, written by a software developer helps dispel that myth and explains why graphical programming languages are “real” programming.

From: TechAge – Graphical vs Text-Based Coding for Kids. Read the whole article! But here’s the summary:

  • Graphical vs textual isn’t really that important an issue.

  • It’s whether a particular language allows your child to do what they want to do in a way that’s efficient and enjoyable for them.

  • Start with what they want to make and find a good language for that which is suited to their expertise level and the way they think.

  • It’s a myth that adults don’t use graphical languages. They do.

This is a good article to share with parents who are pushing back on learning to code with Scratch and arguing for “real” programming languages like C++.

I’m in favor of this functional argument for learning to code. The best language is the one that does the job. If the job is to “mess around” with some of the big ideas of programming, then graphical languages do that well. The argument that we should teach children “real” programming languages used in the “real” world of work falls flat when you consider:

  • There are many, many different kinds of languages used in the real world.
  • Today’s languages will not be tomorrow’s languages.
  • Just because a language is used by software developers doesn’t make it a developmentally appropriate language for learning to code.
  • There is lots of coding done in the real world outside of software development. Every area, from history to biology to music production has languages that are specific to the field.
  • Last but not least, the experience of coding is about acquiring mental models of computing that meet your personal needs and interests, not about getting a job in the future. (Or at least that should be true.)

For more information about a variety of graphical, or block-based programming languages that support learning to code, see The Invent To Learn Guide to Block Programming.

FabLearn Fellows – the start of a new journey

fablearn fellows
Some of the FabLearn Fellows

It’s been a busy few months! I’ve been traveling a lot, speaking, trying to write, and last but not least, working with the new cadre of 20 FabLearn Fellows for 2016/2017. This is a continuing role for me–I was the principal advisor to the 2014/2015 cadre. I’m so thrilled to be starting out with a new group, and even more thrilled that many of the 2014 Fellows are continuing on in the role of Senior Fellows.

I just posted a roundup of their first blog posts – getting the exciting news,  reflections from the FabLearn conference, resources, and some confessions!

Please read about these amazing folks, and subscribe to their blogs,  follow us on Twitter using the hashtag #FabLearn, or follow all the FabLearn Fellows on this Twitter list.

Podcast – Exploring the Maker Movement in Canada

Robert Martellacci from MindShare Learning Report and I discuss the impact of the maker movement in Canadian schools (and the world) in this podcast. It’s only 15 minutes long – check it out!

Check out the newsletter exploring the maker movement, makerspaces, and more.mindshare learning e-newsletter maker movement

Makerspace on a shoestring? Yes, but…

Me waving my hands at my makerspace startup workshop at FETC earlier this year

One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is about budgets for educational makerspaces.  We are doing this on a shoestring, is that OK? We don’t have any money, is it still worth doing?

My first reaction is typical, I think – of course go for it! No one should be prevented from having a great hands-on learning experience because of lack of funds. There are lots of things that can be repurposed and borrowed. In fact, recycling is a hallmark of the “maker mindset.” Doing more with less is a worthy engineering constraint that develops ingenuity and practical skills.


However, I think there is a “yes… but” that should be understood. When educators are trying to change culture and practices in an organization, it matters that you acknowledge the size of the shift you are trying to accomplish. A bigger shift requires a bigger and more explicit commitment, and having a budget is a visible and commonly understood sign of commitment.

Whether it’s wanting STEM courses to be more inclusive or shifting teaching practices to be to more project-based, it’s about how far you want to go from where you are. You want big changes? Do big things. Of course, it’s not always about money. Your commitment might be towards long-term professional development, but that’s a commitment of time, an even more precious commodity.

But wait, there’s more!  – Want to hear more about making, makerspaces, design, and STEM? Come to FETC in January – I’m leading two workshops and two sessions! 

PBL Gets a “Make”-over: Supercharging Projects with Maker Mindsets and Technology

Maker technology plus PBL

Schools around the world are embracing the idea of authentic hands-on technology-rich projects for students that support all subject areas. Students say these project-based learning (PBL) experiences are powerful and engaging. Teachers agree!

But often there seems to be no time to integrate these experiences into the classroom. Curriculum is overstuffed with facts and assessment tests loom large. How can teachers take the time for “extras” like in-depth projects? When do busy teachers have time to learn about technology that is ever-changing? Several recent trends combine futuristic technology from the maker movement with design thinking – creating experiences that engage and inspire learners in areas that integrate well with curricular expectations.

PBL + Maker

Maker technologies like 3D printing, robotics, wearable computing, programming, and more give students the ability to create real things, rather than simply report about things. They provide onramps to success in STEM and other subjects for students who are non-traditional learners. Students are empowered by mastering difficult things that they care about, and supported by a community that cares about their interests.

These opportunities are not just good because it’s about getting a good grade, but it’s about making the world a better place with technology that is magical and modern. 3D printing is a fantastic learning opportunity because students can work in three dimensions, making geometry and 3D coordinate math come alive. But that’s not all – it’s literally making something out of nothing. It transcends getting the right answer by adding creativity, complexity, and best of all, you get a real thing in the end. For some students, this makes all the difference.

Look for ways to

  • Introduce challenges that are open-ended
  • Solve real problems (student-designed rather than teacher-assigned)
  • Use an iterative design methodology
  • Allow time for mistakes and refinement – there should be time for things that don’t work the first time
  • Support collaboration with experts in and out of the classroom

Maker mindset

Another aspect of the maker movement is the “maker mindset.” Similar to a growth mindset, this is a personal trait valued by makers world-wide. Like MacGyver, the TV show about a tinkering crime-fighter, the maker mindset is more than just persistence. The maker mindset is about being flexible, thinking on your feet, looking for the unconventional answer, and never, ever giving up.

It’s a mistake to think that you can teach students persistence about tasks they don’t care about. That’s not persistence, that’s compliance. When the classroom is about invention and making real things, persistence becomes personal.

Students who experience success on their own terms can translate that to other experiences. Frustration can be reframed as a needed and welcomed step on the path to the answer. Students who figure things out for themselves need teachers to allow a bit of frustration in the process. In the maker mindset, frustration is a sign that something good is about to happen. It’s also an opportunity to step back and think, ask someone else, or see if there is another path. This may be a role shift for teachers who are used to answering student questions quickly as soon as they hit a small speed bump.

Luckily, with maker technology, it changes so rapidly that no one can be an expert on everything! In fact, this rapid evolution may make it easier to adopt the attitude of “if we don’t know, we can figure it out.” This attitude is not only practical, but models the maker mindset for students.

Adding maker technology and the maker mindset to the well-researched and practiced methods of project-based learning is a winning combination! Maker + PBL = Engaging learning opportunities for modern students and classrooms.

Future of Education Technology Conference Blog (crossposted) Article By FETC 2017 Speaker, Sylvia Martinez


sylvia martinezSylvia Martinez is the co-author of the book often called the “bible” of the classroom maker movement, “Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

To learn more about supercharging PBL with maker mindsets and tools at Sylvia’s FETC workshops or sessions click here. (Get a discount on registration!) FETC is in Orlando, Florida in January, 2016.