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Negotiating Tensions of Autonomy and Connection in Makerspace Cultures: A Qualitative Examination of a University's Makerspaces

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Making, Hacking, and Extracurricular Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Megan Tomko Georgia Institute of Technology

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Megan E. Tomko is a Ph.D. graduate student in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology under the guidance of Dr. Julie Linsey. She completed one semester in her graduate studies at James Madison University with Dr. Robert Nagel as her advisor. Her B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering is from the University of Pittsburgh where she also worked as a Field Telecommunications Intern for three consecutive summers at EQT, a natural gas company headquartered in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. Megan’s research interests correspond to identifying ways to teach students how to become better designers and learners through creative and non-traditional means.

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Julie S. Linsey Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr. Julie S. Linsey is an Associate Professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technological. Dr. Linsey received her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas. Her research area is design cognition including systematic methods and tools for innovative design with a particular focus on concept generation and design-by-analogy. Her research seeks to understand designers’ cognitive processes with the goal of creating better tools and approaches to enhance engineering design. She has authored over 100 technical publications including twenty-three journal papers, five book chapters, and she holds two patents.

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Robert L. Nagel James Madison University

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Dr. Robert Nagel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering at James Madison University. Dr. Nagel joined the James Madison University after completing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. He has a B.S. from Trine University and a M.S. from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, both in mechanical engineering. Since joining James Madison University, Nagel has helped to develop and teach the six course engineering design sequence which represents the spine of the curriculum for the Department of Engineering. The research and teaching interests of Dr. Nagel tend to revolve around engineering design and engineering design education, and in particular, the design conceptualization phase of the design process. He has performed research with the US Army Chemical Corps, General Motors Research and Development Center, and the US Air Force Academy, and he has received grants from the NSF, the EPA, and General Motors Corporation.

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James Deverell Watkins


Melissa Wood Aleman James Madison University

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Dr. Melissa Aleman (Ph.D. University of Iowa) is Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University and has published research using qualitative interviewing, ethnographic and rhetorical methods to examine communication in diverse contexts ranging from aging families to university campus cultures. She has advised undergraduate and graduate students in ethnographic and qualitative interview projects on a wide-range of topics, has taught research methods at the introductory, advanced, and graduate levels, and has trained research assistants in diverse forms of data collection and analysis.

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For engineering students, the culture and development of university makerspaces is highly driven by tensions of independence and connectedness between and among students and faculty. These tensions are a result of the power dynamics and perceptions pertaining to engineering students’ relationships with those of authority, such as faculty and other engineering students. While makerspaces seek to foster a feeling of autonomy and create an educational environment that inspires creativity and collaboration, there remain underlying tensions that constrain students’ abilities to take full advantage of the resources that are available to them. Such tensions and their impacts are not easily measured through quantitative research methods. This study used ethnographic methods of participant observation as well as unstructured and semi-structured interviews over the course of two years in university makerspaces at a large comprehensive public East coast university in order to investigate the educational tensions that characterize university makerspaces for engineering students. To do so, we trained one graduate researcher and two undergraduate researchers in ethnographic methods and analyzed their field notes and transcripts over the span of two years through qualitative processes of inductive analysis. For this paper, we examined patterns and themes related to independence and connectedness as it corresponded to engineering students’ relationships with other students and faculty. This research introduces the emerging themes regarding how students negotiate tensions of independence and connectedness with faculty and other engineering students in and around makerspaces through managing strategies of delegating tasks, maintaining accountability, reframing alliances, choosing connection as preferred operational mode, and segmenting behaviors. Further, our analysis reveals how these tensions emerge between faculty and students to create an engineering identity for the students. Finally, we frame the different meanings of independence and connectedness in university makerspace cultures and discuss the implications for the design of makerspaces that cultivate educational experiences that enable students to successfully manage these tensions.

Tomko, M., & Linsey, J. S., & Nagel, R. L., & Watkins, J. D., & Aleman, M. W. (2017, June), Negotiating Tensions of Autonomy and Connection in Makerspace Cultures: A Qualitative Examination of a University's Makerspaces Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28699

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