Makerspace at Ecsite 2017


Earlier in June, I joined friends and colleagues from science centers and museums around the world to create a pop-up makerspace at the ECSITE (The European Network of Science Centres and Museums) conference in Porto. This was our fifth year of building an environment at ECSITE to engage conference participants in the tinkering process. This hands-on experience leads to great conversations and discussions about the possibilities for expanding making and tinkering to new settings. This year there were challenges and surprises along the way, but it was amazing to collaboratively transform a blank corner of a room into an active, playful, busy makerspace in just three days.

The day before the conference started, we led a pre-conference workshop on developing tinkering activities. This was a great chance to go more in depth with a self-identified group of tinkering enthusiasts before the official conference started. We used Mitchel Resnick’s creative learning spiral as a metaphor for activity development and together we went through several cycles of imagining, playing, sharing and reflecting around the theme of circuits.


After the day long workshop, we headed down to the business bistro hall, where a corner was reserved for the makerspace. We immediately started working on building shelves to display projects, arranging materials and tools so that they were easily accessible for workshops and creating a flashing, blinking welcome sign for the space.

We also started installing a large strawbees MEGA sculpture in the center of the space. We hoped that this installation would grow over time as we added electronic creations over the course of the three days.

OpoLAB, a makerspace and fablab in Porto, helped out by installing a lasercutter and other digital tools. They also provided sturdy collaborative working tables, a must for tinkering activities. Each year we’ve had great local help which highlights the importance of museums and science centers collaborating with outside artists and makers.

The environment of the business bistro space was pretty noisy as we were in the middle of a bunch of quicker demo experiences in other booths. While frustrating, these challenges are similar to many tinkering studios and makerspaces in museums in the middle of a busy exhibit floor. The makespace gave us the chance to show how intentional spaces, collaborative working environments, playful installations and flexible walls can help to create a more purposeful space, while at the same time highlighting the importance of creature comforts like good sound and lighting. At the end of set-up day there was still a lot of work to do, but we hoped that with a good start, the space would continue to evolve over the course of the conference.


One of our first sessions in the makerspace was experiments with circuit boards from several different science centers who have been developing extensions to this classic tinkering activity. This was a great physical example of how many different places all put their own individual twist. There were a few new parts for all of us and participants got to see that there’s not just one way to do it.

As the first day progressed and the rest of the business bistro filled with people, the sound level became challenging. Amos, Jon and others tinkered a possible solution by building cardboard ears that evolved through iteration to extreme levels.

Several sessions centered around the goal of having different variations around a theme. I thought that the recycled materials workshop was a great example of this idea. Educators from several different science centers showed projects that included remixed barbies, remote controlled cars, dissected CD drives and linkages made out of ironed plastic. 

On the second day of the conference, Carmelo, Stefano and Joao competed the arduino powered paper circuit sign. They turned it into a version of the old exploratorium exhibit "don't push that button" and Carmelo programmed some cool digital sound effects. It was great to have projects that we could be collaborating on and experimenting with as well.

Other sessions gave a first glimpse of new advances in the world of tinkering. The Tinkering Studio, LEGO foundation, and MIT media lab showed new experiments around computational tinkering.

At the end of the second day we held a social session where people could drop in and make wearable technology with LEDs, cardboard, and a wide variety of decorative materials. Sessions like this really blurred the lines between facilitators and participants as it felt much more like a group building session.

One of my favorite things about the space was that over the course of the conference, people came by to fix things, borrow materials and make props for other sessions. Mikko dropped by to fix his shoe and Brad stopped in first thing in the morning on Saturday to construct a deerstalker hat for his star turn as Sherlock in a mystery session later in the dat.

It was great to see other sessions, like the pub quiz, incorporate making into the mix. While I think it’s nice to have a physical hub for workshops and installations, its great to see how the tinkering spirit can start to be infused throughout the conference.

And finally for the last session, we got to try something else new. We invited four experts to share qualities of their makerspace and then use that list to reflect on our pop-up environment at the conference. We heard from participants who joined in multiple sessions over the course of the conference and together we identified and shared the things that worked well and things to improve for next time.

While there were some challenges with the location of the space and the sound levels, I think that all of us involved in the planning process felt a sense of pride in turning a empty space into a living breathing workshop. At one of the last sessions, there was a wide variety of small and large scale activities that contributed to the playful and engaging environment.

Once again it was great to get together with friends and build out this pop-up makerspace for our colleagues. We introduced people to the idea of making in museums and catalyzed others who had already been testing out tinkering activities and environments. already Can't wait until next year and the next evolution of the ECSITE makerspace!

Ryan Jenkins