Socrates Meets Steve Jobs: The Makers Movement in the Liberal Arts

By Cheyanne Cierpial

The liberal arts mission focuses on the concept of educating the whole person, rather than teaching a specific job skill set. Liberal arts students hone their abilities to think critically, ask vital questions, connect ideas, and communicate their process in a clear manner. These students are driven problem solvers. And while it is common to see these abilities put to the test in literature classes, philosophy panels, or presentations on economic theory, it should be known that this problem-solving mindset extends much further. It’s the inquisitive atmosphere of the liberal arts institution that has become a timely platform for the Maker’s Movement, the creation of spaces designed solely for the art of tinkering, exploring, and innovating. 

Equipped with 3-D printers, sewing machines, drones, laser cutters and more, makerspaces are popping up on college campuses across the nation. Schools like Case Western Reserve University, Davidson College, and Union College are just some of the few who have taken this community-based learning space and given their students new opportunities for collaboration. This hands-on tinkering isn’t just strictly for the STEM fields. The Maker’s Movement illustrates the power of interdisciplinary exploration, linking everything from engineering technology to the fine arts to the humanities. 

Students might learn electrical wiring, use the available software to animate short films, or work with writers to make storyboards. Young entrepreneurs can utilize this space to develop prototypes, test them, improve their design, and eventually go on to manufacture. Or taking a more service-oriented route, students might join forces with Enabling the Future, an organization that uses 3-D printed prosthetics to help those who need upper limb assistance.  

Take Davidson College in North Carolina, for example, and their makerspace, Studio M. Studio M’s Maker-in-Chief Brian Little explains it this way: “Making is a way of knowing, not just to think of the things you buy as finished objects but to understand the thinking that goes into them—the design, manufacturing, mechanical, and human cost behind them; to begin to think of the world as a made place. Because it is.” 

Drew Kromer, a student at Davidson, used the resources at Studio M to design technology to monitor the mood of the student body based on the continuous campus Yik Yak feed. Collaborating with Little and History professor Jakub Kabala, Kromer combined different technologies to convert the Yik Yak posts to text, analyze the text and assign a number on a scale between negative one and positive one, assign a color based on the rating, and broadcast the colors in the form of an LED light bulb. They placed this light bulb installation in the middle of campus, and throughout the day, students walking by could see just what type of environment their anonymous Yik Yaks were creating as a whole.

However, projects in makerspaces do not always need to be this complex or have a clear direction. Students should feel free to tinker, try, and test. For those less comfortable with the new technologies or advanced software in these spaces, schools like Davidson offer “Makers Mondays” featuring basic introductions to laser cutting and 3D printing or “Teardown Tuesdays” for students to dissemble a projector, sewing machine, or old computer. Sometimes, the act of building first requires the process of taking apart. 

Makerspaces are not simply an example of hands-on learning, but rather a model of students “actively pursuing their own learning, both in the classroom and independently,” as A Model for Maker Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts describes. 

In a Huffington Post blog, professors Christine Henseler and John Rieffel of Union College in New York write: “The goal of our holistic and integrated Maker Community is to materialize and connect doing with understanding and reflection, learning with value and knowledge building in context. In other words, we seek to emphasize the importance of any Maker to think about, consider, and integrate new knowledge about culture, society, history, diversity, language, literacy, ethics, and so on, in the act of creation.” 

Makerspaces allow for the alignment of liberal arts students’ active pursuit of knowledge with the innovative mindset of the technology-driven society that exists today—where Socrates meets Steve Jobs. 

Cheyanne Cierpial is a senior at Denison University majoring in English Literature and minoring in Psychology. Denison University is home to the Theta of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.