Getting a Handle on the Learning Lab
Welcome to the first post from the Learning Lab blog! I am excited to tell you about the amazing work that is happening at the Ville Cooperative, a grassroots organization that hosts a range of community initiatives, including the Learning Lab, a makerspace and urban farming centre. Despite serving a relatively small community, the Ville is a world leader in its community engagement initiatives, and a big part of the Ville is the Learning Lab and its many classes and workshops. The only problem is, how can you get the word out about an amazing community resource like the Ville and the Learning Lab? How can you keep it running smoothly for years to come under changes in staffing, participants and funding? I am hoping to help figure this out.
So here is some background. I was hired as a postdoctoral fellow at UNB in February of 2020 to contribute to the Learning Lab at the Ville in Marysville, New Brunswick. My position is supported by MITACS and the NBIF in partnership with the Ville. I am an artist, craftsperson, archaeologist, and inventor, and I received my PhD in archaeology in 2018. Part of my job is to understand the challenges facing the Learning Lab and to find solutions and insights, and as I go through this process, I will document and share what I have learned on this Blog.
The Learning Lab was conceived as a resource for community members to access space for building and making art and craft and as a forum for education and more sustainable living. Consisting of a wood shop, an art-and-tech room, and an agricultural room, the Learning Lab is set up for makers to move seamlessly through the process of designing, building, and growing without the constraints on space, materials, tools, and resources so often experienced in home workshops and in spaces dedicated to one kind of output only, like art or trade schools.
This makes the Learning Lab an ideal proving ground for prototypes and innovations. Members have access to—among other things—a 3D printer, a silkscreen set-up with four screen stations, an oversize printer, sewing machines, space for lots of art or crafting projects, and a wide range of woodworking tools and tables. The agriculture room offers another realm of possibility with its vermicomposting, classes and workshops on special kinds of gardens, and hydroponics, that—if space is an issue or resources are hard to come by in your neck of the woods—can be an important step forward in producing your own food.
The Learning Lab provides a venue for both those with a passion for making and designing and for those interested in social engagement, environmental protection, and justice. And while it may not seem to the naked eye that a garden centre or a workshop are about justice or community, the case has been strongly made that these resources are powerful tools for community engagement, self-empowerment, decreasing environmental harm, and better quality of life.
The maker movement has revolved around the idea that people (“makers”) can participate in their own technological and material landscape by learning the skills to code, solder, build, cast, print, sew, and/or design their own tools, either from scratch or to enhance existing things. Makers have been conceptualized in reaction to the idea of the “user,” a theoretical person sometimes thought of as naïve, helpless in the face of technology, and easily frustrated. In contrast, makers have been framed as a kind of user who knows what to do with poor design: hack it! In other words, makers are the users who, not content with the range of tools and accessories designed for them, take matters into their own hands. From the beginning, the movement has had overtones of sustainability, personal empowerment, and community building, especially for those who can’t afford their own workshop.
Community gardens and urban agricultural centres have a similar bent. Often a response to food insecurity, food deserts, and lack of engagement with nature, community gardens have emerged as empowering resources for communities and their members. Similarly, urban farming—beekeeping, vermicomposting, aquaculture, and lots of other small-scale agricultural projects—is a movement to increase self-reliance, reduce environmental degradation, develop self-empowerment and community engagement, and provide healthy ecosystems for bees, birds, and insects within the urban landscape. Urban agriculture centres, like The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, provide resources and education for people looking to expand their food and environmentally aware horizons.
As a result of this bent towards justice and empowerment, many spaces have developed specifically to address a social issue. The Saint John Tool Library was set up to allow people who may not have access to tools an opportunity learn the fundamentals of woodworking while decreasing environmental damage caused by the many batteries and electronics in the world of home woodshops. Similarly, the Catapult project, a woodshop and craft workshop, aims to give homeless Saint Johners an opportunity to learn new skills and get employed. Hayes Farm, a community farming centre in Fredericton, offers healthy and inexpensive food choices and educational opportunities to the community.
It is with this overview that I began to work at the Learning Lab. Accomplishing these kinds of community engagement is not without it challenges, however. Many people do not know what a makerspace is, nor how farming can be urban, as I have discovered when explaining my job to others. Also, many people are not aware of the resources around them, like the Learning Lab.
The first thing that needs doing is to get a better understanding of what the people of Marysville want out of the Learning Lab, and so I will be undertaking a study in the next few months asking community members about their opinions and needs. I am also continuing to develop programming that I will be talking about in coming blog posts. We suffered some setbacks because of the lockdown in March of 2020 and the subsequent restrictions, but we are looking at a range of online and socially distanced alternatives to conventional classes.
In the next few blog posts, I will be looking at the following subjects:
· The history and philosophy of makerspaces
· An in-depth look at the urban farming movement
· What can you do with a 3-D printer?
· A history of silkscreening
· Why makerspaces are mostly white men
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If you have a suggestion for what I should blog about in the coming months, please leave it below in the comments.