Dissertation Plans

As stated in my Self-Assessment and Reflection, I have been working in informal education for years. This has been a passion of mine that I didn’t know how to integrate into my computer engineering work. Luckily, at UMBC, I have been able to do work that perfectly combines all of my interests. Following, I present how I envision my dissertation to combine my interests into one cohesive project.

Main Topic

The focus of my dissertation will be on creating equitable and accessible makerspaces in community rec centers. The framing of work will be around design justice and aligning makerspace development decisions with the social justice movements in their surrounding communities.

Previous Work in this Area

Digital Fabrication for Assistive Technologies

Previous research has shown that consumer-grade fabrication methods (e.g., 3D printing) can improve AT development and production [1-4]. Despite this, the research also identified that current fabrication tools and processes are not inclusive of people without prior technical expertise and that without stakeholder involvement at all levels of fabrication, design, and implementation, important challenges in integrating these techniques into therapy and medicine remain [1, 4].

In the last few decades, several online communities of makers interested in creating customized ATs have formed [2, 5]. There have been successful outcomes within these communities, but previous research has also shown a tension between the priorities of hobbyists and makers and those of clinicians and therapists [6]. This can be described as a tension between “help where you can” and “do no harm.”

Other previous research has investigated educating PT students in 3D printing in order to allow them to create custom 3D printed solutions [3, 7]. It was difficult to adequately teach PT students the CAD skills required to create DIY-AT devices, however. A follow up study connected PT students, makers, and people with disabilities to create custom DIY-AT within the context of a PT classroom. This was done to leverage the skills of each stakeholder in order to reduce the amount of knowledge needed outside of their own domain. This proved to be effective. However, the iterative nature of digital fabrication is difficult to implement within a medical context. This led to end users not providing as much feedback as would be expected when co-designing custom AT. The complete disconnect from the space of the makers and lack of shared understanding of each other’s expertise led to multiple communication problems through the process, as well [4].

We have yet to discover how to make digital fabrication tools more accessible to individuals with disabilities. We have also not found a way to allow multiple experts (makers, clinicians, and people with disabilities) to easily collaborate, iterate, and communicate about their DIY-AT needs and goals. This project endeavors to begin developing an understanding of what is needed to facilitate development of low stakes AT in an accessible location. The utilization of a university makerspace was investigated as a potential solution due to the fact that universities often bring together experts of many disciplines within one location and was suggested as a possible solution in [4].

[4] is my previous publication in this field that I have extended since publishing.

Equity and participation in learning through making

The HCI community has been investigating participatory approaches to technology-rich learning, including through working with hands-on self-directed projects in the context of makerspaces or maker-based learning programs, for several decades (e.g., [8, 9, 10, 11]). These activities have been shown to engage a diverse population of learners and to increase technical and social skills in formal and informal learning environments [12-14]. Research has shown that participating in maker activities can have several positive learning outcomes, including technology self-efficacy [9, 15], technological awareness and confidence [16], and general and declarative knowledge of technical systems [17, 18]. Making is largely thought to be driven by learner interests [19] and open to all participants, including those who may not have prior experience with STEM disciplines or think of themselves as being good at science or technology [20], leading to an increase in learner agency [21] and overall STEM learning [22].

While makerspaces have been lauded as potential equalizers of STEM education for underserved youth since first introduced, research has shown that prevalent maker practices can be exclusionary and inequitable [23, 24, 25]. Specifically, researchers have pointed out that makerspace education often ignores the history of making in native, working class, and people of color’s communities, resulting in a lack of recognition of forms of making and creativity that do not follow prescriptive mainstream images of innovation [24, 25].This lack of recognition can result in challenges for underserved youth to see themselves as makers and assumptions by educators of a lack of interest in making within these communities [15]. Researchers also cite the basis of some of these issues in centering capitalistic values [25], with makerspaces historically catering primarily to the interests of middle-class white males with disposable income and time [24, 26, 27]. Therefore, while critics of making acknowledge its potential for engaging diverse populations and resulting in desired learning outcomes, they also posit that these successes are possible, only when equity is an explicit goal when designing makerspaces and maker-based learning programs [28-30], community members provide input into the content and format of the programs and serve as educators [31, 32], and when creating for the makerspace follows an assets-based approach that values and incorporates community and cultural assets [8, 33]. This ensures that the making that is already being done within the community is integrated and highlighted by the introduction of new technologies. These practices have been proven to be effective for encouraging involvement and increasing self-esteem for diverse populations, including women [34], ethnic minorities [35], and youth in urban contexts [33].

Another related HCI research direction is investigating participatory design approaches for creating learning experiences for youth, children, and adults [11, 36, 37-39] and creating innovative interactive systems used for learning experiences [10, 40, 41]. By extending the domain of Scandinavian Participatory Design from the workplace to learning contexts, this direction aims to support practice by “addressing the needs of learners in ways that learners can identify with, that teachers or facilitators find useful, and that are consistent with the culture of the community [36].” Key questions in this space are concerned with how to effectively incorporate direct stakeholder input into program designs and how to ensure findings are transferable to different sites.

Formal assessments in informal environments

Conducting quantitative assessments, such as surveys, of youth learning in informal learning environments has proven to be a difficult problem. Specifically, youth are resistant to the introduction of formal evaluation in these environments resulting in negative attitudes towards surveys preference for methods that require creativity and self-expression [42, 43]. Additionally, research indicates that assessments that focus on isolated skills or attitudes lead to systematic undermeasurement of learning since they do not view learning activities holistically and as accomplished by participants drawing on material and human resources in their environment [44]. Furthermore, previous research has recommended using observations to assess the level of excitement, how well youth are understanding the content, the conversations and social interactions in the space, and the youth’s reflections on the new concepts to assess learning outcomes [43, 45].

Despite ongoing efforts to develop more context-sensitive approaches to assessment, existing tools are not created to be used within community recreation centers or with an explicit focus on equity. In our study, we also aimed to combine multiple data collection methods to better understand program learning outcomes and identify context-sensitive, equity-focused assessment tools for measuring them in the future.

I have just had a paper accepted to the CHI 2023 conference in which I detail the outcomes from our first round of curriculum delivered in makerspaces in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. This paper highlights major issues in evaluating through surveys as well as proposes a model for implementing equity-based pedagogy within a community rec center space.

My Proposed Research Questions and Methodology

Moving forward, I would like to further evaluate the model presented in our publication on the first iteration of the rec-to-tech project. Baltimore City is currently in the process of opening a new rec center in the Cherry Hill neighborhood that will have a makerspace. They are currently working on staffing and logistical set up of this space. I feel it is the perfect space to investigate three things:

  1. Is the thematic model proposed from our intital iteration valid in this new context and what updates need to be made?
  2. Are padlets a successful format for generating youth feedback and data?
  3. And more generally, what are the barriers and facilitators to the process of setting up a makerspace in a community rec center?

To answer these questions, I propose utilizing an ethnographic approach. The main focus of ethnographies is “its focus on human society and culture” [46]. And culture here is defined as “the beliefs, values, and attitudes that structure the behavior patterns of a specific group of people” [46]. This method is approriate because I would be deeply studying and generating a “thick description” of the individuals and characteristics of one specific rec creation center. The main methods used would be participant observation within the space, semi-structured interviews with the staff, educators, administrators, and youth, and document review of any curriculum that is created or modified for the space. Another interesting research output would be artifacts generated by the space. Any use of the makerspace by the community for creating objects for personal use or economic reasons would be very interesting to study. The needs and interests gathered from my study would be shared with those in charge of the space to see how it affects the type of programming they offer within the space and to hopefully allow my study to benefit the individuals within the space. Baltimore City has had a historically difficult relationship with local universities. Because of this, I would ensure that my focus is not just on collecting data, but generating information and resources that actually benefit the members of the community that I am working with.


As I have already published two preliminary works on this topic, I am hoping to write and defend my proposal by the end of 2023. My currently proposed methodology is ethnography. Ethnography takes a long time and generates a huge amount of data. As I already have established relationships, that will not be an issue, but I am hoping to spend 6 months to 1 year working very closely with the Cherry Hill Rec Center as they establish their makerspace and programming. This means that I will not complete my data collection until winter or early spring of 2024. I am hopeful that I will then spend the bulk of 2024 analyzing my data and writing my disseration with a goal of defending in spring 2025.


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