Virtual Reality: The Next Big Thing in STEM Makerspaces

Kai Frazier
October 27, 2022

The concept of a STEM makerspace isn't new. In fact, Thomas Edison's "invention factory" was established in 1876 to work on various inventions, including a carbon button transmitter, the first underground electrical system, and the founding of the Edison Electric Light Company. 

While STEM makerspaces have been around for a long time, the latest technological advancements have given digital makerspaces a more prominent place in society. From the top academic labs to 3D printers in local libraries, digital makerspaces are becoming the most significant trend in makerspaces and STEM. 

At Kai XR, we believe in the power of experiential learning with digital tools. Virtual reality has made significant strides in bridging the digital divide in classrooms around the world. We create 360° interactive virtual field trips for K-12 classrooms to help kids develop 21st-century learning skills and explore the world around them. 

So why is it so important to prioritize the development of STEM skills early? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment in STEM occupations will grow 10.8% in the next ten years. Further, STEM occupations offer over half the median annual wage compared to non-STEM professions. That wage gap is expected to increase over time. Essentially, STEM is the best way to have a stable, valuable career now and in the future. 

In this article, we'll dive into: 

  1. The relationship between the makerspace and education
  2. How makerspaces can support integrative STEM education
  3. The benefits of virtual learning
  4. How Kai XR can help

Let's explore the next big thing in STEM makerspaces! 

The Relationship Between the Makerspace and Education 

Makerspaces have become a popular trend in educational circles over the last decade. For example, MIT opened its FabLab in 2022, democratizing tools for students interested in making, learning, and sharing outside the classroom. These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant university without a makerspace. 

Now, K-12 education systems are evolving along with the changing landscape. As a result, more and more educators are incorporating tools and technologies that will better prepare students for the changing college and career environments. Virtual reality, makerspaces, drones, and robotics are just a few of the tools that have been added to the mix. 

This kind of instruction allows students to solve problems and have a heavier hand in their learning experience. Instead of students playing a passive role, the makerspace approach gives educators and students responsibility for participating in the lesson. Students are encouraged to participate actively through experimentation, collaboration, creative thinking, and problem-solving. 

Makerspaces have been proven to develop knowledge and skills in two key categories that drive success in adulthood:

Let's take a closer look at these critical areas of education and why they're essential. 

Makerspaces & STEM Education

Along with the rise of the makerspace has been the increased focus on integrative STEM education. Integrative STEM education: "draws on the interrelationships among four distinct disciplines and focuses on constructing curricular and pedagogical approaches that help students develop ways of thinking and solving problems grounded in purposeful design and inquiry." 

Those four distinct disciplines are: 

  1. Science
  2. Technology
  3. Engineering
  4. Mathematics

As noted at the beginning of this article, the intersection of STEM and makerspaces is not new. Instead, it has been a longstanding relationship that has resulted in several innovations that have had a global impact. 

In the early 1900s, research labs founded in the United States made way for inventions like broadcast media and electric refrigeration. Today, all top universities have makerspaces or hacker spaces where students can share tools to create, collaborate, and problem-solve. 

When learned together, integrative STEM education can be translated into a variety of careers. For example, students could one day have jobs in: 

When students harness the power of STEM concepts with the ability to collaborate and problem solve, the possibilities are endless! 

So, what is it about a makerspace that is primed for STEM exploration and experimentation?

A makerspace is a physical or virtual space where individuals can collaborate, solve problems, and create something new. They can make STEM learning more contextualized, authentic, and meaningful for students, because it presents a real-life scenario where they can explore concepts first-hand rather than through a lecture or textbook. This supports the principles of experiential learning, which focuses on learning by doing.  

The best discoveries happen when people have a flexible space to explore different possibilities!

Makerspaces & Skills Development

While a makerspace's ability to support STEM education is an important one, it's not the only benefit they provide. The nature of makerspace learning can also develop various related skills that will help students succeed in the world, no matter their career path. 

A makerspace is a safe place for students to take risks, learn from failure, embrace ambiguity, and understand their strengths as a maker or innovator. They improve student learning by developing skills, contributing to personal growth and engagement. 

The National Inventors Hall of Fame outlines significant benefits of makerspaces in education: 

  • Provides students with the opportunity to innovate
  • Creates real-world applications for abstract classroom concepts 
  • Teaches students how to take failure in stride
  • Exposes students to new opportunities they wouldn't get in a classroom 
  • Develops critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Builds a range of 21st-century learning skills 

In today's education systems, there are three major skill sets that educators focus on developing: 

  1. 21st-century learning skills 
  2. CTE skills
  3. Social-emotional learning 

Let's explore how makerspaces can support each!

21st-century skills have replaced literacy and numeracy skills. A lot of tech has been made to support literacy and numeracy skills. Rapid technological and telecommunication changes are shifting priorities away from math and literature towards skills with cognitive, social, and emotional foundations. 

Enter 21st-century skills:

  • Learning and innovation skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration
  • Information, media, and technology literacy
  • Life and career skills, such as adaptability, initiative, cross-cultural awareness, accountability, and leadership 

How can the makerspace support this kind of skill development? Let's say you have students working on a group project to create a diorama of a city of the future.

First, students must share their ideas. They need to communicate their concepts clearly, so that others can understand them. Those hearing the thoughts must think critically to see if there are any potential problems and if they have any solutions to offer. If the makerspace is hosted on a computer,  students will need to know how to use the computer and its tools to build the city. These small details of the project work together to develop critical 21st-century skills. 

CTE skills are competencies required for success in a specific field or occupation. Developing CTE skills aims to provide students with education related to their future careers. For example, a web developer must be able to apply logic to make different elements work together. Alternatively, a nurse must understand human anatomy to help a doctor set a broken bone. Rather than the tactical practice of learning how to code in HTML or how to apply the splint, CTE skills focus more on the theory and science behind the occupation. 

How can a makerspace facilitate the development of CTE skills? Let's look at an example.

If your makerspace has a 3D printer, you may instruct the classroom to create a prototype for a new product. Students will have to test their innovation and business skills while coming up with a product and learn how to use a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program to design the product for printing. The ability to innovate and operate CAD software can translate into various mechanical engineering vocations. Students can develop their problem-solving skills and apply them to a specific occupation when combined with their technical skills. 

Social-emotional learning in the classroom, also known as soft skills, helps students build and maintain positive relationships. Core competencies in social-emotional learning include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. This allows students to learn how to apply the technical skills they've developed, impacting the people and world around them positively. 

Educators can pair makerspace activities with social-emotional learning questions to help students reflect on their experiences and better identify the social and emotional impact of their project. Here are a few examples: 

  • Were there any parts of the project where you and your team had to compromise? How did that process go? 
  • How does the finished product make you feel? Proud? Excited? Disappointed? 
  • What are some things you'd like to improve on next time? 

When these three types of skills development are combined with STEM education, students are well prepared to enter the workforce. 

The Rise of Virtual Makerspaces

Makerspaces have been around for over a century, and its format has been transformed by technological innovations. CAD programs have replaced drafting tables; 3D printers have replaced PVC pipes and woodworking. Now, it's hard to find a makerspace that doesn't incorporate computer science and robotics.  

Virtual reality is among the major additions to makerspaces. 

Virtual reality has been used primarily in entertainment, marketing, design, medicine, education, and training since the early 1990s. It is also used for scientific visualization, industrial design, and engineering design, including product design, mechanical engineering, and architecture. But the rising popularity of virtual makerspaces and their ability to help students understand complex subjects has caught the attention of parents and educators. 

Hands-on, maker-centered learning experienced a significant disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, educators explored options that enabled students to engage in the same activities remotely. Virtual reality is a great way to bring science to life for kids in classrooms where they don't have access to real-world experiments and equipment.

And that's just the beginning of a long list of benefits of virtual learning.

The Benefits of Virtual Learning

As educational VR becomes more accessible and affordable, it's no wonder that many are turning to this technology as a resource for their students. Virtual reality makes possible experiences that were once impossible or impractical because of cost or safety concerns — like traveling to outer space or exploring an archaeological site on Mars — but it also allows students to experience complex phenomena.

There are countless benefits to virtual learning through VR field trips or digital makerspaces. For this blog, we'll focus on the following: 

  • Improves access and equity to technology 
  • Connects students to places and people separated by distance
  • Increases student engagement and understanding
  • Develops critical skills needed for the workforce
  • Provides a more accessible learning format for students with learning disabilities 

Virtual reality has the potential to bridge the digital divide in education. There has been a growing digital divide since the internet became publicly accessible. Underserved populations in cities and rural areas saw few technological developments, while other communities thrived. Virtual technologies have become more affordable in recent years. VR in school is now a viable, low-cost option to connect students with technologies they could not previously access. 

Virtual field trips can expose students to important people and places without traveling. In addition, VR field trips allow educators to widen the scope of their field trips without worrying about transportation or funding.

For example, through a virtual field trip, students can tour the White House while sitting in their Florida classroom. Another class in Arizona can learn about Egyptian Civilization by visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza. With a virtual field trip - not even the sky is the limit! 

Virtual learning increases student engagement, leading to a deeper understanding of complex topics. When students actively participate in education, they tend to develop a deeper understanding of concepts learned in the classroom. 

Virtual learning develops 21st-century, CTE, and social-emotional learning skills. We've already touched on how makerspaces can help build these skills. But it's worth noting that any virtual learning can have a positive impact. Because of the interactive nature of virtual learning, students quickly improve their collaboration and critical thinking skills. Through exposure to concepts from around the world, they also gain a global perspective that translates to more empathy and social responsibility. These are all critical skills needed in today's workforce. 

Finally, virtual learning provides a format where students with attention, processing, and social limitations can thrive. VR is flexible and can accommodate diverse learning styles. For example, students who have mobility restrictions can still participate in a virtual field trip. Those who are easily distracted during lectures can be more engaged in hands-on activities. Virtual learning opens up a whole new world of options for students who are otherwise faced with limitations that could hold them back. 

Kai XR: Bring a STEM Makerspace to Your Classroom

Virtual reality is the next big thing in education. Between virtual reality field trips and digital makerspaces, the opportunities to take your classroom to the next level are endless. 

Kai XR is a virtual reality learning platform that provides access to high-quality, 360° virtual field trips, and now, a virtual makerspace classroom! Inspired by the potential of virtual education, Kai XR was built by educators, dreamers, and technologists dedicated to inspiring the next generation of innovators. Through experiential learning, we believe students can learn how to build the future they want to see. 

Kai XR's Explore offers over 100 virtual field trips covering various topics. So even if students are learning about language arts or museum conservation, the use of technology can still trace back to STEM education. 

Since our founding in 2018, we've witnessed the rise of makerspaces in education. Inspired by the trend, we launched Kai XR Create during the summer of 2022. Kai XR Create is an educator-friendly drag-and-drop makerspace classroom that allows students to build virtual worlds. In addition, using the metaverse makerspace can teach students valuable STEM skills and social-emotional learning in school. 

(By the way, Kai XR Create is currently FREE! We're letting educators access our makerspace so we can get feedback on how to make it even better!) 

Virtual learning can prepare learners to engage in the work of scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians. So whether it's a makerspace or a virtual field trip, there's no denying the benefits of virtual learning for STEM education. 

 Are you ready to discover how Kai XR can transform your classroom? You can start by learning more about what we offer programs and schools. Then, schedule a demo to get started! 

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In memory of my sunshine, Ky(ra) G. Frazier. Love you to the moon and back.