|The promise of "making"—that is, learning, experimenting, DIY, creation, reappropriation, or otherwise—has become a popular topic in human-computer interaction (HCI) research, and a subject of interest for public institutions like libraries and schools for their potential to engage the public in STEM-related learning, to build their confidence, and potentially inspire new career paths. However, embedded in the individualist ethos of these spaces are problems of inclusion: who counts as a maker, and what types of projects count as making. As a result, makerspaces can be uninviting to marginalized groups, and in this thesis I focus on women, specifically. Opportunities to improve equity in these environments by using technology exist, but run their own risks of amplifying inequities by porting in systemic biases as artifacts of the cultures in which they were produced.
In my thesis I address three main research questions: (1) What can we learn from gender-imbalanced maker groups in order to support the diverse needs of makers in STEM-focused environments? (2) What systemic barriers exist that prevent successful adoption of novel technologies to support the needs of diverse makers, and specifically women? (3) What ethical and methodological considerations do we have to take into account as human-computer interaction researchers when working to design, develop, or appropriate digital technologies with, in, or for maker communities? To address these questions, I conducted an ethnographic field study with diverse makers (Chapter 3), a systematic review (Chapter 4), and continuing research with makers in a post-COVID environment (Chapter 5).
The study presented in Chapter 3 was undertaken in a pre-pandemic world, when the default for maker groups was assumed to be large in-person gatherings. In that context, makers' needs coalesced around diversity in their goals contrasting to a narrow archetype of what makerspaces can or should offer. I also contribute a new understanding of what a makerspace even is, whereby such a space is not defined by a sign above the door, but by the presence of makers themselves.
Opportunities were identified to leverage virtual reality (VR) technology to address some of the unmet needs among makers, aiming to increase feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. With an eye towards increasing satisfaction and self-efficacy, I hoped this work would help to keep makers coming back to the space to keep developing their skills, confidence, and curiosity.
But: what happens when the makers are removed from the space? In response to public health restrictions, makerspaces worldwide suddenly became inaccessible. After having witnessed deep levels of personal investment and emotional connection within maker groups, I noted that belonging constituted part of makers' personal identities, moreso than whether they were actively making or not.
This called for a re-evaluation of the ends to which we might design new systems in VR. However, jumping from "building systems to engage in making activities" to "building systems to support social connectedness in the context of making" faces the same barrier that cannot be ignored, that is, that VR technology remains inaccessible for, inter alia, women, people of colour, and people with disabilities. Imposing the use of a system that in itself minoritizes people by rendering itself unusable would run against the grain of the feminist methodology underpinning this work. Thus, I conducted a systematic review to address a gap in HCI research around how VR research is designed, conducted, and reported in ways that systematically are biased against women.
Evaluating systems of production (through maker environments) and the objects produced within those value systems (VR technology itself) offers two ways to call into question the norms that, when invisible, can stand in the way of making progress towards improved equity.
As a reflection of the embedded and interdependent nature of this work, I lean on maker culture and re-appropriate one of the concepts I discovered through this work: the unfinished object, or UFO. I offer this methodological approach to researchers continuing community-based work with makers in order to overcome challenges faced in eliciting visions for more equitable futures, and for mapping opportunities for improved equity in makerspaces and virtual reality.