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Equity in the Making Research Lab developing virtual reality makerspace

The Equity in the Making (EITM) Lab, a research lab within the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), is working to develop a virtual reality (VR) makerspace lab. Led by Maggie Melo, an assistant professor at SILS, the EITM Lab conducts research at the intersection of critical making, inclusion and equity, and information behavior.

About the EITM Project

Currently in its second phase, the Equity in the Making: Investigating Spatial Arrangements of Makerspaces and Their Impact on Diverse User Populations project is funded by a $715k NSF grant awarded to Melo in 2020. The focus of the project is to learn more about how to foster equity and inclusion for underrepresented students within makerspaces.  Through the new VR makerspace, the lab will conduct a study to capture real-time reactions, thoughts, and impressions of underrepresented students entering a makerspace for the first time.

“What we are seeing is that usually students from these underrepresented communities will walk up to a makerspace and turn away at the threshold,” Melo said. “The virtual reality makerspace will allow us to collect real-time data that captures students’ reactions, their feelings, and their thoughts at the threshold. There are these gut reactions that students are making to determine whether they enter the space or not.”


SILS Professor Francesca Tripodi
A 3D rendering of the EITM VR makerspace.


Those “gut reactions” are exactly what the EITM team plans to document within their study with the intention that these instant responses can provide insight as to how and why unrepresented students decide to enter makerspaces or not. In the larger conversation on STEM equity and representation, the research project will hope to pinpoint ways to adapt makerspaces to be more accessible and inclusive for underrepresented students.

What are makerspaces?

Fundamentally, Melo describes library makerspaces as, “a collaborative learning space for students to extend their research through the use of various technologies and equipment.”

Melo opened a makerspace for the EITM Lab in Manning Hall in 2021. It features technology such as 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, soldering stations, VR devices and more. The lab is populated by students creating with fabrication tools and exploring data-centric systems. In 2022, the lab will support summer STEM outreach programs for school-aged children in the Triangle.

“Libraries are often thought about as book repositories where one would go to read books or articles,” Melo said. “But what we’re also seeing is that, not only are students consuming information, but they are also turning to libraries to create visualizations and artifacts for their research.”

Thus, makerspaces foster a more hands-on experience for students to test and tangibly ponder learned information, serving as a reflection of the current academic needs and research interests of students, according to Melo.

How will the VR makerspace be created?

Horizon Productions, a local media production agency, is working with Melo and the EITM Lab to develop the VR makerspace environment. By interviewing 17 makerspace leaders across the UNC system, the EITM team determined what characteristics and elements will be included in the design.


SILS Professor Francesca Tripodi
A mockup of the EITM VR makerspace.


“What you will see in the VR environment, from the layout to the colors to the equipment, is a direct reflection of the question that we asked all 17 leaders: What are the defining features of a makerspace?” Melo said. “We wanted a 360-degree rendering of what they thought it was, so we could put it in the virtual reality makerspace.”

To conduct the study, the EITM Lab will recruit student participants from the UNC – Chapel Hill campus that identify with any marginalized identity. Melo anticipates beginning pilot studies in Spring 2022.

After finalizing the study, Melo and her team members aim to open the VR space up to other researchers to learn more about makerspaces and how to make them more equitable environments.