Through BUILD-IT’s support Makerspaces are expanding within Vietnam’s public universities

In the early 2000s, fast-moving entrepreneurs built makeshift prototyping labs, coined makerspaces, in basements and garages across North America and Europe. Makerspaces are multi-functional workshops that allow makers to use various tools to prototype innovations. Worldwide makerspaces have evolved into both businesses and learning spaces, that bring the benefits of the sharing economy to engineers and inventors. Over the last five years, the USAID BUILD-IT alliance guided the Maker Movement from the fringes of the start-up ecosystem into Vietnam’s leading public universities.

In Vietnam, early adopters of the Maker Movement opened privately run fabrication labs, often called Fab Labs, in the country’s larger cities. These Fab Labs served Vietnam’s growing start-up ecosystem and provided STEM programming for children. As private companies, the Fab Labs struggled to pull innovators to the spaces and a number of early Fab Labs closed soon after opening. Despite these early efforts, for the Maker Movement to grow in Vietnam it would need to take root in the country’s large public education system.

Beginning in 2016, the USAID Building University-Industry Learning and Development through Innovation and Technology (BUILD-IT) Alliance, implemented by Arizona State University, intervened to support the Maker Movement in Vietnam. USAID BUILD-IT is mission-driven to support the adoption of a world-class model for innovative technology and engineering higher education in Vietnam. Understanding the role makerspaces have in world-class teaching and learning, USAID-BUILD-IT initiated the Maker Innovation Space Network to mobilize public-private partnerships to develop Maker Innovation Spaces within Vietnamese public institutions and train faculty to integrate the spaces into their engineering programs. BUILD-IT would guide the Maker Movement from the fringes of the start-up ecosystem into the nation’s public universities.

In 2017, USAID BUILD-IT supported the Saigon Hi-Tech Park Incubation Center, a public entity, to develop a makerspace within their industrial park. Since opening, this Maker Innovation Space has offered the city’s start-ups and students from surrounding universities a place to use hi-tech prototyping tools for their engineering projectsIn late 2017, USAID BUILD-IT, Fablab Da Nang, and Da Nang University of Technology co-led the on-campus development of a Maker Innovation Space. In 2019, BUILD-IT and Can Tho University collaborated to construct a Maker Innovation Space on campus. Maker Innovation Space Network strategically located their makerspaces serve and inspire educators in different regions of Vietnam.

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The faculty leading the three spaces leveraged their new resources to launch hands-on classes, host industry-sponsored trainings, internships, and competitions, and win project funding from regional donors. Supported by USAID-BUILD-IT and Dow Vietnam, the spaces are integral to the multi-phase piloting of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program at BUILD-IT’s partner universities. The wider integration of project-based learning into engineering curriculum in Vietnam will further the spread of makerspace. Tasked to build a working prototype rather than take an exam, makerspaces offered the necessary tools and collaborative environment students need to do real engineering while in university. Ready with the tools needed to build out their ideas, the students used the makerspace to tackle to real-world issues like 2019’s Novel Corona Virus.

Seeing the momentum building, BUILD-IT’s strategic partner universities pursued building makerspaces of their own. In 2020 both the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and Education, two of the cities pioneering engineering universities, announced that they would be granted public funds to construct their own makerspaces. Saigon Hi-Tech Park Incubation Center places theirs on the ground floor of their new building set up open in 2020. This expansion makes the makerspace more accessible to students study at the new campuses opening within the park. The Vietnamese government’s large contribution to fund these new spaces and expansions, signals that the Maker Innovation Space Network’s strategy to push the Maker Movement in the public education system worked.

Already Vietnamese public institutions’ investments in the Maker Movement far outweigh the USAID BUILD-IT’s initial investment. The long-term impact of the spaces depends on how well the universities can adopt project-based learning methods into their course work and transform the space from a workshop for the passionate few to an integral part of all engineering programs.