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Making Makerspaces: Culture, Traditions, and Community. Introduction (1/8 in Series)

I started my first makerspace when I was 23-years-old. At the time, I’d just quit my job clerking at a law firm that I’d joined out of college, and was working freelance making websites for institutions like McGraw-Hill and Johns Hopkins. In my down time, I’d post on a web forum called “Manrus” (our mascot was a walrus in a suit) that some old friends from my alma mater, North Central College, had started where we chatted about technology, art, video games… just about anything you can think of.

This was in 2008, and hackerspaces (as makerspaces were then known) had just become a thing some people in various corners of the Internet were talking about. I became aware of publications like Make Magazine and started poking around to figure out what this was all about. It was around that time that I wrote a post to Manrus with a subject line that read something like “Hey, have you all heard of these things called hackerspaces?” The contents of the post linked to a few things I’d read, and concluded with a call that, maybe, we start exploring starting our own hackerspace.

I had no idea what that meant, but in relatively short order there was a small group of us meeting in a coffee house at North Central College talking about starting our own hackerspace and getting projects off the ground. We began to call ourselves Workshop 88, after the I-88 corridor that we were located in near Naperville, IL. Bylaws were written, we incorporated, and I became the Vice President of a hackerspace that didn’t even have a home yet.

To raise money to buy a space while we were still meeting in the coffee house, people began paying paying dues ($50/member) just to be around each other and talk shop. We’d meet at the coffee house in Naperville, hold hackathons in my dining room in Mokena, IL, or go out on group outings at local breweries. We started a small international event that got some attention in its day called “Hackerspaces in Space,” where hackerspaces competed against each other by sending high-altitude balloons into near space. This was right around the time that the “Power Wheels Racing Series” got its start, and there was some talk early on of making a hackerspace olympics. The energy behind this movement was palpable. It was a very creative and productive time in my life.

Many of the first people who were coming to those early Workshop 88 meetings went on to become some of my best friends and collaborators. Others went on to launch products like the “Shapeoko” (Ed Ford), films about the maker movement, and their own maker companies. In fact, I discovered the people who I’d eventually join and co-own my first company with, Lunar Giant, while I was talking with some co-founders of Workshop 88 who were about to launch their first video game.

Notice that everything I’ve talked about up until now has nothing to do with the tools we had at Workshop 88 (none at the time), the space that we had (also none), or the cool projects that were coming out of the space (you get the picture, none). People were literally paying money to hang out with each other in a coffee house on a college campus, and there’s a powerful lesson in there about what these spaces are actually about.

Makerspaces to me have always been about the community first. Yes, the first question you get when someone walks into your space is “do you have a laser cutter,” but, in my experience, the laser cutter is broken half the time and may have been for quite some time. Makerspaces are about the common spirit that we all have to reject consumer culture, take learning into our own hands, and figure out solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed.

Since starting Workshop 88 a decade ago, I’ve gone on to found another non-profit makerspace called Spacelab, and an academic makerspace at DePaul University where I teach called the Idea Realization Lab. And while the spaces may have many differences, both in culture and membership, they also share many of the same traits with each other. Makerspaces are a playground for a tinkerer, and as with all play, they help us learn something about ourselves, other people, or the world around us.

Much critical work has been written about these spaces since they first started. In academic literature especially, there has been a focus on the so-called frivolousness of tinkering, the idea that people at makerspaces rarely graduate beyond tinkering and into professional practice, and that makerspaces are just another form of consumer culture. My experience has been the opposite, as evidenced by the litany of companies that I’ve seen grow out of all of my spaces. But my main problem with this point of view is that it’s focused on the end result that emerges from the acts of making, and not the thinking process itself that happens when one engages with the physical world through the act of tinkering. As Tim Ingold says, thinking is making. This, I suspect, is a much more radical idea than some of us realize.

Making, then, is about the way of thinking that emerges from our engagement with physical material. More than that, makerspaces give us the forum to share the work that we create with one another, and learn from each other. This is precisely what Seymour Papert wrote about over three decades ago when he wrote on constructionism, and what others like Vygotsky touched on when he forwarded the idea of the “zone of proximal development.” Makerspaces are, in some ways, the culmination of educational theories that we’ve been discussing for quite some time.

This series is the culmination of a decade’s worth of experience in developing makerspaces. It does, indeed, dive into many of the technical aspects that you need to be aware of when starting a space, including what machines you need to buy, how to incorporate, who you need to talk with, and so on. It also talks about makerspaces in different contexts: schools (K-12), libraries, academic institutions, and plain old DIY makerspaces.

But more than that, this is a series that will show you the importance of setting up the correct political structures and cultures at a space in order to help its members thrive. It’s about how to engage with your community to help spread these still-radical ideas of making and tinkering that are so direly needed in many corners of education and professional practice. And it’s about how to keep a space like that alive and running day, after week, after month, after year. It’s not always easy.
You’ll hear from people in the maker community who have started their own makerspaces and maker events, their own companies, or use the things that they learn at these spaces to inform their professional practice. We’ll touch on the educational philosophy behind makerspaces, and “systems tinkering,” which is an idea I coined that changes how we think about the systems around us and how we engage with them.

Two years ago I stood in front of the Obama White House to take a picture after being invited to a national summit of makerspace organizers. After spending a few days meeting and talking with other organizers, I finally realized that the work we’d been doing was starting to get noticed by other well-respected institutions. The year prior, I’d been told by some of my colleagues that in order to develop my career in academia, I’d need to shift out of tinkering and develop a persona that had purpose.

Making, and makerspaces, are still to many crazy ideas that are anathema to the way we go about doing things. Let’s change that together.

Idea Realization Lab – Faculty Director’s Note – Fall Term

I’ve been reflecting on our work at DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab as the Fall Term closes. Since opening in September, we’ve had over 1,300 unique people come through our space. The students have built the IRL from the ground up: from the furniture, to the decorations on the wall, and everything in between. Most importantly, we have created a home for students, faculty, and staff alike to feel comfortable, commune with one another, and learn by making.

This could not have been done without the hard work from our professional, student, and faculty and staff advisory boards. It especially couldn’t have been done without our student workers. And, in a very meaningful way, it also couldn’t have been done without the over 1,000 enthusiastic people who came through to make and tinker with things.

Running a maker lab is about putting the people first, and I attribute much of our success to doing just that. Students run the workshops, teach others how to use the machines, Make without worrying about permission, and work together across disciplines. The growth I’ve seen in them as a result is astounding. The IRL is truly a community of learning.

A comment from a frequent student visitor sums things up better than I can put it: “I don’t know who I am without the IRL anymore.”

Here’s to a great Fall term, and an excellent upcoming Winter.

Idea Realization Lab - Fall 2017

Margalus, LLC

My wife, Sarah Margalus, and I have been quietly consulting with local libraries, schools, and companies for a while now on the development of makerspaces and the curriculum (alignment with 21st Century Learning Standards, in particular) that goes along with integrating these spaces into a learning environment. The main problem we often find ourselves trying to solve is that many institutions create makerspaces by buying equipment first, and then thinking about community, integration to standards, and so forth second. This is the backwards way of approaching the development of such spaces, and as a result, many makerspaces in these institutions go underused or not used at all.

In order to support those efforts going forward, we’ve formed a consultancy that scaffolds our offerings into a few tiers that help spaces that have already been created, as well as spaces that are in the planning phases. This includes thinking through how to support learning communities through alignment with standards, development of organizational systems, and the purchase of the tools that fit within budget and support institutional aims.

If you’re a member of a school, library (or other public institution), or company and find yourself running into these problems, take a look at what we can do.

Winter Tinker Camp

Sign Up

I’ll be hosting a Winter Tinker Camp at Spacelab this December where kids 12-18 will learn the skills and knowledge they need to get started with 21st Century Making. This includes laser cutting, 3D printing, CNC routing, soldering, and vinyl cutting. Students will have the ability, after this course, to take an idea they have and fabricate it on just about any machine you’d find in a makerspace.

To sign up, and for more information, visit our Eventbrite page.

IRL Makes

One of the things I’ve been most pleased with since the Idea Realiazation Lab opened five weeks ago is the sheer amount of things we’ve created that exist in our space. And not only in our space, but throughout the entire University. From shirts for the lacrosse team to decals for our Hospitality Department, and from centerpieces for Family Weekend to the table we’re working on for our new president, the things that our students have been putting out there can be found everywhere you go on campus.

This, to me, speaks to the success of the space more than any other numbers could. Not only do students feel like they are part of the IRL, and not only do they feel comfortable and capable of using the machines within it, but they are now taking those same ideas and bringing them to other places. They are, in effect, beginning to help export our culture of making and tinkering to the rest of the institution through the artifacts that they help design and develop.

You’ll be seeing more about this in the coming months. We’re currently working on a student group that can lead these kinds of engagements, both with departments and organizations inside DePaul, and with companies outside. Students should have more experiences like this in academia: ones where they can put their ideas into practice, and where they can begin to feel a sense of agency over the classrooms, hallways, and gathering places around them by unlocking their latent creative potential and applying it to the very spaces that we all learn in.

What could this mean for how we look at our University environment? How will it change when students feel like their institution isn’t simply a place where they swing by for a class, and then leave, and instead becomes a place where they can contribute to its creative potential by practicing the very things that they’re learning? How can we continue to build on this kind of experience to help expose systems in a way that allows students to engage with them, deconstruct them, and put them back together?

Here are just a few pictures of some of the small projects we’ve worked on at the IRL in the last five weeks:

Everything Around Us is Magic

Everything around us is magic, and nobody knows how anything works. From the phones in our pockets, to the cars that ferry us around, to our systems of government, all of the critical things that have changed the way we think, work, and play are black boxes to many of us.

Systems have become complex and hard to navigate. As a result, we tend not to scratch below the surface, but instead work on top of them. As systems around us continue to become more complex, it’s more important than ever to understand how they work. This is for one simple reason: if you don’t understand how a system works, then you can’t truly participate in it, and its development. This turns us into passive bystanders, both in life, and through the things that we utilize on a daily basis. Without this understanding, the few who do comprehend how a system works can easily abuse it to their own advantage.

To address this problem, we’ve come up with useful constructs like systems thinking to help us deconstruct and understand what’s happening around us. Systems thinking gives an individual insight into the system they’re engaging with in order to best take advantage of its components toward achieving an ends. However, systems thinking only advocates for an understanding of a system in order to leverage its components. But what if the components are broken? Extraneous? How do we determine if the components in a system, or the system itself, is worthy at all?

At several of the companies I’ve recently worked with, we see this problem highlighted in their culture of “innovation.” Engineers are often tasked with taking a pre-existing thing, and are told to focus on improving that thing by 5-10% every year. They understand the components that they’re working with, and how to leverage those components in the system to register higher yield, but haven’t been given the correct context to take it any further than that.

But what if a company, or a entire field, is experiencing disruptive change? What if, instead of requiring a 5-10% change, we require an entire shift?

The problem is that innovating by making things 5-10% better does not require an understanding of the systems that underlie the things we’re improving on, only a knowledge of the general taxonomy of the system one is working within. In order to truly understand a system, then, we must go a step further than being able to describe its model; we need to engage with it. I propose, moreover, that any meaningful engagement with a system must come from playing with its components: taking them apart, tinkering with them, and putting them back together.

In “Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture,” Tim Ingold talks about how, when we engage with the physical, we are able to escape many of the preconceptions in our minds as we think. That’s because physical materials push back against those preconceptions: the real world has a way of doing that. Making explores this intersection of thinking through tinkering. More than that, making enables one to explore systems through tinkering.

Take an example I recently heard from a student, who, when describing the 3D printing of an object for a vehicle they were working on, said: “as I watched it print out, I already had another idea for the next iteration of the thing.” They could see the object on the screen before printing it, but seeing it in the physical, and being able to move beyond the conceptual phase, spurred new ideas.

The creation of components and active engagement in systems, I think, is vital to our understanding of those things. Theorizing and analyzing is not enough, as it leaves us with our own preconceptions and biases, and does not allow us to be truly critical of the system that we’re analyzing. In order to give us the capability to question a system, or the components in a system, one must engage with it in a playful, active disposition.

Moreover, understanding systems by engaging with them is important to a future where we can question the things we consume and the systems that we engage with. It makes us active participants in an economy of ideas and creation, rather than passive consumers. By tinkering, we are able to reveal knowledge that was beforehand opaque. We’re able to question.

The IRL is on Newsline

Here’s the story! And here’s the video:

Speaking at Chicago Public Schools Techtalk + Googlepalooza

I’ll be the keynote speaker at the CPS Techtalk + Googlepalooza event this coming week speaking about thinking through makerspaces, creative tinkering, and some of my recent experiences in these areas of thought. Super excited to meet everyone!

Come see me speak at the AMA’s Change MedEd in September

Here’s a video interview I did as a teaser for the event:

Running A Creative Space in Small Town America Redux

A while back I wrote a piece for Make Magazine on running a creative space (hackerspace/makerspace) in a small town. I won’t rehash it here, but if you want to catch up with my writing, here’s the article.

Every now and then I still get emails about that piece from people looking for more information. It seems there are plenty of folks who want to start their own space in their village, but don’t know where to begin! Setting aside the fact that this seems to suggest a lack of practical information for people looking to start makerspaces outside of central urban areas, it’s really great to see so many folks interested in growing their communities into true places of learning.

Anyway, along with the usual obligatory response of sending these people emails back encouraging them and linking them back to my Make article, I’ve begun giving the following advice, which I’ll copy and paste here for posterity:

  • You may have an idea for what you want the space to be, but let the members drive it. Start meeting at a coffeehouse and having people talk about their projects. Let their interests drive what the space does and what machines it acquires.
  • Partner with local libraries to teach classes on 3D printing, coding, etc. This is a great source of revenue for small spaces, and libraries really want these kinds of programs.
  • Run classes regularly at the space to bring in money and also to drive membership. Try starting a series like “Learn to Make” that runs through the basics: soldering, circuit building, programming for microcontrollers, 3D printing.
  • Find industries in your area that are looking to expand into emerging technology, and seek out partnerships with them. Listen to the problems they are having and see if you can position yourself as a group that can help solve them through continuing education and advisement.
  • If the space allows it, offer a co-working option. People usually have jobs with regular hours in smaller towns, and so the space will be empty during the day — unless you can fill it with a few co-workers.

As always, I am available to speak and consult on this topic with your organization or company. I’ll be speaking at the AMA ChangeMedEd 2017 Conference in September on the transformative acts of making in education (the likes of which happens at makerspaces!), and at C2E2 in a few weeks about how to make games (where I’m sure I’ll end up talking about making as a practice as well). Come say hi!