Cover Story

The 'maker movement' creates D.I.Y. revolution

The ‘maker movement’ is heralded as a new industrial revolution – combining the spirit of the old shop class with modern tech in community 'Do It Yourself' spaces.

By , Staff writer

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    Founder Jeff Sturges (l.) helps Kafele Gray build a radio at the Mt. Elliott Makerspace, on May 25, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Children and teens from the area come here to create and build things. The facility is in the basement of an Episcopal church. The makerspace is in an economically challenged part of the city. This is part of the cover story project of the July 7, 2014 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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Think of the colorful Mt. Elliott Makerspace as a playroom where tools – such as soldering irons and electronics – are the toys.

A bank of Macs and PCs lines one wall where kids can research how to make things, learn to mix music with Garage Band, or build their own digital world with Minecraft. Windows behind the computers – a sort of bridge between the 20th and 21st centuries – offer a full view of a retired machinist’s woodworking shop. Bookshelves stuffed with remote-control cars, arts-and-crafts supplies, and beginning robotics kits flank a doorway leading to a bike shop. A pile of circuit boards and hard drives sits in a corner next to a disassembled electric wheelchair lying in wait for curious tinkerers.

Across the room, two sixth-grade girls hunch with furrowed brows over wooden treasure boxes. Zwena Gray grips a screwdriver-sized soldering iron; a wisp of wood smoke curls around her wrist as she touches the heated tip to the box. Her friend Raven Holston-Turner presses the flat nib of a wood burner to the penciled words “Free to be me” on her box. “We’re gonna see which one works better,” Zwena says. “Like which one goes the deepest.”  

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“And which one makes a better color,” Raven chimes in.

“I know!” bursts Zwena, with “Eureka!” excitement. “We could try the soldering iron, then go over it again with the wood burner!”

Raven nods briefly and refocuses on her work. 

Zwena and Raven are the earnest forward guard of a new industrial revolution – the modern maker movement. Makers may be knitters, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, or even masters of the new 3-D printing process – people reconnecting with the idea of do-it-yourself and working with their hands.

And at the heart of this movement are so-called makerspaces that welcome a diverse group of builders, hackers, and hobbyists who share resources and knowledge. Some are housed in existing community centers such as libraries, museums, or youth centers. All – and hundreds have cropped up in the past decade in the United States – center on a love of tinkering and a desire to manipulate the functional world.

In these spaces, students who no longer have access to wood and machine shops in school, entrepreneurs who have a great idea but little capital to invest in the equipment necessary to build a prototype, and adults who long for a creative break from staring at computer screens all come together to work, to collaborate, to create.

The explosion of makerspaces is a response to a growing sense of disconnection from the physical world, suggests Matthew Crawford, author of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. [Editor's note: The university's location was originally incorrectly identified.]

“I think [the maker movement] is tapping into a really basic fact about us as human beings,” says Professor Crawford. “From infancy we learn about the world by manipulating it, by sort of poking it and seeing how it pokes back.”

In many ways, Americans have stopped valuing that kind of physical exploration. And some believe the DIY movement has come none too soon for American manufacturing.

“Today’s DIY is tomorrow’s ‘Made in America,’ ” President Obama told participants in the first White House Maker Faire June 18. “Your projects are examples of a revolution that’s taking place in American manufacturing – a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.”

Do vs. think 

“People feel just mystified and thwarted by their own possessions,” Crawford says. The push to track high school students into college prep combined with the migration of labor into the digital world is a trend that has divorced Americans from the physical world.  

Today, a deep division between those who “do” and those who “think” has grown as many middle and high schools across the country have whittled away technical arts, home economics, and creative arts programs because of budget restrictions and the increased academic pressures of standardized testing.

That divide was palpable for Neil Gershenfeld when he came to the educational fork in the road in the ninth grade in the 1970s. He asked to enroll in vocational school because “that’s where you learn to weld and fix cars and do cool stuff.” But, he recalls, “I was told I wasn’t allowed because I was smart.”

Years later, while working as an engineer for Bell Labs, he kept trying to go into the workshop and “make stuff.” Once again, “They said, ‘Well, no, you’re smart. You have to tell somebody else what to do,’ ” says Professor Gershenfeld, now a mechanical engineer and director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

All over the country, students today hear that same message: that smart kids should focus on academics and leave the manual arts to those who aren’t destined for higher learning. 

At Gershenfeld’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the smart kids get to make what they think up. It is the mother of all makerspaces, a multimillion-dollar Fab Lab stocked with some of the most cutting-edge fabrication equipment in the world – from electron microscopes and water-jet cutters to traditional machining and woodworking tools. There, students develop machinery small enough to manipulate proteins or large enough to assemble airplanes.

Gershenfeld developed the Fab Lab at MIT to explore the intersection of the digital and physical worlds, how to convert digital designs to physical objects, from bits to atoms.

While much of the equipment in the MIT lab costs millions of dollars, many components come in $1,000 to $10,000 versions. In an effort to see what others might do with access to these kinds of tools, he developed a template for similar labs that can be replicated anywhere for a moderate investment. For about $100,000 a Fab Lab can be stocked with a laser cutter; a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machine capable of precision cutting, carving, drilling, and machining; a 3-D printer and scanner; milling equipment; and hand-held machining tools.  

Since 2007, a few hundred Fab Labs have sprouted all over the world from Northern Ireland to Bhutan, and all are connected virtually through a digital video bridge. The city of Barcelona, Spain, has installed several Fab Labs as part of an economic revival plan. The United Nations is even looking into establishing Fab Labs in refugee camps where children and adults who have no educational or professional opportunities can learn valuable skills. Today, there are so many Fab Labs that Gershenfeld has launched the Fab Foundation to help administrators of new labs find equipment and instruction.

As popular as Gershenfeld’s model has become, the maker movement is much bigger than Fab Labs. In the US, more than 200 groups have registered their version with makerspace.com. Some are identified as hackerspaces, workshops, or studios, but all fit under the larger umbrella of makerspaces. 

The rise of maker culture has caught the attention of the Department of Defense and the Obama administration. Mr. Obama pledged at the June White House Maker Faire to open up several of the nation’s R&D facilities to the public, and called on US mayors to promote makerspaces in their communities.

The DOD has its eye on the maker movement as a means to grow a generation of high-tech innovators. In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a four-year pilot program to integrate high-tech makerspaces into 1,000 high schools across the country in collaboration with local research universities. And last month, the DOD announced that DARPA will award $12.5 million in grants for the development of tools and curricula to train secondary and postsecondary students in design and manufacturing with high-tech equipment in low-tech environments.

Adults who are interested in “making” in their spare time or looking for a shared workshop to launch a new product can join one of the nation’s eight TechShops, for-profit makerspaces where members who pay a monthly fee comparable to the cost of a health club membership have access to crisp, uncluttered prototype studios stocked with state-of-the-art equipment and staffed by expert makers.

At the Detroit location, workers from nearby Ford Motor Company itching to tackle their own side projects work alongside a master woodworker from Italy who hand carves orchestral basses, and local hobbyists learning to build kayaks made from a steam-bent white oak frame and a hand-sewn nylon shell.

In the past 18 months the decreasing price of 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other digital fabrication equipment has enabled unlikely places such as libraries, schools, and other community organizations to bring digital making to just about anyone.

Not just Silicon Valley

The maker movement began to take shape in northern California around 2005, when Dale Dougherty launched Make magazine.

“I think the magic of [the magazine] was simply that we connected a lot of different groups that were making things but saw themselves as doing something separate,” Mr. Dougherty says. “The artists saw themselves as different from people that do robotics and from people that do electronics. To some degree calling them all makers kind of allowed for a flourishing of some different people coming together and seeing commonalities.”

In 2006, Dougherty hosted the first Maker Faire at the San Mateo Event Center in San Mateo, Calif., a gathering of people interested in building, tinkering, and creating all manner of things from scratch. Located in the Bay Area, the event naturally drew a lot of technically minded people and the robots and software that they had built in their garages and workshops. But it also attracted knitters, woodworkers, and other traditional artisans and hobbyists.

In 2010, Dougherty started Maker Faire Detroit at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., “almost as an experiment to prove that this is not just a Silicon Valley aberration or something that would only work in the San Francisco Bay Area,” he says. “Makers are everywhere, and a place like Detroit has a legacy of manufacturing sort of in their DNA.” 

Indeed, Detroit was built on manufacturing. Henry Ford’s creation of the Ford Model-T and the mechanized assembly line launched the city on a half-century-long course of prosperity. While the auto industry flourished, skilled artisans adorned the city with hand-carved relief archways, ceramic tile fireplaces, and intricately forged wrought iron.

With the collapse of the auto industry and the subsequent mass exodus of Detroit residents, many of these handcrafted treasures have been left to crumble. However, that urge to create still flourishes, even as the city is filing for bankruptcy. It can be seen in the graffiti that lends a burst of color to buildings with shattered windows and caved-in roofs. It can be heard in the thriving hip-hop and electronic music scenes. And it can be felt in the half-dozen makerspaces that have popped up all over the Detroit-metro area, including the Mt. Elliott Makerspace on the southeast side of Detroit.

Thumb-typing replaced hands-on tinkering 

Raven and Zwena – the wood-burning enthusiasts at the Mt. Elliott Makerspace – aren’t just into a crafty diversion. The two, between them, have actually taught hundreds of kids and adults to solder for projects as varied as repairing a broken battery contact in a flashlight to building a circuit board.

But what they love to talk about is how much they’ve learned themselves at this makerspace. “I get a better education here than I would at a regular school,” says Zwena, who is homeschooled. “Here you can do what you want and design your own curriculum.”  

Mt. Elliott isn’t a school per se, but there is an awful lot of learning going on in that basement. 

That’s exactly how Mt. Elliott’s founder and manager, Jeff Sturges, likes it. He says he was inspired by Gershenfeld’s Fab Lab, but wanted to find a way to bring making to kids growing up in Detroit, where entire neighborhoods have been abandoned and 200 schools have been shuttered as hundreds of thousands of residents have moved out. Mr. Sturges launched the makerspace in the winter of 2011 in the basement of the Church of the Messiah on the lower east side of Detroit with seed funding from the philanthropic Kresge Foundation.

The space is a nostalgia trigger for Oyin Zuri, an adult volunteer who leads the textiles corner, where she teaches kids to use a sewing machine, to quilt, and to make potholders. These skills were once taught in schools during mandatory home economics classes, which have become casualties of budget cuts in many area schools. 

“I learned to sew in home economics. I still remember my teacher’s name,” she reminisces with a smile. “But a lot of these kids have never touched a needle and thread.”

The loss of manual skills, from threading a needle to changing a tire, has been a major blow to the nation’s collective knowledge base, says Jack Beuth, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Even engineering students do not have the same level of physical reasoning that their predecessors once had, he observes, partly because they have less opportunity for hands-on learning in the schools, and also because kids are less likely to spend their free time tinkering on their own.

“Twenty years ago, engineering students would have naturally worked on their cars, rebuilt things, and just had a very good physical sense of life,” he says. “They just don’t have that anymore.” 

Cars used to be the platform by which people learned their basic physics, Professor Beuth says. However, as computers have been integrated into every aspect of the car – and the cars themselves have become more reliable – it is much more difficult for a lone tinkerer to sit down with a manual and troubleshoot an engine problem. And kids seem to be more interested in the virtual world of computers and video games than working with their hands, he says. Makerspaces, particularly those with 3-D printers, hold the potential to lure kids from tablets and game consoles, Beuth says. 

Engineers have employed 3-D printers for about 12 years now, but until about two years ago, these digital fabrication tools were well beyond the price range of the layman. Today, low-end 3-D printers range from $500 to $1,300. That’s still an expensive toy for an individual, but well within the reach of a group of people willing to share the machine.

3-D printing is a maker gateway

The accessibility of 3-D printing has opened new doors for a wide range of people and projects from digitally fabricated jewelry to even printed prosthetic hands. 

The 3-D printer has been a big draw for students from a wide range of majors at Carnegie Mellon, he says, in part because of the wow factor that comes with watching a machine build something from nothing, and also because it makes creation seem feasible with little upfront skill. In essence, the 3-D printer has become a gateway technology.

“Once students start making parts on these [3-D printers] they start to realize their limitations – they only make plastic parts and there are size limits – and that pulls students into the machine shop where they can make real metal components,” he says.

Soon, students realize that they can combine the technologies, making plastic components that fit together with their metal parts.

In many ways, however, introducing students to these kinds of experiences in college or even high school is much too late, Beuth says. One of the biggest reasons that there are not enough engineers in university is that kids simply do not know what engineering is, he says.

“If you don’t grab students in middle school, if you wait until high school, for instance, to get them excited about engineering, it’s too late,” Beuth says. “You have to grab them early on and show them the concept of what engineers do.”

That can’t happen without giving children opportunities to test their theoretical knowledge about the physical world with hands-on exploration, he adds.

Educators at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, the host of Maker Faire Detroit, see the maker movement as a chance to both bring hands-on exploration back into schools and simultaneously inspire kids to tinker on their own.

Since 2008, the museum’s chief learning officer, Paula Gangopadhyay, has been working with teachers and Maker Corps volunteers from the Maker Education Initiative to design curricula for schools that teach students about historic innovations and provide room for creative experimentation.

“We want to tell the story of successful innovators, but also we want to help kids become grass-roots innovators,” Ms. Gangopadhyay says.

The museum has budgeted $10 million for training 5,000 teachers around the country to teach innovation to 125,000 students in the next five years.

The center of a kid’s universe

However, community makerspaces can offer a different kind of exploration than is possible within the school environment, says former physics teacher Jackson Perrin of White Salmon, Wash., a small town of 2,200 people 65 miles northeast of Portland, Ore., the closest major city.

“In science class you often start with the knowledge, and if you’re lucky you get to solve a problem with that knowledge,” Mr. Perrin says. “The maker concept is the reverse of that, where you start with a problem and then you figure out what knowledge you need to solve the problem.” That’s exactly what Zwena loves about the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in Detroit.

“Kids get to be at the center of the universe there, while adults there simply guide you and talk you through what look like failures until you can eventually guide yourself,” the 12-year-old told a crowd at the Optimist Club of Central Detroit in a speech contest in which she told how makerspaces can change the world.   

“Could you imagine if every single child in the world had the great opportunity, like me, to have a makerspace in their community?” Zwena told the crowd in her silver-award-winning speech now viewable on YouTube. “Even better, imagine if every classroom was a place that every child could fail, without fear, on their way to success.” 

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