21st Century Shop Class

A partnership funded by the federal government hopes to create a thousand makerspaces in public high schools by 2016.

Over 120,000 people attended Maker Faire Bay Area, held on May 18-19 at the San Mateo Event Center in California. As expected, innovative creations abounded, including everything from beaded spaceships to electric cars.

It’s no surprise there was such a large turnout for the event. California has been a hub for innovation and a home to the maker community for years, as the Bay Area was the first to host a Maker Faire back in 2006. More recently, the state was the first to be part of the MENTOR Makerspace program, funded by the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and spearheaded by O’Reilly Media’s Make division.

“We have to move from an engine of bureaucracy to an engine of innovation,” Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter told Fast Company.

The enterprise, established in 2012, is set to provide approximately 1000 public schools with makerspaces in the next three to four years. The first phase of the program’s rollout is currently underway; it includes the installation of these workshops in 16 schools in California. The spaces will be equipped with a “shop-in-a-box” starter kit including a variety of tools, materials, and software capable of producing a wide range of projects. For example, a cardboard cutter designed specifically for classrooms known as the “Othercutter” is just one of the tools included in the setup.

Photo/ Sean Freese

According to the New York Times, DARPA continues to underwrite the start of these spaces in schools elsewhere in the country, and, although cofounder of the makerspace concept Dale Dougherty argues that the partnership is a positive step forward, there has been a bit of controversy regarding DARPA’s intentions.

“Having these programs in schools is fantastic, but the military calling the shots in American education? I don’t see that as a positive move,” Mitch Altman, cofounder of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge, told the New York Times. “If you grow a piece of celery in red water, it’s going to be red,” added another skeptic of the partnership, head of the Alpha One Labs in Brooklyn Sean Auriti. “I’m just wondering how this Darpa defense contract money is going to influence these projects,” he said.

Conversely, Dougherty is sure the results will be a fruitful, opportunity-rich development in American education. “For me, the DARPA funding signifies that a revitalized manufacturing capacity is a national priority, and fostering interest among young people in making things is how we can take concrete steps to address that issue,” wrote Dougherty in blog post for Make Magazine last year. “Makerspace is not a DARPA program; it is a program that DARPA helped with their funding, which ultimately comes from the US taxpayer. Our Makerspace program is designed to learn from what we see happening in the maker community and work closely with the intersection of the communities of makers and educators to spread these ideas, technologies, and innovation more broadly across our country and the world,” he concluded.

And the positive changes Dougherty predicted have already started blossoming out of the partnership, despite scrutiny from its critics. In one of the pilot schools, Analy High School in Sebastopol, teacher Casey Shea began using his school’s laser cutter—acquired through the partnership—to create customized tools for other educators, which could be seen as a first step in forging a more sustainable educator community.

EdSurge writer Betsy Corcoran reported on Shea’s revelation:

Shea had a true penny-dropping moment when he realized that his school’s laser cutter could easily craft exactly the kinds of materials that many schools and teachers spend thousands of dollars to buy: Maps, cut from white boards on which students can fill in country (or state) names and later easily erase; the outline of a clock also on a white board to help students practice telling time; white board graphs for mathematical equations, and so on.

Shea plans on orchestrating a summer workshop to help train teachers, and Corcoran reported that design templates, which can be printed on low-cost bulk white boards using word processing software, are also on the horizon.

Meanwhile, at Piner High School in Santa Rosa, biology teacher Dante DePaola and his students built their makerspace through the partnership, designing and assembling all of the furniture within the space from scratch. Since then, DePaola’s students have built things like iPod speakers and structures that help prevent eggs from cracking upon impact, among other projects, which DePaola documents on his Piner Makers blog.

One of DePaola’s most inspiring resources is his “Wall of Making,” an immersive collage of students’ ideas. “Students are encouraged to bring in newspaper articles, do some individual research, or document their own work—and show off examples of making that they connect to,” explained Stephanie Chang in a post on the Makerspace blog. “Examples are plastered all over the wall; these mini bits of inspiration show how broad and varied making is, and how it reaches just about anyone and everyone,” she wrote.

It’s inarguable that, by building Makerspaces in public schools, there will be more equitable opportunities for students to follow their passions and learn to use the tools they’ll need to do so. Hopefully, the partnership will continue to expand out of California, to Pittsburgh and elsewhere. As Dougherty said to Fast Company’s Kamenetz, “I feel we’re at this point in time where people are looking for some substantial change in education … and I want to be that new thing.”

Published June 03, 2013