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Makerspaces, Hackerspaces and Fab Labs Why College Students Should Get in on the ‘Maker’ Culture

Classes, lectures, studying — they’re all essential components of a successful college career. Yet traditional “book learning” can leave graduates high and dry in the practical, hands-on application of that knowledge once unleashed into the real world. There’s a remedy for that — the maker movement sweeping college campuses, the nation and, indeed, the world. This guide details makerspaces, hackerspaces and Fab Labs, and how and why college students can and should join in this exciting culture revolution.

Meet the Expert

Paul Gentile Founder, Soldering Sunday

Written by:

The Maker Movement

At its simplest definition, we are all makers, whether it be making dinner, a picnic campfire or a doodle on a paper napkin.

In the past decade or so, however, the maker movement embraced and expanded that concept, spawning physical spaces across the country and around the world where people gather to create, collaborate, learn and share their ideas, tools, knowledge and resources.

“The word of making is huge,” says Paul Gentile, a trustee of FUBAR, New Jersey’s first makerspace, and a senior manager of solutions architecture at VMware in the greater New York City area. “It’s an exciting movement, and the whole idea behind the movement is hands-on knowledge.”

The NLC report defines “maker “as an umbrella term that includes the spectrum of “hobbyists and tinkerers to independent inventors and designers.”

There were more than 200 Maker Faires in 2017, small and large, sponsored by Make magazine and dubbed the “Greatest Show (& Tell) on Earth,” around the world, with the flagship events taking place annually in New York and California’s Bay Area. Even the White House jumped on the bandwagon, holding its inaugural Maker Faire in 2014.

“The No. 1 thing that the maker movement and makers continue to generate are new makers,” Gentile says. “Once people are around the maker movement they realize they’ve been missing something exciting. It goes to a very human need of creating.”

Loosely defined, anywhere two or more people are gathered and creating is a makerspace. The “tools” can be anything from a box of Legos or a basket of fabric and yarn scraps to elaborate high-tech electronic equipment or large-scale industrial machinery.

Located in various sites such as school classrooms, public libraries, community centers, museums, warehouses, old factories and college campuses, these facilities remove barriers to creating by providing, free or low-cost, the tools and spaces that individuals might not be able to access on their own.

They give users the opportunity to explore, create, learn by doing and try out ideas in a welcoming environment without fear of failing. The stimulating atmosphere fosters creativity and entrepreneurship while also building fellowship and community.

Depending on the space and the focus, typical equipment can include a 3-D printer, laser cutters, milling machines, soldering irons, robotics tools, sewing machines, design software, printing presses and digital fabrication tools.

These spaces open up opportunities for all to benefit from learning critical STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills relating to electronics, 3-D printing and modeling, coding, circuitry, robotics, soldering, woodworking, fabricating, programming and more.

Makerspaces represent “the democratization of design, engineering, fabrication and education,” says a quote on Makerspace.com, one of Make’s several websites.

The Different Spaces Defined

  • Hackerspace

    A place where the focus is on electronics and computer programming.

  • Makerspace

    A creative space for everyone to make anything.

  • Fab Lab

    A network of uniform workshop spaces with set tools and standards.

Before delving into the differences between makerspaces, hackerspaces and Fab Labs, a brief history of the movement that launched them all is in order.

The concept of a hackerspace, as a collection of programmers sharing a physical space, began in Europe in the mid 1990s and made its way to the United States a little over a decade later. “Hacking” initially referred to hacking technology, primarily computers, to try and make them do something they weren’t supposed to do, but eventually expanded to mean any “hacking” of physical objects. There are some who shy away from the term, however, because it can have a negative connotation about illegal computer hacking activity.

The term “makerspace” came into being around the launch of Make magazine in 2005, which was also about the same time MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms introduced a network of spaces called Fab Labs, short for fabrication laboratories.

While the names are often used interchangeably and the concept behind them is the same — all are places for making, collaborating, learning and sharing — there are some distinctions between makerspaces, hackerspaces and Fab Labs.

Generally speaking, a hackerspace is digitally oriented and primarily focuses on electronics and programming.

A makerspace is more about the hands-on aspect, “making” pretty much anything, more mainstream and focuses on reaching and supporting the most people, from hobbyists to professionals. Socializing, educational events and sharing ideas are all priorities.

And a Fab Lab is a trademarked space where each site offers a similar workshop space, tools and standards. The Fab Foundation describes a Fab Lab as a technical prototyping platform for innovation, invention and learning. All Fab Labs share a common set of tools and processes, offer public access and participate in the global Fab Lab Network, which boasts a community of fabricators, artists, scientists, engineers, educators, students, amateurs and professionals of all ages located in more than 78 countries in some 1,000 Fab Labs.

“The makerspace is the more encompassing term, it’s less loosely defined, whereas the other two have some real definition around them,” Gentile says. “A makerspace can also be a Fab Lab and it can be a hackerspace, but a Fab Lab would never be a hackerspace and a hackerspace would never be a Fab Lab.

“The common thread all of them have is that they’re about community, about bringing people together around doing stuff, instead of sitting alone behind a computer somewhere,” he adds. “And they’re about being hands-on.”

Benefits for College Students

While students should explore all makerspace options available to them, they can often start right on their own campus.

Colleges and universities are transforming libraries, cobbling together underutilized spaces or investing in new spaces to keep up with the maker movement. Usually these spaces are open to all departments and often host workshops to introduce students to their offerings.

“Today, almost every major university or college has some sort of makerspace because they see it as an asset to their students and a necessity to round out their education,” Gentile says.

The 2015 State of Making Report from the MakeSchools Higher Education Alliance, which surveyed 40 higher education institutions around the nation about their maker culture, noted that maker-based learning experiences are creating opportunities to “build confidence, foster creativity and spark interest in science, technology, engineering, math, the arts and learning as a whole.

“This comes with the opportunity to catalyze startups and entrepreneurship, research and innovate new technologies and manufacturing processes, foster small businesses and job growth, and prepare students for emerging economies and diverse workplaces,” the report says.

College and university students accustomed to learning from books or the internet can gain a wide range of invaluable hands-on practical knowledge participating in the maker culture that they likely won’t get in the lecture hall.

“Information is at our fingertips with digital access in our phones, our laptops, our computers,” Gentile says. “But what’s gone away is the hands-on knowledge. Back in the 1950s if you went up and down the proverbial block you could look in everyone’s garage and see a workshop. Today, not so much. That hands-on knowledge is missing.”

Without that practical knowledge, Gentile says, there is a disconnect.

“We gave a focus, to our detriment, in the late 70s, early 80s, to being book smart and now we’re trying to work our way back from that,” he adds. “There was a belief that manual labor was not something to be proud of. The craftsmen have gone away and now employers are looking for these skills.”

In addition to hands-on technical, collaborative and critical thinking skills, higher-ed students who take advantage of these maker environments can also earn project experience to enhance their resumes, and not just from working on their own ventures. That’s because in makerspaces, creators often join in and work to help make other’s projects happen, whether it’s a product invention or getting a start-up company off the ground.

Interdisciplinary collaboration moves students out of their comfort zones and looks good on a resume, as does community service, which participation in makerspace activities also offers.

“Students can go to a makerspace not only to learn, but to teach,” Gentile says. “If they have an engineering skill or an art skill or science or technology or whatever their skills are, it’s likely they’re in demand, so they can volunteer and give back to their community.”

There are makerspaces geared toward a general focus while others specialize in specific areas, for example, the bio-medical field, Gentile says, so there’s something for every interest.

Participation gets students out of their solitary dorm rooms and into a community, Gentile says, which is always a good thing.

“The best thing about makerspaces is that they’re a community of people,” he says. “It’s a way to get away from school stresses and to engage with other people with similar hobbies or interests. You don’t have to go in there just to work on your thesis project, you can just go to chill out. And a lot of the makerspaces also do gaming or have movie nights.”

Expert Q&A

Paul Gentile Founder, Soldering Sunday View Bio

Note: For this Q&A, the term “makerspaces” is used to cover all types of spaces.

Why is the maker movement important?

To overcome what I call the ‘supermarketing’ of America. Think about kids nowadays who walk into a supermarket and don’t truly understand where the food came from. The whole point is we’ve disconnected ourselves from the reality of what makes things work.

What are some common misconceptions about the maker movement?

The biggest misconception is that it’s just for techies or geeks. It’s not; it’s for everybody. Artists, scientists, cosplayers, anybody. And all ages. Another misconception is that a makerspace is mainly a 3-D printing place. The reason for that is that 3-D printing grew up during the maker movement. So, it’s a very popular tool that makers do use and is usually readily available in library makerspaces and across the board but it’s only one tool in the tool box.

Does it cost big bucks to join a makerspace?

There are makerspaces that are completely free and open to the community. Those are usually what you’ll find in a library and schools. There are also makerspaces that are member- and dues-based. Those are usually the community-driven ones, because somebody has to pay for the space and the upkeep. It’s also a safety thing, too. Once you start getting into tools that really can hurt people, you want to make sure it’s a membership organization for safety. You don’t want anyone walking in off the street and saying, ‘Yeah, I know how to use this blade’ and next thing you know they are in the hospital. But you will find that a lot of the community-based makerspaces, even if they are fee-based, often have reduced-fee programs for students.

How do you find makerspaces?

Start with an internet search for “makerspace” in your area, contact local libraries and check out your own college or university — so many today have on-campus makerspaces. The biggest thing is: Just go. If you don’t find a makerspace that has something you’re interested in, find another one. There are so many of them. Be willing to go outside your comfort zone. And you don’t have to wait until you have a project to go to a makerspace. Just go and see what other people are doing and make some friends.

How do you create a makerspace?

Just start. Find a few people who have like interests — your friends, other college students. If you’re passionate about coffee making put up a bulletin board notice that says ‘Let’s get together and make coffee.’ Or say ‘I want to learn electronics.’ You don’t need to start with a big space full of equipment.

How do you overcome the fear of trying something out of your comfort zone?

Be brave. Just give it a shot. We’ve taught our generation to fear failure. That saying ‘failure is not an option’ is actually a big disservice. I love the saying of Adam Savage (former co-host) of “MythBusters,” who is a huge spokesman for the maker movement. He says, ‘Failure is always an option.’ It really is, and that’s good. So, I say, be brave, be willing to fail and not give up. Because it’s not the failure that is the problem, it’s the stopping. It’s OK; that’s how you learn. If everyone learning to walk gave up when we fell, none of us would be walking.

Maker Resources

  • Hackerspaces

    An informal volunteer network of community-operated physical spaces where people share their interest in tinkering with technology, meet and work on their projects and learn from each other. Includes a wiki to share stories and ask questions.

  • Maker Directory

    Created to help makers and makerspaces find the resources they need quickly in a searchable catalog.

  • Fab Foundation

    The foundation facilitates and supports the growth of its international Fab Lab network, and focuses on education, organizational capacity building and services, and business opportunity. Information about Fab Labs, Fab Projects, Fab Research and more.

  • MakeSchools

    Launched in 2014, this website is a shared knowledge base and higher education community cataloging the value and impact of maker culture in universities across the country. Institutional leaders, faculty, students and staff are invited to contribute.

  • Makerspaces.com

    Offers all kinds of maker resources from project ideas to tutorials to suppliers.

  • Make Magazine

    Features a wealth of information for makers plus is a springboard to other Make websites, including one dedicated to Maker Faires; another about Makerspaces, which features a searchable worldwide directory of makerspaces and Makershare, where makers can share their projects and build portfolios.

  • Meetup – Makerspaces

    Find out what’s happening in Makerspaces Meetup groups in your neighborhood and around the world.