Building A Nation Of Makers

09/12/2016 02:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2016
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Recently, the Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a White House meeting of over 175 organizers of makerspaces. Passionate and creative organizers shared their ideas for building vibrant and inclusive Maker communities in cities and towns across the country.

The meeting supported President Obama's Nation of Makers initiative, which he launched at the first ever White House Maker Faire in 2014. This effort is designed to ensure that more students, entrepreneurs, and Americans of all backgrounds have access to a new class of technologies--such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools--that are enabling more Americans to design, build, and manufacture just about anything. This initiative was featured in a report of 100 examples of President Obama's leadership in science, technology, and innovation.

In recent years, participation in the Maker Movement by individuals and organizations across the United States and around the world has grown dramatically. More individuals are interested in being producers, not just consumers, and 2.3 million people have attended maker events around the world. The hardware and software tools needed to design and make just about anything are becoming more powerful, less expensive, and easier to use, and individuals can now get access to these tools at both commercial and non-profit makerspaces, TechShops, and Fab Labs. More and more organizations are recognizing the value of making for education, workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship, advanced manufacturing, and economic development, including leading companies such as Intel, Autodesk, Chevron, Ford, Google, and GE.

President Obama has recognized the Maker Movement as a national priority for a variety of reasons.

First, making advances values and disposition that are ends in themselves, such as curiosity, creative confidence, self-expression, invention, and collaboration.

Second, making has a role to play in education and life-long learning. It can inspire more young people to excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, connect their learning to real-world, personally meaningful problems, and reverse the decline in student engagement. Survey data reveals that two-thirds of high school students report being bored every day.

In 2010, a team of 15 teens from a low-income school in West Philly showed us what's possible when our young people are challenged to solve real-world problems. When competing for the $10 million Automotive X Prize, they built a fuel-efficient hybrid car that outperformed other fuel-efficient cars built by professional engineers and graduate students from top universities. In a region with a drop-out rate of over 50 percent, every single member of the team graduated. Inspired in part by that experience, the teacher who led the team has now launched an entire public school focused on student learning through solving hands-on, real-world problems.

Third, making could help promote innovation in hardware and manufactured products. In the same way that cloud computing and open source software has lowered the costs and the barriers to entry for digital innovation, makerspaces could make it easier for an entrepreneur with a great idea for a manufactured product. Entrepreneurs can also take advantage of crowd-funding, open source hardware, accelerators and incubators focused on hardware startups, and low-cost components (e.g. sensors, cameras, semiconductors) created for smartphones. In the same way that companies such as Apple emerged from the Homebrew Computer Club, the 1970s version of the Maker Movement, some Makers are already turning "pro" and launching startups.

Finally, Makers can become an enormous asset for solving societal challenges. One non-profit (Tikkun Olama Maker) brings together Makers and people with disability to co-design assistive technologies. These "makeathons" have created prototypes of solutions that allow people with disabilities to get in and out of a wheelchair, open doors, grab objects, and go kayaking.

If we want to ensure that more Americans have access to these opportunities, we need to take the phrase "Maker Movement" literally. Movements have goals, and the organizational capacity to mobilize people and resources to meet those goals.

One concrete next step would be increase the number of regions that have mapped their assets and current initiatives, identified an ambitious but achievable goal, and are bringing together the people, organizations and resources needed to achieve that goal.

Fortunately, a growing number of organizations are recognizing that they can both benefit from and contribute to the Maker Movement.

• Companies such as Ford Motor are serving as "anchor tenants" for TechShops. In addition to helping Ford increase the number of employee inventions, this TechShop also benefits the broader Detroit community.

• Schools such as Elizabeth Forward in western Pennsylvania have built a "Dream Factory" - a makerspace that allows students to work on real-world projects that integrate Career and Technical Education, computer science, and the arts. This has increased student test scores and graduation rates. School leaders in 1,400 schools representing 1 million students have signed the "Maker Promise" to unleash students' passion and capacity to make.

• Case Western Reserve University is investing in a 50,000 square foot facility called the think[box] with space for prototyping, fabrication and business incubation. MIT is allowing students applying to MIT to submit their Maker portfolio in addition to their SAT and GPA scores.

• Over 100 Mayors have taken the Mayors Maker Challenge because of its potential to foster economic development, job creation, and entrepreneurship in advanced manufacturing and hardware. Many cities are participating in the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, which is pulling together experts in workforce development, real estate development and local branding. These efforts are helping entrepreneurs make the transition from Maker to manufacturer.

• Libraries, science museums, after-school programs, and other non-profits are increasing access to makerspaces and mentors. In Pittsburgh, foundations such as the Grable Foundation have helped create a network of 250 organizations (the Remake Learning Network) committed to reimagining learning for the 21st century. This network recently announced commitments of more than $25 million to support hands-on, personalized learning, including Making.

The world needs more makers, inventors, problem-solvers, and entrepreneurs. In the years ahead, I hope that more individuals and organizations work together in communities across the country to increase the number of people - young and old - that have the chance to get involved. For, as President Obama noted, we must "recommit to sparking the creative confidence of all Americans and to giving them the skills, mentors, and resources they need to harness their passion and tackle some of our planet's greatest challenges."