Maker faires: Building the future

In this Big Picture Interview, Dorothy Jones-Davis and Meredith Lee explore how to foster interest in manufacturing and industrial careers.

Dorothy Jones-Davis and Meredith Lee are two of the co-founders of NationofMakers.org, created to celebrate the “creativity, ingenuity and diversity of America’s Maker Community.” NoM co-produces the National Maker Faire, taking place in Washington, D.C., this year as part of National Week of Making, June 17–23. Jones-Davis, a neuroscientist who completed an an AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship with the National Science Foundation, and Lee, executive director of the West Big Data Innovation Hub, talked with Plant Services about the booming popularity of maker events.

PS: “Maker” events seem to be exploding in popularity across the country for kids and adults alike. What do you think is resonating so strongly right now about this concept of hands-on building and creating?

DJD: I think a lot of it is the hands-on nature of the actual discovery process. I think most people discover and learn best when they are able to experience something with their own hands. I think there’s no better way to learn how something works than to take it apart.

ML: Looking at tech shops and workshops that are open, things that are happening at community libraries – (it’s) making it so much easier for people to join those grassroots efforts, and they don’t have to have any formal education. A lot of this is actually a lot more fun when it’s informal education.

PS: How do you see these events expanding interest in this sort of entrepreneurial product development and problem-solving – and getting people to see manufacturing in new ways?

DJD: I think that in some ways what we do as humans and what we’re able to do is sort of limited by two things: One is our creativity and our ability to think big, and then the other is the resources you have to put out whatever you’re thinking. I think that this democratization that’s happening is changing the landscape of the tools that people have available to them, especially young people, and giving them the freedom to really go where their minds are taking them.

One of the recent examples in the news was the kid who 3D-printed his braces. Braces are expensive, and he was a little upset that he would have crooked teeth for a while because of the cost. He said, I have a 3D printer; I’m going to create a mold and figure out how to make braces myself. The ability to manufacture something yourself and at home has become more accessible. You don’t have to know how to code to create something. All of (the barriers are) coming down; the cost is coming down, and I think that’s changing the landscape.

PS: Do institutions and industry see a real connection between maker events and both developing their workforce and encouraging American innovation?

DJD: I think that they definitely get it. I think they really see this as not just a fad but really a way to kind of change how manufacturing is seen, to revitalize manufacturing, to bring in new folks and new ideas and really push the boundaries of what we’ve manufactured in the past and how we do it.

In terms of investment, you’re seeing lots of companies come forward and say, “We want to invest in this, and we really do see the link (to) job creation, between this being important and the innovations we can make.”

ML: During my AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, I was supporting the innovation director at the Department of Homeland Security. With industry partners and other agencies, we were moving the community forward in areas such as advanced manufacturing and connecting with makers. It’s not only a way to support workforce development; it’s about generating solutions to pressing problems and developing compelling technologies.

PS: What do you hope to achieve as National Maker Faire grows this year and through the National Week of Making?

DJD: “How do we get kids who may not have envisioned these types of careers for themselves into fields like engineering and advanced manufacturing?” is a crucial interest to me and something that I think we have an opportunity here to do something with. The maker movement isn’t the solution to everything, but it’s certainly in some ways low-hanging fruit that can make a difference.

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