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Granite Geek: When it includes a public makerspace, you might actually want to go back to middle school

  • The entrance sign at the back of Amherst Middle School. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • The popularity of a welding class for adults helped spur the development of the Amherst Makerspace. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • All makerspaces encourage safety, but when you’re in a school, safety is even more important.  David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • Amherst Middle School tech teacher Steve Opre tells students about how to find the grain of wood when cutting a board, in part of the Amherst Makerspace, which opens Sept. 15. David Brooks /Monitor staff

Published: 8/30/2016 12:30:04 AM

Certain experiences are nearly universal, which is why most adults look back on the tumult of pubescence and think, “Thank goodness I never have to set foot in middle school again.”

Except maybe in Amherst. There, adults will soon be able to think, “Thank goodness I can set foot in middle school to play with lasers and acetylene torches and pottery kilns and other dangerous tools – woo-hoo!”

That surprising sentiment exists because Amherst Middle School is about to launch a public makerspace, an unusual collaboration among the school system, town recreation department and local artisans and engineers.

“A lot of this we’re building as we go, figuring it out. So far everybody’s been on board, excited about it, willing to work with us no matter what,” said Brad Freeman, network administrator for the school district and one of the driving forces behind Amherst Makerspace, which opens Sept. 15.

For roughly $20 a month, depending on which membership you choose, anybody can have access after school and on weekends to a half-dozen rooms full of equipment bought by the school over the years, from stoves to art supplies, 3-D printers to table saws, computers to vinyl cutters.

And if all goes well, Amherst Makerspace fees will pay for more tools down the road.

“I want a CNC (computer-controlled machine tool), a stand-up lathe,” mused Marcel Chabot, a software engineer and one of the founders. “If the makerspace pays for equipment, then it’s here for the kids to use, and here for the community to use.”

Makerspaces, as you may know, are best described as membership gyms for geeks, although they also embrace creative types who have never touched a soldering iron or power drill. In recent years, they’ve been cropping up in old warehouses, mill buildings and industrial space across the country, including at least three in New Hampshire. (Although none are in the Concord area; what gives?)

The increasing interest is partly in response to concern that America is losing its tech edge, since makerspaces can be seen as STEM education for grown-ups.

The state’s first makerspace, MakeIt Labs in Nashua, peddles itself as an economic development tool because it allows local entrepreneurs to experiment before launching start-ups, as a kind of pre-incubator. That’s why it was supported by the state’s Community Development Finance Authority when it moved into much bigger space last year.

Makerspace interest extends to the White House. Adam Shrey, a co-founder of MakeIt Labs, was among those invited to Washington, D.C., last week for a conference with the inspiring title “A Nation of Makers.”

Many schools have created makerspaces, but they’re usually for students, often to replace the shop and home-ec classes that I grew up with. To my knowledge, no schools have opened up such facilities to the public, which is why the Amherst experiment is so interesting.

A big obstacle to opening one of these in a school is safety. A makerspace must be available to members whenever inspiration strikes, but today’s schools don’t want strangers wandering around.

Amherst Middle School is lucky that it has a separate wing holding the computer lab, art room, shop class and cooking class – all the stuff that a makerspace needs. At each day’s closing bell, the wing will be shut off from the rest of the school with a gate. Members can enter the back door with a key card, a system that will eventually be used to unlock the more dangerous tools, both to protect kids during the day and to protect adults who haven’t had the necessary training.

Steve Opre, who teaches technology classes in Amherst Middle School and whose success teaching welding in after-school classes helped fuel the drive for the makerspace, is among those looking forward to the launch.

“It’s tough to see these tools sitting idle. I’d love to have people use them,” Opre said.

It’s one thing to start something like this, but another to keep it going: I know of one New Hampshire makerspace that fizzled early.

Amherst Makerspace has some institutional advantages, including the way the town recreation department is handling back-office operations like organizing memberships and taking money. But like most such programs, it will be a nonprofit run by volunteers, which means it will live and die based on continued public participation.

All of this leads to one last intriguing idea. As an incentive to participate, Amherst Makerspace will offer a 50/50 split of fees to people who can put together a relevant workshop. That’s clever, since I imagine a popular class could put a couple of hundred bucks in the teacher’s pocket.

I’m putting together a syllabus for “How to spend several hours fooling around at your computer while pretending to write a newspaper story.” I think it’ll be a hit.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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