How to Start a Makerspace in Small Town America

If the Maker Movement is truly for everyone, one of the challenges it faces is creating bastions for learning in even the most remote places. There’s no doubt that makerspaces, places that are emblematic of the Maker Movement, are spreading everywhere these days. But if we look at where that’s happening, and the places that get the most attention in publications like MAKE, we often wind up in an urban, high-density area.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, or isn’t happening, in the suburbs and exurbs, though.

Starting a makerspace in a small town comes with many challenges that spaces in cities do not face. Lower population density, lesser awareness of the Maker Movement, and lack of convenient public transit to and from the space being a few of those things. But with a little luck, a lot of hard work, and the help and understanding of your community, you can make it happen.

SpaceLab, the second small town makerspace that I’ve co-founded in the Chicago suburbs, has just proven that very thing. The first Kickstarter campaign launched since the new “makerspace” category was announced at the White House Makerfaire, and the first successfully funded small town space, SpaceLab proves that Making is truly for everyone, no matter if they’re in a city, a suburb, or a small rural town.

So how did we attack the problems that small suburban spaces face?

To combat the awareness problem, we forged local partnerships with our village government, local libraries, schools, other local non-profits, and a relentless outreach program through local television and newspapers. Ongoing scheduled classes with these organizations, as well as press and media calling for all people to join us, and programs with big speakers from in the city drew people in.

The public transit problem was something else we were concerned about. To fix it, we looked for a location in the most convenient high-density area in our town, eventually choosing a place near the train depot in our semi-abandoned but still convenient commercial downtown area. Being within walking distance of a train, a bike trail, and other local businesses has been a huge boon to SpaceLab.

Finally, we needed to convince people that they were a part of the Maker Movement: they just didn’t know it yet! We did this through a series of articles in the local newspaper, as well as classes, that emphasized the empowering message of creating and fixing the things that we own.

My advice for other small town makerspaces? You need to build a support system within your community in order to succeed. Spread the fundamental ideals of the Maker Movement: teaching, learning, growing. Share your vision with anybody who will listen. Everything else will fall into place.


Making a Makerspace: Case Western’s think[box] and its great playbook

We’ve known Ian Charnas as part of a team that built the wonderfully whimsical Waterfall Swing, which you may have seen at Maker Faire, on “The Today Show”, or on the roof of a museum in Linz, Austria.

But Ian’s day job is welcoming about 3,000 visitors a month to through the doors of think[box] at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. At MakerCon today, he shared some of the strategies he uses as the manager of this makerspace that is free and open to members of the community: not just the faculty, students, and staff of Case Western, but everyone who needs to make in greater Cleveland. Wow!

How can this space run with only two full-time staff and a team of students? It’s not some kind of special Ohio mojo that makes this miracle happen. Ian has built up a rich stash of tutorials and posters and other systems to make think[box] “self-service”, and he shared these in the talk, linked above, and on the site thinkbox.case.edu/about/playbook.

Anyone starting or running a makerspace will want to check these out.

We have some resources at makerspace.com, too. But if you have anything else useful you use in your makerspace, send it on over so we can share it with Ian and other makerspaces, and get it out there to others who are just starting out or, like Ian, want to make their spaces run more efficiently (all in the name of leaving more time for making!)