Patrick Buckley had an idea. After hearing about the launch of the iPad in 2010, the mechanical engineering graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wanted to construct a case that would evoke the feeling of holding a book and carry on traditional bookbinding techniques.
Buckley knew what he wanted to build, he just didn’t know how. So he did what many of his friends were already doing: visit the TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif. Buckley got to work sculpting bamboo, bouncing ideas off fellow makers, and in just two weeks, the DoDocase was prototyped and ready for production development.
“Getting people thinking about what they can make and exposing them to this collective knowledge is a great asset for hackerspaces,” Buckley said. “Once you’ve made something and proven you can make it, your imagination opens up and allows you to develop a broader sense of what is possible.”
Members work on woodworking projects at TechShop in San Francisco in March 2011.
Spinning off the now-robust maker movement, TechShop franchises and other open-source hackerspaces — physical places where community members can meet and work on projects — are providing a creative outlet for up-and-coming creators, tinkerers and hackers. Filled with manufacturing tools like mills and 3D printers, the spaces are helping reconnect students with tactile skills in everything from sewing to laser cutting. More than 1,100 hackerspaces can be found throughout the world, each with its own look and vibe to fit the community.
The hands-on approach to learning is exactly what inspired early hackerspace adopters such as Mitch Altman, a Silicon Valley inventor and co-founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco. While visiting Germany’s Chaos Computer Club in 2007, Altman and a group of friends learned about the diverse, communal spaces and decided to bring a similar model back to the United States.
Although a few hackerspaces have existed quietly since the 1950s, an emerging do-it-yourself attitude is drawing students from every sort of background out of the lecture hall and into these entrepreneurial ecosystems to turn lessons into businesses.
“So much in college is about learning theory — the how and why — but not much in the way of actual practice of how we operate every day,” Altman said. “These spaces are based on the goal of making things for real-world use. When people want to start a hackerspace, it happens and the world becomes a better place.”
In Gainesville, Fla., there’s even a summer program dedicated to the hackerspace model. The Hackerhouse, a three-month venture that will put eight students under one roof to collaborate and develop eight separate business prototypes, is starting this May.
“It’s going to provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live and breathe what it takes to start a tech company,” said serial entrepreneur Augi Lye, the program’s director.
Universities are also entering into their own hackerspace partnerships, with programs like Arizona State University’s (ASU) College of Technology and Innovation partnering with TechShop for a downtown hackerspace.
“I think it is the next step in the evolution of open innovation and creating more open access to tools,” said Mitzi Montoya, the college’s dean.
The idea to bring TechShop to ASU surfaced last year when Montoya sat on the New America Foundation panel with TechShop founder Jim Newton and the editor of MAKE Magazine. Montoya expects other universities to follow suit.
“Partnerships like these help spur collaboration between community entrepreneurs and student entrepreneurs in a way that would be hard for us to create on our own,” Montoya said.
Just getting started is the main hurdle many student entrepreneurs have to overcome, as Buckley, DoDocase’s creator, discovered. To combat “analysis paralysis,” Buckley says creators have to quit waiting for perfect conditions and just make something.
“I had a professor who used to say, ‘Hurry up and make all your mistakes,’ to students who were stuck and didn’t know where to start on a project,” Buckley said. “These spaces serve as an accelerator for getting past those mistakes and ending up with a complete project. Nothing happens by just thinking about it.”
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