Inaugural 'maker' summit attendees rethink modern higher education

Kai Kight

The Maker Movement, a resurgence of hands-on learning with a modern-day, technological twist, is gaining ground in America. Seeded in the DIY community, it is growing from a renewed desire to not only create things, but to solve real-world problems and even make a living. Can it reinvigorate the nation’s economy, and what does it mean for how we educate our children?

Hundreds of people from across the country gathered recently at ASU’s Chandler Innovation Center to discuss these questions. Hosted by ASU’s Office of Entrepreneurship + Innovation, the inaugural Higher Education Maker Summit brought together teachers and students, engineers and artists, entrepreneurs and policymakers to discuss how education can be more hands-on and collaborative, all the way from preschool to college and beyond.

ASU is one of the signature universities that sent a letter to President Obama last summer committed to fostering the next generation of "makers." The university was already a leader in this area with maker spaces at the Polytechnic and Tempe campuses, and has since built the Chandler Innovation Center and partnered to bring TechShop there.

“The Maker Movement in education is about project-based learning. This is about self-directed, self-guided learning for fun and on purpose to get a project done, as opposed to doing a contrived project in class because a teacher told you to,” said Mitzi Montoya, vice president and university dean for entrepreneurship and innovation. “We see a rebirth of people’s interest in making things with their own hands, and not just solving things and doing everything on a computer. The real question is how can we use that where there is a clear, compelling drive of kids of all ages, including the young at heart, to learn not just by being taught from a book.”

A major misconception about making in higher education is that it only fits in certain majors, the most obvious being engineering. Yet the concepts for many new products or technologies start in the minds of many, for example people who work in health care, journalism, space science or the arts. Students often don’t have an opportunity to execute their ideas in a tangible way, and they don’t have the tools readily available to create or build things.

Creating maker spaces is one of the key elements of a maker culture discussed at the summit. ASU is the first university in the country to partner with TechShop, a membership-based fabrication studio where anyone aged 16 years or older, with proper training, can use the tools and work on their projects. This fall, ASU extended free memberships to any full-time ASU student, a program that has led to more than 400 student memberships in less than two months.

“People can have the same access to the tools Ford and Edison had, and Dean Kamen has now,” said Mark Hatch, CEO and co-founder of TechShop. “What we are seeing in these spaces is an amazing mix of people from different disciplines working together and being supported. That’s magical, and the sky is the limit on what you can make.”

Hatch said that making things is fundamental to what it means to be human, and he predicts that the Maker Movement is going to be bigger than the Internet “because we live in a physical space, not a virtual space.

“Software is making it easier to make physical objects that are performing at levels never before imaged. So it’s tapping into an old desire to make things with new tools that make it possible to make things that just 20 years ago were hard to imagine,” he said.

But can makers drive the U.S. economy? No doubt. According to Hatch, the three San Francisco area TechShops members have created $12 billion in incremental shareholder value, 2,000 jobs and $200 million in annual salaries. Literally, the state of California is pulling in more money on an annual basis from taxes from jobs created from maker spaces, he said, than was spent in building the three locations.

Micah Lande, assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering was one of the presenters at the summit. Lande, who founded the first Maker Corps site in Arizona, is an investigator on two National Science Foundation-funded projects with Polytechnic School colleague Shawn Jordan looking at young makers and their futures as engineers.

“When I think about making, to me, it comes down to practical ingenuity and how do you support that in an individual and in a student, and then prepare them for what’s next,” Lande said. “I have a lot of engineering students, and I don’t feel I’m training them for their first job. I’m helping them develop as a whole person and be able to follow whatever their interests are after they graduate.”