This holiday season, the White House held its first 3D-printed Ornament Challenge. The winning ornaments are now being displayed in the White House for its thousands of visitors to see. Later, they will be placed in the political history division of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
This contest comes on the heels of the White House’s first Maker Faire this summer. During the event, President Barack Obama proclaimed June 18, 2014 as National Day of Making.
“I think it’s finally hit mainstream. It’s taken us a long time but it’s at a tipping point,” said Bridgette Vanderlaan, director of marketing and public relations at Maker Media, the organization that created and hosts Maker Faires across the country.
But what is ‘making’ exactly?
“Maker means something different to everyone,” said Vanderlaan.
But it is often simply considered tech-influenced DIY. Making is also often referred to as "hacking," that is, repurposing technology for one's own use.
“Whether you’re into coding, robotics, or crafting. Everyone’s a maker. If you have someone in your family who cooks, they’re making,” said Vanderlaan.
According to its website, Maker Media’s founder Dale Doughtery coined the terms “Makers” and “Maker Movement” in 2005 and had its first Maker Faire a year later. The White House’s Maker Faire was on a much smaller scale than the 110,000 attendees and 900 makers who visited the Maker Faire in California’s Bay Area in 2012.
As for the future of Maker Media, Vanderlaan hopes to continue to drive conversation and discover trends.
“We have more and more venture capitalists coming to look at them more seriously. The projects are fun but many are becoming more and more practical,” said Vanderlaan.
While two-thirds of attendees are male, Vanderlaan explained that Make magazine has a large male readership and the “people who end up buying tickets are the folks who have a subscription to Make magazine. You’ll see almost 89 percent also go with their families.”
Ultimately, the organization aims to encourage more people to try their hand at making, well, anything.
“We hope to really inspire what’s happening in the community. We don’t want people to go in and have a good time and then forget about it,” Vanderlaan said.
Luz Rivas founded DIY Girls after seeing a need for programs where girls can learn hands-on tech skills and make things. As a child, she learned to program computers and took computer science classes before going on to study engineering in college.
After a career working in the tech industry, Rivas decided to do her part in addressing the lack of diversity in the field by creating DIY Girls. Women account for only 26 percent of professional computer occupations, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“Girls in our program are realizing that they can be creators. They’re sharing their experiences with their families and teachers and are linking what they are learning with us with their own interests, as well as academic subjects,” said Rivas.
Rivas is proud of the work she’s done with these students.
“The girls who have participated in our program ask me what's next when it's over,” said Rivas. “It means that they really want more and that we got them excited to demand more.”
The members of the Huntington Beach Hacker Sparks have designed their own costumes, learned how to make a compass and will soon create model rockets.
For Jessica Best, who leads this hacker group of kids seven and younger, the group offers her something too.
“It means a way to connect with my son, who’s on the [autism] spectrum, and other kids like him. It’s a way to enrich his education with programs that aren't typically offered in public schools,” Best said.
She remembers one of her most quiet Sparks’ members lighting up with excitement and gushing about a lesson on squishy circuits (using play-dough with batteries and LED lights).
“I'm a graphic designer and a soccer mom, what do I know about teaching kids how an electromagnet works?” Best mused. “Yet I do it, and get the other moms involved, and the kids excited, and learn as I go.”
The combination of high-tech and low-tech and the importance of highlighting the ‘Art’ in STEAM to compliment the well lauded Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, is what the maker movement is all about.
“We can have a generation of engineers and mathematicians, but without creative thinking and an awareness of aesthetics, they'll still stagnate.”
Two years ago, Levi Simons helped establish the Los Angeles Makerspace with two fellow makers. He currently serves as the director of their Citizen Science program, often crowd-funded research notably done by amateur scientists.
As a science teacher, Simons saw firsthand the need for more experiential learning for his students to fully grasp the material and see its importance.
He referred to the “interesting sweet spot” of the 1980s or 1990s where computers were useful and easy enough to operate but not as failsafe to be able to get away with not knowing, at least somewhat, how they worked.
“Now, they’re so insanely easy, anybody has essentially more computing power than NASA in the 1960s in their pocket and they use it to play Scrabble and look up where Thai food is,” said Simons.
He wants to return to those earlier days.
“The hacker movement really gives some ownership back. You can actually reach into the guts of it and start to figure out what’s going on again,” said Simons.
While he’s happy to see the growing interest in the maker movement, he’s cautious about how far it will spread.
“There is a cachet with it when people see Maker Faire at Burning Man and they’re like, ‘Wow that looks cool. I wish I was involved with it,’” said Simons. “I don’t want to do any of the work or learn any of the engineering or science, but if I stand close enough to the people doing it, perhaps that coolness will rub off on me.”
Mads Christensen is one of those cool Burning Man people.
After attending the festival for the first time in 2005 and seeing art installations based on LED technology, Christensen was inspired to create his own art. He decided to put his engineering background to use and now works primarily with LED lights.
One of his sculptures, “Ripple,” was chosen as an Art Honorarium project for this year’s Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada.
These days, equipment most favored by makers like 3-D printers, laser engravers and welders, are much more accessible in both price and quantity.
“Back when I learned ages ago, it was really difficult and you needed a lot of tools and a lot of equipment,” Christensen said.
And Christensen believes that while his background may benefit his planning process by allowing him “a sense of what’s possible and not possible,” people who don’t have a science degree can find just as much success in making.
“Because there’s always help. You can search for it on the Internet,” said Christensen. “You can find someone who’s done something similar and you can ask them what they did. It’s a very welcoming environment.”
Jawn McQuade is one half of the Maker Boys, two entrepreneurs working to make making easier. They released a book about cheap and easy DIY projects in 2013.
“We were mostly inspired because we noticed that so many people were excusing themselves from making things,” said McQuade.
The business partners taught DIY workshops for a few years before launching their company, MakersKit. They had a successful Kickstarter campaign last year to fund the launch of their monthly DIY kits of things like light fixtures and terraniums, to go along with their workshops and instructional videos. Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters and Macys have even picked up their products.
“Most of us have full time jobs, have kids, or just simply don’t know where to begin,” McQuade said. “We wanted to solve those problems by giving people a simple entry point.”
To him, the growing attention to making was only a matter of time.
“When something grows in size dramatically, and you also have a crowd that’s very passionate, its hard not to take notice,” he said.