Granite Geek: A Makerspace at Amherst Middle School

Aug 31, 2016

“Makerspaces” are popping up in cities across the country, and the New Hampshire town of Amherst is about to get one of its own. These places usually charge a monthly fee for access to tools that might be too costly to buy and store at your home. For example, 3D printers, welding gear, table saws—all tools that may require a large investment for your relatively small project. Granite Geek David Brooks has been reporting for The Concord Monitor on the new makerspace in Amherst. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

David, the Amherst Makerspace is planning on opening in the middle of September. What’s it planning to offer?

It’s going to be very much your standard makerspace. These are often described as a “membership gym for geeks.” You become a member at a gym so you can use the treadmill and the swimming pool. You become a member at a makerspace to use the tools.

This one will have everything from stoves—so if you wanted to do a culinary experiment. It’s got a kiln, various woodworking tools, metallurgy tools (including welding equipment). It has a computer room so you can learn open source computer things.

It’s the sort of package of equipment and other people with experience that you’d find in the makerspaces in, say, Nashua, or Manchester, or Portsmouth.

David Brooks is a reporter for The Concord Monitor and writer at granitegeek.org.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

  So it’s not just the equipment, it’s the people with experience who could help you use the tools or at least use them safely.

That certainly is the idea. It’s a community as much as…again, like a gym. You go to a gym and talk to people about exercise and get better. You go to a makerspace and ask them how they made that cool thing over there and you learn something.

And what’s making this one a little unusual is that it’s in a school.

Very unusual, maybe even unique. I don’t know of another one that does this, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

This one is going to open in Amherst Middle School itself. It’s not going to be open during school hours, but after the school closes—starting about 4 o’clock on weekdays and on weekends—if you’re a member, you can show up and swipe your card and make use of the tools and the space.

There is a couple of reasons why this has worked. One of them is, frankly, the layout of the school. In my career, I’ve covered a lot of local school systems and there’s always debate about how we can better use these buildings for the community. The problem is always the safety of the kids. How can you let people wander through the school?

Fortunately there is an “innovation wing” at the school, for home ec and shop kind of classes. The computer lab. It’s all a separate wing.

Basically when school ends they will close that wing off from the rest of the school so the public can come in but you can’t go wandering around the rest of the school, and that’s what’s making this possible.

Perhaps it’s one of the things that’ll help it succeed, because these makerspaces have no guarantee they’ll last more than a year.

I know of two, actually, that have started and then fizzled. Because they’re volunteer-run groups, and it depends on whoever is there and raising money and all that annoying stuff.

So Amherst, the town Rec Department will be handling membership and taking the money, which is one of the things that tends to be a real problem. And of course there’s the school system, which already has the building, has janitors to clean it. So there’s a certain amount of structure already. A couple of the board members are teachers or are associated with the school system. I think this will make it much more likely to succeed.

It seems like makerspaces are relatively new. In your opinion, David, are they a fad?

Five years ago, I would have said they were a fad. The first one started more than five years ago now in Nashua. But it’s gone beyond fad for two reasons.

One: it’s like STEM education for adults. So it plays into the concern or desire we have to make American more technical.

Two: it plays into the desire for technical entrepreneurship. In particular, the one in Nashua, the MakeIt labs—they’ve definitely been selling themselves as a pre-incubator where entrepreneurs with ideas can go down and fiddle with it and maybe decide whether they really have an invention and if they do they can try to incubate something that could turn into a start-up. So it’s made it more interesting than just a plaything for guys who like dangerous tools.

Guys like yourself, for example.

Well, no, soldering class—I’d come out with bandages on my fingers.

So you’re not a member?

No, I’m a theoretician. Not somebody who actually accomplishes anything.

So you don’t know what you’d build if you were a member of a makerspace?

Oh, I certainly do. I’d build a robot to write newspaper columns. That’s easy.