SouthWorks MakerLab Network Opens 6th Site
The buzz about innovation and STEM continues to grow across the Southland.
Students and adults alike are building robots and having fun while learning Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) subjects and 21st Century job skills. Inventors and tinkerers build prototypes of their new products or just some whimsical contraption. Others take things apart to figure out how they work, and then they reinvent them. Artisans learn new tools such as 3D printers and laser engravers, and share their existing skills with a new generation. Faculty learn new tools and techniques for making STEAM accessible and exciting to their students. Curious types learn how everyday things work and customize them to suit their own needs. Such “Making” is growing across the region, and it is receiving much support from an expanding network of “maker”labs.
On March 29th, Joliet Junior College opened its MakerLab at its Main campus, marking the sixth MakerLab in the year-old SouthWorks MakerLab Network. Developed by local community colleges and universities through their South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium (SMHEC) partnering with economic development organizations and municipalities, SouthWorks is an effort to provide access to “making” to the entire region in order to improve STEM results in our schools, improve workforce skills that meet the future needs of our industry, and jumpstart more innovation leading to new businesses and new jobs for the region. And it’s also a place to have fun playing and making.
On recent visits to the MakerLabs,
- Sixth Grade Girl Scouts learned about electronics and programming using Arduinos. they had fun building the circuits and programming flashing lights, motion detectorsn and Star Wars music, along the way learning quite a bit about new technologies.
- A gardener with a product idea is conferring with others in the MakerLab on how to make her idea become a reality.
- A retired doctor now into art asks about using the laser cutter and CNC mill for his stained glass projects and an acrylic sculpture he wants to build.
- A lifelong Maker discusses the 3D printers he has built and agrees to hold a workshop to guide others to build their own.
- Someone 3D prints table leg cushions that he can’t buy anywhere anymore. Another laser engraves Batman logos on wood and plastic discs.
- A group of teachers experiment with the equipment and discover how it can improve the learning in their classrooms.
What exactly is a MakerLab? Some have described MakerLabs as the next step in the industrial revolution. Others as a welcome return to effective hands-on learning. Either way, it as an open community space which includes elements from workshops, design studios, machine shops, and collaborative spaces. Novices rub elbows with experts, help is readily offered and learning new skills is valued. In these spaces, students, entrepreneurs, businesses, hobbyists, artists and the curious design and collaborate, making physical objects and electronic products using everything from sewing machines to new but very accessible technologies such as 3D printers. For example, on a recent Saturday, a group of middle school Girl Scouts learned how to program a powerful Arduino micro-controller and build electronic circuits from a former Bell Labs scientist who fifteen years ago built million dollar micro-controllers not as powerful as the $15 Arduino.
Prairie State College was the first community college in Illinois to open a MakerLab, and it offers access to typical MakerLab equipment as well as its manufacturing and electronics labs, so users can weld, bend metal, and utilize other industry-level manufacturing equipment once they receive some basic safety and usage training.
South Suburban College recently opened its MakerLab on its Oak Forest campus. The MakerLab contains 3D printers, vinyl cutters, laser engravers, electronics, and more that is open to the public on a membership basis. Open hours are free for most of this summer, and a membership plan begins afterward.
SouthWorks MakerLab Park Forest is located in the Park Forest Mall and run by OAI- a workforce development non-profit- in space provided by the Village of Park Forest. Introductory workshops, entrepreneurship programming and open lab hours are available. The MakerLab is the exclusive provider of etsy’s Craft Entrepeneurship programming in Chicagoland. The plan is that the SouthWorks MakerLab Network will provide support for additional off-campus spaces across the region- libraries and other public spaces would be ideal supplementary spaces providing access and programming so that all ages and skill levels will have exposure to making.
Joliet Junior College has its MakerLab in its Architectural Arts department adjacent to the Small Business Development Center. Already, entrepreneurs with product ideas are using the space to build prototypes in order to test their performance but also to give potential users an opportunity to use it and provide feedback. In addition, several workshops and camps are offered.
Lewis Universityhas a MakerLab inside its Computer Science Department, and the plan is to have students from across campus utilize the MakerLab for projects as well as for their own enjoyment.
The concept really began at Illinois Institute of Technology- now Illinois Tech-in 2010. The IIT IdeaShop provides students with the tools to build prototypes for class projects –some their own inventions- as well as to tinker on their own. Several businesses have begun in the IdeaShop. Every IIT student- whether an engineer or a psychology major- must take two classes that utilize the IdeaShop.
Eventually, an Innovation Hub will be created to provide incubation space, additional equipment, and business mentoring and other support for new businesses arising from the renewed sense of possibilities and innovation the SouthWorks MakerLab Network has created.
For further information, contact the individual MakerLabs using the links above or visit the South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium website- http://www.southmetroed.org/programs/southworks-makerlab-network