30 Apr 2012, 5:30pm
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In Othernews

After two years of giant art projects, running away to join the circus, too much minecraft, and the occasional robot contract, I’ve re-entered the world of gainful employment. I’m working at a little independant research lab situated in a former pipe organ factory, called Otherlab.

It’s an amazingly quirky little spot, doing everything from advanced robotics research, to electric vehicles, solar energy and education. I’m working on the education part. We’re working on building a platform to lower the cost and increase the accessibility of science, technology, engineering and math education. As a self-taught engineer, this is a topic very near and dear to my heart.

The project is part of DARPA’s educational initiative, MENTOR. We have three goals. First, to build an extremely low cost CNC machine that can cut out cardboard patterns. Second, a set of projects that kids, adults, and the general public can build using this machine. Third, a platform where they can document their experience, what they learned along the way, and share it with other people in a way that allows the knowledge base to collective advance and grow.

It’s got some lofty goals, and we have a very short amount of time to do it in. This is probably why I missed an internet debate about my project that flared up recently. It started with the following post from Noisebridge co-founder Mitch Altman:

“It’s official. I’m greatly saddened that I won’t be able to help at this year’s US Maker Faires after they applied for and accepted a grant from DARPA. I look forward to working and playing at Maker Faire again, after they are no longer associated with DARPA.”

He goes on later to say,

“My main reason for making my decision public is to encourage public discussion on this important topic. I’m glad it’s working. We really need to consciously make choices on what we do for money. In my mind, it is not about the money. My hope is that we do what we do because we are exploring and doing what we love (whatever that means to you!).”

Sure, I suppose we can spend some time discussing this. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen pop up in a few places, not just around government attention, but corporate attention as well. This is how I personally feel about it:

Over the last decade, I’ve watched the Maker community slowly growing into something really wonderful. I’ve watched friends start hackerspaces, build open source hardware businesses, and countless folks go out into the world and make amazing things. The rest of society has started to wake up and take notice. From big business, to the government, to hollywood: everyone wants to know what we’re about. They want in because frankly, I think we’re winning.

Maker culture is spreading, and there are a lot of newcomers. I think its only natural that many of its early leaders would feel nervous about all this new attention. After all, we built this new world up because the old one didn’t work for us, and we don’t want to see it ruined. Not an unreasonable fear, but rather than jealously defending the tree fort, I think we should be inviting them in.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride at times. Not everyone is going get our ideals, and our values. We’re going to have some weird conversations, like when we explain to big business how giving away all their intellectual property creates more market opportunity, not less. However, these conversations are going to happen, weather we want them to or not, and the participation culture should include all of society, not just the San Francisco hackers with funky dyed hair*.

This is why I think working on the MENTOR project is awesome. I like its goals: improve STEM education in America with open technology. (I even hear we get bonus points if it improves it elsewhere…) We’re trying to bring the DIY culture to the classroom.

I’m not afraid of big business, or our government, or the entertainment industry coming in and “ruining” our culture. I think our ideals are more resilient than that. I’m afraid of missing an opportunity to change theirs.

Who knows, I might even learn something from them as well. It’s what sharing ideas is all about.

*It’s currently red, in case you where wondering.