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Lasers, 3-D Printers, And Robots: The New Shop Class

DARPA is funding the creation of 1,000 Makerspaces in high schools across the country to get American kids interested in making things again.

"We have to move from an engine of bureaucracy to an engine of innovation," said Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, announcing this week that at least 1,000 high schools around the country will be opening up Makerspaces over the next four years.

What is a Makerspace, you ask? "It’s a place where you get to do things," Dale Dougherty, founder of O’Reilly Media’s Make magazine and creator of Maker Faire, told Co.Exist. "I think it’s sort of a mashup of a shop class, a computer lab, an art class, and maybe a bio lab."

The national Makerspace project is the brainchild of Dougherty and Saul Griffith, many-tentacled inventor and founder of Squid Labs, Instructables, and Howtoons, and is sponsored by a grant from DARPA MENTOR, the defense department’s research arm related to advancing manufacturing and reviving the nation’s strategic interest in making things; the organization is already sponsoring Makerspaces for adults, so this is a logical extension. There’s some pretty heavy national goals riding on this initiative: getting American kids excited about science, math and technology again and fostering a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. "I feel we’re at this point in time where people are looking for some substantial change in education," says Dale. "And I want to be that new thing."

All over the country, kids in hackerspaces and tech shops and in their own garages are making Mentos-and-Diet-Coke rockets, learning to use miter saws and laser cutters, programming kinetic walking dinosaur robots with Arduino microcontrollers, building homemade speakers out of clear PVC that lights up when the music plays, designing and printing 3-D coffee mugs for mom, and ultimately creating something completely new, then documenting and sharing their creations with others for free online or in person at a meetup, like a Maker Faire.

Whether the anarchic spirit of all this can survive a typical public school, where the mantra is "sit still and follow directions," is anyone’s guess. Dougherty says his inspiration is Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard movement: create the space and the practice will follow.