Making Gains Ground in Alameda

The Alameda Makers Consortium held a recent Makers Meet & Greet to explore creating an ecosystem of making to embrace the Island’s countless inventors, tinkerers, and hobbyists engaged in all types of do-it-yourself projects.


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Students at the Wood Middle School maker lab explore technology and design.

Photo by Chris Duffey

On a cool Thursday evening in November, Jean Chen stepped into the College of Alameda’s student center. Pausing to sign in at a registration table, she said, “I got a very mysterious Evite and was intrigued and decided to come—because it was makers, and I like making things.”

More than 100 people received the curious Evite, which identified the sender as Making Gains Momentum, the Alameda Makers Consortium, “a new and growing group of Alamedans representing our local schools, community college, industry, community organizations, and individuals, all working to build and support an ecosystem of making in our island city.” The kickoff event that night, a Makers Meet & Greet, fell in line with the broader maker movement, a global phenomenon powered by countless inventors, tinkerers, and hobbyists engaged in all types of do-it-yourself projects—everything from jewelry and clothing to rockets and robots. Local software company Perforce was listed on the Evite as a consortium member. “When I saw the Evite, I just thought it was kinda cool that people were starting something like this up in Alameda,” said Chen, who transforms beeswax and honey into assorted skin-care products, selling them under the label Bubble Farm Soap Co. “I wanted to meet other makers,” she said, adding, “Maybe people have resources or workshops or workspaces or machines.”

After Chen left the registration table in search of those other makers, Sean McPhetridge approached. The superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District had helped organize the proceedings and was brimming with excitement. Given his professional background, he expressed particular enthusiasm for the potential benefits to students. “I think the great thing about the maker movement,” he said, “is it’s a way for young people to be highly engaged, and to make sense of the world, and to make a difference, and to imagine a future that someone maybe of my age would not be able to imagine.”

Once the room had filled with the buzz of attendees mingling over plates of Vietnamese food from Dragon Rouge (compliments of Perforce), McPhetridge and a few of the other organizers delivered brief remarks. During her turn on the microphone, College of Alameda President Joi Lin Blake declared, “Tonight will provide us with an opportunity to get a sense of what all you makers would like this to be, and what our partnership can be with you, and how we can grow this to better serve the community.”

Many of these future dynamics will continue to play out at Blake’s institution, since it intends to open a dedicated “makerspace” on campus. Following the speeches and more networking, attendees had the chance to view the planned site, a nearby physics classroom outfitted with numerous wooden workbenches.

Danny Beesley joined the casual tour of the site, examining it with the discerning eye of a professional, having set up fabrication laboratories—or “fab labs” for short—at various schools in Oakland. Sizing up the College of Alameda site, he speculated about possible layouts for arranging specialized equipment like laser cutters, 3-D printers, table saws, and other machine tools.

While the prospect of noodling around with such nifty gear will entice plenty of Alameda residents, they may need to wait patiently before getting that chance, judging from Beesley’s experience. “There’s a big interest in opening it up to the community,” Beesley said about establishing a fab lab. “But that’s the last step.” Furnishing outsiders with access to school facilities can require navigating thorny insurance issues and visitation policies. “It’s the biggest logistical nightmare,” Beesley said.

These procedural concerns obviously don’t apply to students, a convenience that has probably allowed the maker movement to catch on faster at schools. At the moment, Wood Middle School is the lone Alameda school with a maker space. The movement’s popularity within education circles, however, stems mainly from the ways it enhances learning. Lots of teachers attended the consortium’s event, and several echoed McPhetridge’s sentiments about how making can benefit young people.

Daniel Pasker, head of the science department at the K-12 charter school Nea Community Learning Center, mentioned that he incorporates exercises such as building model roller coasters into his physics lessons. “I try to get their hands dirty,” he said of his students. “They definitely get more buy-in when they do some projects.”

Educators like Pasker figure to be central to the consortium’s efforts to cultivate making, but Alameda residents from all walks of life will surely find their way into the mix. Attendee Rebecca Stees, who runs the local kids camp Art Yowza, posited that the Island’s makers have long been coalescing into a nascent community. “I think it already exists,” she said, “and we can have even more fun with it.”

Consortium members still need to iron out many details of their undertaking, from funding, timing, and even next steps. Members apparently have talked of coordinating field trips to existing maker sites around the Island, though nothing is definite. Visit www.AlamedaMakers.org for updates from the Alameda Makers Consortium.

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