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Foothill tinkers with new Makerspace

New workshop seeks to merge classroom with maker culture

The Peninsula's maker community -- a scrappy crowd of amateur engineers, artists and craftsmen -- might feel like refugees scrambling for a new home.

For years, many makers have relied on Techshop, a popular membership workspace that provided a suite of industrial laser cutters, lathes and other expensive gear. The shop had everything you might need to launch a manufacturing start-up, or to just print out some spare Lego pieces.

But then came the bad news: In November, Techshop abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed all of its locations, including its workspaces in San Jose, Redwood City and San Francisco. Since then, many Techshop "orphans" have been yearning for some new workshop to fill the void.

For these lost souls, Elisabeth Sylvan is rolling out the welcome mat. Sylvan, a former vice president at the San Jose Tech Museum, is now Foothill College's "Maker in Residence." In that role, she is spearheading the college's new push to merge maker culture with the classroom. Recently the community college launched its first Makerspace, which seeks to bring together maker culture's do-it-yourself gumption with the college's traditional trade skills and instruction.

"Maker culture is becoming a big part of formal and informal education, " Sylvan said. "A community college has always served a diversity of learners, and maker spaces support a diversity of learning styles."

The new Makerspace is located at Foothill's Krause Center for Innovation, a circular building that stands out at the campus due to the massive observatory dome on the roof. Over recent months, the Krause Center's bottom floor has been transformed from a computer lab into a makeshift workshop of 3-D printers, vinyl cutters and other equipment.

It's here where Sylvan plans to launch a series of new Foothill courses for students and teachers to learn about the latest gizmos for building arts and crafts.

Like many community colleges, Foothill has entire departments devoted to teaching trade skills, such as woodworking, steel welding or elevator repair. Sylvan sees her workshop as complementing those programs by merging them with the latest technology and software tools. Three new courses are being planned for the Makerspace's debut this quarter, including a software class for computer-assisted laser cutting and an introductory course to showcase all the workshop's gadgets.

A third class is being tailored mainly for the Foothill faculty to help them incorporate the Makerspace into their curriculum. So far, Sylvan says she has given tutorials to about 30 Foothill instructors. Her computer-assisted manufacturing tools are already being used to automate steps of the Foothill's woodworking and fine arts programs. Even the school's biology department has begun using her 3-D printers to create physical models of organic compounds.

For those who just want access to tools, Foothill is offering a membership program similar to TechShop, at a cost of $160 per class quarter. Already, about a dozen former members of TechShop have signed on to the new Foothill workshop.

The Foothill Makerspace admittedly isn't a perfect substitute for Techshop. The school's new workshop features a variety of 3-D printers, cutters and lathes, but it lacks some of the specialized gear like waterjet cutters and ShopBots. Foothill also can't serve as a business incubator in quite the same way that Techshop did, Sylvan said.

TechShop was able to stay open late into the night, giving its members flexibilty in scheduling their work on projects. In contrast, Foothill's Makerspace has to close its doors around 6 p.m., but hopefully its hours can get extended soon, Sylvan said.

There remains a possibility that TechShop could make a comeback. The company's assets have been acquired by a new firm, dubbed TechShop 2.0, which is reportedly working to reopen as many of its locations as possible.

It came an a complete coincidence that Foothill College opened its Makerspace just as Techshop was shutting down. Last year, the California Community College Chancellor's Office put forward $17 million in grants to encourage colleges to build makerspaces as a way to provide more job training for technical careers. Foothill received a total of $250,000, and comparable grants went to the City College of San Francisco and the College of San Mateo.

Sylvan said her team was as surprised as anyone else when Techshop suddenly closed, but it made her desire to launch Foothill's Makerspace all the more pressing. It wasn't just the equipment, but many makers yearned for the community space that Techshop provided.

"We had planned on serving the community all along, but then we started getting so much interest from the Techshop orphans," she said. "Now we've put more consideration in to how we can serve that community."

At the back of the Makerspace on Tuesday, member Jody Myers was getting a tutorial on how to use a laser cutter from one of the workshop's instructional aides. Myers designs her own jewelry, including a pair of intricate metal earrings she was wearing that day.

"I'm a product designer, hoping to get into the jewelry business," she said. "I'm just getting started."

In the coming days, the Krause Center is planning a string of events to help introduce the Makerspace to various local organizations, including the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club and the Los Altos Community Foundation. The center also will offer an intensive Tech Camp for students aged 12-16.

More information about the Krause Center for Innovation and the new Makerspace can be found on the [krauseinnovationcenter.org website.

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