This past January, President Obama announced a $4.1 billion initiative to create and expand computer-science classes in public schools across the nation. His announcement came after a wave of alarmist research warning that America was lagging far behind the rest of the world in preparing its children for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs, ranking 27th in math and 20th in science test scores. Compounding those problems is a devastating lack of diversity in STEM fields, particularly computer science. In 2014, 9 of the 27 states offering the AP computer science test failed to register even a single African-American participant. In Baltimore, a majority African-American city, a quarter of jobs are already STEM-related and that proportion is only growing. The confluence of these problems – low minority participation in STEM fields and simultaneous growth in those job sectors – is an intersection where makerspaces can be a particularly valuable part of the solution set.

However, readiness problems in STEM-related careers are only part of the maker-ed equation. Over the years, vocational schools and shop programs have also gone by the wayside, starving some trades of skilled manual workers. There are looming shortages of auto mechanics and welders that have led to jumps in wages for both occupations. The average age of a skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56, and trending upwards. The media attention, and worry, surrounding high-tech worker shortages has made other career paths seem less glamorous to potential students – who wants to work in manufacturing when you could be munching on free snacks and playing Ping-Pong at Google?

It’s enough to discourage anyone from tackling maker education. The problem seems too big, too abstract, and too tied up in institutional inertia to solve. But before sinking into a spiral of hand-wringing, it’s worth asking a set of more fundamental questions: why do we want to teach young people to be makers? What is making – is it play, or is it work? How can makerspaces tackle these structural skill deficits while still being fun, engaging, and inclusive?

At Open Works, we are winding down a long research-and-development phase looking at maker-ed models nationwide and right here in Baltimore. We are tackling those foundational questions on the premise that every child is fundamentally a maker – humans are born curious, with a hunger to engage their environment, and we just need to nurture and channel that natural drive. Making can be both play and work, and may be most effective when it is both at the same time. And, in order to take on structural challenges, we have to think about how best to engage youth and families in a long-term framework that leads to career and college readiness. There are four main considerations with building out that framework: outreach, partnerships, and funding.

Tour of Baltimore Design School architecture-track students. We did five hardhat tours over the course of development so students could learn about trades and construction. Photo by Will Holman.

Outreach

In our last Made in Baltimore post, I outlined some of the outreach and community-organizing efforts that Open Works had undertaken over the last two years. Canvassing needs in community associations, schools, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations has given us a great set of potential program ideas. It has also given us a head start in finding audience for programs. This spring, we partnered with the Digital Harbor Foundation to recruit ten youth from our neighborhood schools to participate in their Maker Foundations program. This summer, we are working on a set of pilot workshops with a summer camp located in Johnston Square. While small, these initiatives provide a strong foundation for standing up long-term programs.

Partnerships

Schools

First and foremost, we have been working to forge effective relationships with educators and schools in our immediate neighborhoods. There are six schools within walking distance – two high schools, three elementary schools, and one middle school. They are a mixture of parochial, public, and charter, covering the institutional spectrum of local secondary education. Each school has a different set of specific curricular or facility-based needs, and we are talking with them to design in-school programming that address those gaps. On an individual level, we are engaging with mentorship programs like Thread to see how Open Works could be a platform for helping young people succeed in school. And, on a broad system level, we are engaging with the administration for Baltimore City Schools to see how we can align with city-wide curricular goals.

Michael Thomas (L) and Rudy Ruiz (R), who direct Baltimore City School system's technology and career programs, came for a visit in January. Photo by Will Holman.

Maker Education programs

Baltimore is a very lucky city – we have a number of world-class maker education programs for youth already, including Futuremakers, Code in the Schools, the Digital Harbor Foundation, and a robust chapter of the Maryland Science Olympiad. On top of those independent organizations, there is the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, the Maryland Science Center, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Maryland FIRST Robotics League – the list goes on. All of these programs and organizations have been linked together through BmoreSTEM, “a citywide, ecosystem initiative where local industry, philanthropists, educators, and program providers collaborate to create STEM learning experiences and career pathways for Baltimore’s youth.”

With all of this great programming already out there, Open Works doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Through long conversations and site visits, we have been building relationships with local STEM-ed providers that can use Open Works as a platform for after-school, weekend, and summer programming. The exact parameters of these partnerships still need to be worked out, but the potential energy has been steadily building. Long-term, we can then also develop Open Works-specific programming that leverages our unique facility and community to provide a high-quality educational experience.

Tour with Professor Lori Rubeling's Stevenson University fashion design class, March, 2016. Photo by Will Holman.

Universities

There are eight colleges and universities inside the Baltimore City limits, and five more in the metro area, for a total of 13 higher-ed institutions serving a whopping 120,000 students. Open Works can resolve several friction points for universities: limited lab and workshops space; access to facilities that schools don’t yet have; and helping recent graduates find an affordable place to pursue their creative dreams. On the flip side, we can be an asset to universities by building a pipeline of young people that have been engaged in STEM and the arts from an early age and are college-ready. We’ve been in close conversation with five local schools that have shown an interest in Open Works, and hope to bring students in for targeted educational programming, discounted membership access, and events.

Funding

Finding programming dollars is a challenge for any nonprofit. While we have raised most of the money we need to finish the actual building, we are now focusing on making sure our youth and family programming is sustainable. This funding is not altogether set yet, but what we have raised already comes from a diverse set of sources.

First, we have some operating subsidy for community outreach in the first year as a condition of our construction financing. Second, the T. Rowe Price Foundation gave us a generous grant so we could hire the Education Manager early. Third, the AmeriCorps program provides some staff support with a relatively minimal cost to the host site. Last, we are writing grants to a number of local foundations that have a specific focus on youth and family issues. With some of these grants, we can co-fundraise with partner organizations, using our paired strengths to write a better proposal.

Long-term, we will probably transition to some sliding-scale programming, much like the YMCA – those that can afford it pay full price, and that helps subsidize lower-income individuals. There is also a lot of national money out there for STEM education, from Google to Toyota to the National Science Foundation. Opportunities have been neatly collected over at the STEM Grants site.

New deck, front doors, and primer on north side of the building. Photo by Will Holman

Given the state of national urgency about STEM, and the growth of federal, state, and private funding for maker education, there is ample opportunity for every makerspace to create programs for young people. Every town has schools and libraries to partner with; colleges and universities to build pipelines to; and funders looking to make an impact. The trick is to find good people, good partners, and start small – there’s always room to grow.

On the next Made in Baltimore post, we’ll discuss Open Works Mobile, its outreach capabilities, and design process.

Construction Update

Since the last post, we have:

1. Installed all of the plumbing fixtures.

2. Laid down the asphalt for the parking lot.

3. Begun constructing the exterior deck and installed the front doors.

4. Begun exterior painting.