Atlanta’s Georgia Tech opened its doors in 1885, originally only offering a degree in mechanical engineering. Being one of the oldest polytechnic institutes in the U.S., it’s no surprise that it was also home to the first Maker Faire in Atlanta. In 2011, a group of Georgia Tech students organized the Atlanta Mini Maker Faire, drawing 2,500 attendees eager to check out the few dozen projects on display. Maker culture clearly resonated with the community as attendance doubled each year. In 2013, the Faire showcased 130 Makers and 10,000 attendees overflowed the main campus quad.
Lew Lefton, one of the organizers who has supported the Faire since the beginning, explains:
Our growing Faire no longer fit at Georgia Tech, so in order to handle the larger crowds, improve access to public transportation, and provide more parking and more food options, we moved the Faire to the nearby community of Decatur. The new location is still in the urban center of Atlanta and has been able to accommodate the larger event.
In 2014, our first year as a featured Faire, we had over 30,000 attendees. We’re expecting even larger crowds this year, and we have over 200 Makers. The Makers now consume a footprint in downtown Decatur that includes an entire football field, a full-sized basketball gym, a sizable park, a huge parking lot, and a full city block that is completely closed off.
Maker Faire Atlanta has been very positive for the community of Makers in the Southeast. Everyone looks forward to the large annual gathering and brings their best work to show off. Several collaborative projects have emerged between groups that met at the Faire.
The Atlanta-area Maker community is thriving. There are over a dozen makerspaces in the metro area and plenty more only a few hours away. Almost all of them come to Maker Faire Atlanta.
Now known as “the hub for Southern Makers,” the fifth annual Maker Faire Atlanta will ignite imaginations this weekend, October 4 and 6, in downtown Decatur. In support, the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, has declared this whole week leading up to the Faire, September 28 through October 4, the “Atlanta Week of Making,” which includes open houses at local makerspaces and a design challenge sponsored by Ikea (which is also sponsoring the Faire).
Lefton, who attended the first two Faires, was a Maker at the last three, and has been on the organizing team since 2014, is also executive director of Decatur Makers, a family-friendly makerspace minutes from the location of the Faire.
He offered an inside perspective of the Atlanta Maker community:
Atlanta is a grassroots community of Makers. We host one of the largest free Maker Faires in the world. We raise all our funding from sponsorships so that the Faire is both free to attend and free for non-commercial Makers to have a space. Most other Maker Faires of this size have a museum, or foundation, or other large organization with paid staff to help coordinate and plan the event, but Maker Faire Atlanta is run by an all-volunteer team.
Our Maker community is well balanced between modern technical making (coding, robotics, advanced manufacturing, electronics) and traditional skills (woodworking, metalworking, arts, agriculture).
One can view the Maker community here as having three primary components. There is a strong STEAM education thrust with schools and partnerships helping to bring making into the classroom and students into makerspaces. An example of this is the STEAM truck, a mobile makerspace that was highlighted recently by the White House.
The second component is economic development. There’s an increasing number of startup companies in the Atlanta area that tap into and are inspired by the Maker community. Many of these have formed at Georgia Tech and other local universities. The Atlanta region is viewed as a hub for small and large businesses in manufacturing, biotechnology, science, and computing.
The final component is community. Maker Faire Atlanta is the largest and most important community gathering, but the Maker community in the region is strong and supportive all year long.
What drives Lefton and the all-volunteer organizing team to do the hard work of organizing a Maker Faire?
It’s fun and satisfying to see the finished product after countless hours and thousands of emails. I like it when people get engaged in the moment and start thinking creatively about the world around them, which definitely happens at a Maker Faire. There’s a playfulness and broad acceptance of crazy ideas that accompanies making. This helps breaks down cultural barriers and ultimately encourages people to openly interact with each other. In that sense, the Maker Movement helps develop important collaborative teamwork skills and acceptance of diverse ideas and unfamiliar voices. I believe that the challenges we face (both large and small) will be easier to address with this perspective. Plus, it’s fun.
What can folks expect at this year’s Faire?
This year we are focusing on the impact that the Maker Movement is having on education. We’re also working to highlight women in making and to encourage a diverse community of Makers.
There’s an independently run “Making in Education” conference, which is hosting its inaugural meeting at Maker Faire Atlanta. Over 200 educators will gather to learn about how design thinking and project-based learning techniques can improve STEAM education in their local schools.
After a keynote address by Dr. Lindsay Levkoff Diamond, director of education for SparkFun, the attendees will have breakout sessions that include how to set up a school makerspace, robotics, coding, 3D design and printing, and, of course, stepping outside and visiting Maker Faire Atlanta!
We also have a Sunday speaker series where we are excited to host a live interview with Andy Weir, author of The Martian. The movie, which is adapted from his bestselling book, is being released the weekend of our Faire, so we have lots of Mars-related activities, including a booth which asks the question “Can you make it on Mars?”
We’re welcoming back another partner this year called the Innovator’s Playground. This will fill an entire basketball gym with interactive activities designed to engage and inspire our youngest Makers.
5 Crews to Peruse at Maker Faire Atlanta
Decatur-based re:loom is a program of the nonprofit Initiative for Affordable Housing (IAH) that uses making, specifically the art of weaving on a loom, to help homeless and low-income adults. They offer training, a stable salary, and health benefits. Weavers upcycle donated materials and weave them into everything from rugs to bags.
Enabling the Future
Enabling the Future is a “global network of passionate volunteers using 3D printing to give the world a ‘helping hand'” by printing prosthetic hands for children in need. Their Enable Columbus local chapter will be 3D printing hands at the Faire. They’ll also have completed hands as well as parts, so people can see how the hands are put together.
Drone Racing Club
The Drone Racing Club is a group of FPV (first-person view) drone practitioners who are “trying to promote the sport of drone racing as an affordable STEM-based alternative to mainstream sports.” They’ll be holding the Drone Racing Challenge at the Faire and allowing spectators to see a drone’s eye view of the competition. In addition, they’ll also be holding a Freestyle Competition and RTF (ready to fly) and DIY workshops.
Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 690
The EAA Chapter 690 aviation enthusiasts will be showing and working on an ultralight Pietenpol fuselage that is under construction. They will have a helicopter simulator that people can sit in to experience how it works.
Goat n Hammer
Goat n Hammer is a blacksmithing group with a “100% hands-on learning environment for blacksmithing and associated metalworking skills” in Atlanta. They’re a favorite at the Faire and will be showing blacksmithing in action.