Cleveland’s Thinkbox Is a Big Bet on University Makerspaces

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Cleveland’s Thinkbox Is a Big Bet on University Makerspaces


Case Western Reserve University showcased its seven-story, 50,000 sq. ft $35 million makerspace called think[box] at its own “Thinkapalooza” earlier this week, as part of an Innovation Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. Think[box] is available to students and faculty but it is also open to the public for free, serving the campus and the community as a workshop for creation, collaboration, and innovation.

Barbara Snyder, President of Case Western University, welcomed 500 people to the event and announced that think[box] had received funding of $10 million from alumnus and adjunct professor Larry Sears and his wife, Sally. Sears founded an electronics company called Hexagram that automated remote meter-reading for utility companies. Think[box] will now be called the Sears think[box].

Ian Charnas leads a tour of think[box]
Ian Charnas leads a tour of think[box].

Ian Charnas has been the driving force behind think[box], which got started in a 4,000 sq. ft basement space. He is a graduate of the university and he explained that he just hung around wanting to do this until they made it his job. He gave me a tour of the new facility, which opened officially on October 1, and some floors have not yet been built out. I was joined on the tour by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, and Jeff Hoffman, the founder and CEO of Priceline, who were equally enthusiastic about the space.

While think[box] is affiliated with the Case School of Engineering, Charnas explained that think[box] is not just an engineering space but will have a broad focus that includes art and fashion, and they hope to work closely with nearby institutions such as the Cleveland Institute of Art.

The Woodshop at think[box]
The woodshop at think[box]

One of the current projects that Charnas presented was a plasma-assisted fuel nozzle, which “improves the way fuel burns in jet engines” by Felipe Gomez del Campo and was featured at the White House. Other projects included a foot-powered cell-phone charger, a 3D magnetic skull puzzle, and a rapid malaria detector kit.

Charnas explained that the seven floors have been designed to accommodate different stages of development for a person or a project. The first floor is dedicated to community, a gathering place; the second floor is for ideation with lots of whiteboards and open space for brainstorming. The third floor is for prototyping, while the fourth floor is for fabrication — don’t ask me to explain the difference. The fifth floor is open projects space, essentially workbenches and storage. The sixth floor organizes resources for entrepreneurs and the seventh floor serves as an incubator for small groups that form to develop a new product.

Tool organizer at think[bo]
Tool organizer at think[box]

At Thinkapalooza, I ran into Kailey Shara, a super-smart young engineer who left Case to found Carbon Origins, one of my favorite startups over the last year. Shara has returned to Case to complete her undergraduate education and she was clearly delighted to see the new think[box]. One could almost see her thinking about how much time she would be spending there. She’s not alone. Charnas mentioned a student survey where 39.9% of the students indicated that think[box] was a significant factor in their decision to attend Case Western Reserve University. I suspect we will find this to be true across more colleges and universities and it will provide a clear rationale for investing in student-accessible makerspaces.

Add to that the benefits of developing an innovation ecosystem that engages the community and partners such as manufacturers, investors, and corporate research organizations. It has the potential to broaden the base of support as well as the social and economic impact of these makerspaces.

A robotic arm with scanner
A robotic arm with scanner

Outside think[box]

It’s a tale of two spaces in two different worlds. Think[box] is a state-of-the-art facility and it is about as good as it gets on a lovely campus. About fifteen minutes away from think[box] is the Design Lab Early College High School, a high school that serves 220 at-risk youth. I got a tour from Eric Juli, the school principal, and Sean Wheeler, an educator who joined the team in the fall and who has been developing Maker programs in schools in the Cleveland area.

The facility itself, built in the 1960’s, was designed like a prison where a central office could oversee all the classrooms and activity on a main block. That central office is where the new makerspace is going. They don’t have much money so they are finding the best way to build things on the cheap.

The Design Lab School was built in the sixties.
The Design Lab School was built in the 60’s.

Wheeler learned that a local company had a lot of wooden pallets, and he said that the school was willing to take them, over 100 of them. Juli decided to stack them in the cafeteria, right in the middle of school and intentionally put them where everyone could see them — and see them begin to be used.  Students used the pallets to build a platform for the local Ingenuity Festival this year, a project that required them to learn woodworking but also design and collaboration skills.

Platform made out of pallets
Platform made out of pallets

I met Zuri, a student who had spent so much time in the principal’s office over the last year that he recognized that Principal Juli needed a gate at the entrance to his office. Working with the wood from pallets, Zuri was building the gate.

By all accounts, Zuri faces many challenges as a young man. He speaks reluctantly, cautiously, yet keeps his focus on his work. Wheeler has taken Zuri to a local woodworking shop called Soulcraft for a Saturday workshop where he has started working on a bedside table for his room. Zuri remarked how working with wood that wasn’t from a pallet was much easier and satisfying. These are small steps for Zuri, Juli explained, but it represents huge progress. Another student, Carrionn, came in showing us a cup he had 3D printed. He only just learned about 3D printing and already Carrionn was bragging about what he could do.

Principal Eric Juli
Principal Eric Juli

Juli believes in learning by doing and he’s designed the school around it. “I want kids doing real world work that matters,” said Juli. “I see making as a vehicle to develop the mindset and skills for first generation high school students to succeed.” He explained that finishing high school is really “life or death” for these kids because there is really no livelihood for those who don’t finish school. “I am betting that making gives kids ownership over their lives” he added. “They can become members of a community that is building, caring, contributing.”

Carrionn, Zuri and Sean
Carrionn, Zuri, and Sean Wheeler

There are a few resources available at Design Lab, but certainly in no way comparable to spaces in private schools or places like think[box]. While the Maker Movement benefits from large bets on spaces like think[box], it needs a lot more small bets made on inner city schools such as Design Lab, which could have an even bigger payoff.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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