Make/Believe: In search of Harvard’s maker culture

If you’re anything like me, there was a time in your childhood when you spent hours creating things with Legos. Or cutting up cardboard boxes, or leaning sticks against trees to build a fort. Whatever you had in front of you became the building blocks for infinite possibilities, and you were enthralled by your ability to make something, anything, that never existed before.

What if I told you that you can still do that?

This is the philosophy behind what is known as maker culture, a set of ideas that have permeated the tech community and driven Harvard to invest in initiatives and “maker spaces” outfitted with high-tech tools like 3D printers and laser cutters. Despite the existence of these physical resources, many students on campus are either unaware of the opportunities available to them or they silo them off to the subset of students that aspire to entrepreneurship or pursue a degree in SEAS. What goes overlooked is that making has enormous value for all students beyond the profit margins of that hypothetical startup. Beyond constructing maker spaces, Harvard should promote the ethos of maker culture in a way that transcends the boundaries of any particular discipline.

While my childhood self unknowingly embraced maker culture through Legos and tree forts, I first encountered the term through my experience with the Scratch programming language and its creators at MIT. As a seventh grader, programming with Scratch excited me for the same reason that building with Legos did: Both provided building blocks for me to create anything I could imagine. I started spending hours a day programming with Scratch, developing my passion for technology.

Years later, when I wanted to try out a real world experience in the technology field, I reached out to the Scratch Team at the MIT Media Lab, an antidisciplinary research lab exploring tech, media, science, art, and design. During my internship at the Media Lab, I learned so much from working with such a talented and creative group of individuals, whose passion for spreading the ethos of making was infectious. I gained an understanding of how Scratch fit into larger theories about creative learning. Empowered by the significance of what I was doing, I continued making things for the sheer joy of it, both with my hands and my keyboard. Upon arriving at Harvard, I found myself looking for communities of like-minded people.

I set out in search of Harvard’s maker culture.

I started by bringing up the subject with my friends, to get an idea of students’ perceptions of maker culture. I soon found that many students, especially those whose academic interests lie outside of STEM, had never heard the term maker culture, or only had a vague association with 3D printers. Other friends who were more engaged in technology-focused classes and student organizations were familiar with the term maker culture and the existence of maker spaces on campus, but noted that “almost no one knows about” where these spaces are.

In addition, these conversations made me aware of an association between maker culture and the widely prevalent startup culture on campus—for instance, the iLab (Harvard’s entrepreneurial initiative) was suggested as a center of making, but most of the iLab’s resources are intended for students with a fully formed startup idea or at least a solid interest in an entrepreneurial career. The goal-oriented nature of Harvard’s culture seemed to create the sense that it was only worthwhile to work on creative projects if you planned to develop them into full-fledged companies.

I knew that this shouldn’t be the case, but I was having trouble articulating why, or visualizing what an alternative maker culture could look like. I reached out to my former mentor at the MIT Media Lab, Andrew Sliwinski, a senior engineer at Scratch. Before joining the Scratch team he founded DIY, a startup focused on empowering children to explore their creative passions through an online community and resources. He is as deeply ingrained in the technological side of maker culture as anyone, which is why I was surprised when he brought up libraries—yep, buildings filled with physical books–as a model for the maker movement.

“If you think about makerspaces…it’s exactly the same model as a lending library. It’s a bunch of people in a community getting together and pooling their tools and knowledge and resources to share with a larger community,” Sliwinski explained.

To Sliwinski, libraries and makerspaces share a common goal of democratizing knowledge. In a world where skills and knowledge are often restricted to disciplinary specialists, it is this spirit of what Sliwinski refers to as “freeing knowledge through disobedience” that drives society forward. The problem arises when people begin to define the maker movement not by this ethos, but by physical equipment–the 3D printers and laser cutters. The focus on acquiring this equipment eclipses efforts to engage potential makers from a variety of backgrounds. Sliwinski added that people often ask him for a checklist of tools and resources that they need for a makerspace, but this way of thinking is entirely off-base, as it ignores the cultural foundations of the maker movement.

“The unfortunate thing is that making is now being defined by the tools…I think that’s the number one problem of the maker movement.”

– Sliwinski

There is no one set of tools making requires, Sliwinski said; instead, making requires a willingness to work within the context of the community. He pointed to the Omnicorp Detroit hackerspace, the first such space in that city, as a model for the maker movement. The founders did not have a ton of venture capital or expensive tools, but they did have a community filled with talented artists, designers, and musicians, “and a few technical folks sprinkled in.” So they started doing “wacky things with art and music and sound,” according to Sliwinski, and that became the basis for a sustainable program that has been active for a decade.

So how far is Harvard from this maker utopia? To get a better understanding of the current state of making at Harvard, I sat down with Maddie Hickman, who has worked with the Active Learning Labs in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for nearly four years. For the past two years, Hickman has run weekly Project Nights, where students can come in to work on creative projects. Hickman confirmed a lot of what I had gleaned about Harvard’s maker culture from interacting with students: While several makerspaces exist, these spaces are disconnected from each other and from large segments of the student body.

“Folks…who aren’t already in engineering classes might not feel comfortable going and hanging out in a makerspace, and that was something we…hoped to address with Project Nights,” Hickman said.

I got a taste of both the possibilities of making at Harvard and the deficits in Harvard’s maker culture when I visited the Active Learning Labs for Project Night one week. Despite lacking a formal engineering background, I figured out how to make a light flash with my physiological pulse by playing around with code and electronics. My excitement upon seeing the blinking light echoed what I experienced when creating with Legos and Scratch blocks.

Unfortunately, there were few others around to share my excitement with. That night brought only a handful of graduate students and SEAS staff to the Active Learning Labs, and no other undergraduate students. While that night may have been particularly slow–Project Nights average 21 attendees per event, mostly undergrads, according to Hickman–it illustrated for me that the maker experience is not complete without community.

Active Learning Lab 3D printers

I can imagine an alternate scenario, an idealized version of my night of making. After I got my initial circuit working, I could have shared my creation with other makers. Maybe a student with a musical background would apply my idea to pulse a light to the beat of a song, or a student with a design background would imagine another interesting way to visualize my pulse. It would not matter too much what tools we had: Each project opens up infinite possible pathways to explore with whatever resources are available. Maybe along the way we would be inspired to build something with real-world applications and an entrepreneurial goal, but regardless, we would learn to express ourselves with technology. This kind of learning happens best when students bring many perspectives into the makerspace: technical, social, and artistic perspectives that all add to the process of collaborative and creative expression.

In today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, creating with technology should not be restricted to students from any one discipline. It is vital that students not only gain exposure to technical concepts in their classes, but also gain comfort playing around, making things and expressing themselves with technology. Especially in a college setting, Sliwinski pointed out that it is important to harbor a “healthy skepticism” towards the idea of disciplinary boundaries, and he explains that making is “a really powerful vehicle for cross-pollination.” By emphasizing the ethos of making beyond the boundaries of any particular discipline, Harvard can create a more inclusive culture around making, where students tinkering with technology becomes as common a sight as kids playing with a box of Legos. In order to reach this goal, however, we need to start the conversation.

About The Author

Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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