New facility to foster 'hands-on' science

The Department of Making and Doing will be a place where technology meets civic engagement

· September 25, 2012, 10:37 pm

Renata Siruckova | DP

The open office space at 37th and Market streets will be transformed into the Department of Making and Doing and will house tools like a woodshop, a laser cutter and vinyl cutters.


Alex Gilliam wants people to come to the space and think, “Holy crap, I want to build stuff!”

Gilliam and his Public Workshop has partnered with three other tech-based groups to create a new space called the Department of Making and Doing at 37th and Market streets.

Public Workshop, Breadboard and The Hacktory were approached by NextFab Studio, a “high-tech workshop and prototyping center,” earlier this year to collaborate on a space where technology meets civic engagement.

NextFab, which will expand this year to a new location on 20th Street and Washington Avenue, held its lease on the Market Street location, in hopes of using it for this new, community-centered space.

The DMD, slated to open in January in the University City Science Center, will offer “tinkering” sessions, lectures, workshops and hacking classes.

NextFab has provided most of the equipment at the site, including a full woodshop, vinyl cutters and a laser cutter, along with a wealth of basic hand tools, Gilliam said. There will also be a space for building circuit boards.

“Most of the equipment that we need is already there,” Gilliam said. “So now we’re working to redesign what’s there to meet our needs.”

This will include repainting and adding graphic elements to the interior areas and workrooms, he added.

Dan Schimmel, director of Breadboard — a nonprofit organization focusing on the “intersection of art, science and technology” — said the space will introduce both students and local entrepreneurs “to new technology and how it could be used to benefit the community.”

He added that the resources provided on the site “will open up a lot of creative and economic opportunities” for start-ups, since the tools available at the space could enable entrepreneurs to build to-order products at a lower cost.

Gilliam also emphasized the need to foster a “group-oriented space.”

“We need a place where a coder, a teenager, can come together with a graphic designer,” he said. “And then from there, [they could] come up with a tech solution for the local community.”

Gilliam hopes the four groups’ different strengths will form a greater, more extensive organization.

He said the space will offer a “making-oriented laboratory that most schools just don’t have.”

Penn students and professors are gauging what sort of impact the DMD will have just a few blocks from campus.

Computer science professor Max Mintz believes a space like the DMD will help “stimulate useful tinkering in youngsters and students” and foster a “hands-on mentality.”

He added that while many engineering and computer science students focus primarily on making the latest product, some forget the basic physical principles that underlie those products.

“Engineering is about failure, getting it wrong and then improving,” he said.

“I know a lot of students know how to play the games on their iPads and iPhones,” Schimmel said. “But when they start looking into what goes into that technology, it increases confidence and curiosity.”

He added that with a little “hands-on making and doing,” students “become content creators and not just content consumers.”

Some students are looking forward to the DMD.

Engineering senior Amalia Hawkins, Operations and Marketing lead of PennApps Labs, said the space would be “amazing” for the tech community.

“I think across the board people are interested in getting their hands dirty and building something from the ground up,” she said.

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