TechShop Detroit Plans Programs to Introduce Kids to STEAM Careers

When Will Brick, TechShop Detroit’s manager, was young, he was the kind of kid who loved to tinker. He often rode his bike around town “looking for things to turn into other things,” he said. Young Will would have been right at home at his current place of employment, especially in the coming months as TechShop rolls out new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education initiatives.

The do-it-yourself fabrication studio and maker space launched a nationwide fundraising campaign in April to raise $1.3 million for STEAM scholarships. So far, TechShop has raised enough through the initial crowdfunding phase on Indiegogo to provide scholarships for 375 kids; it will now go after corporate and institutional donors during the second phase of the fundraiser.

Proceeds will also go toward expanding TechShop’s STEAM programming, making it available in an after-school format at all TechShop locations across the country for up to a thousand 8- to 17-year-olds who would otherwise not have access to the classes. (TechShop Detroit recently opened up membership to kids as young as 8 with the stipulation that they be accompanied by an adult.)

Brick said TechShop Detroit piloted a number of different STEAM programs last year in conjunction with Ford, its corporate partner. Ford recently established a new office dedicated to advancing STEAM education to help bolster TechShop’s efforts, and the automaker has pledged $240,000 in scholarship funding. The goal is to introduce kids to a variety of STEAM careers available in the automotive and manufacturing sector.

“We did make-and-take workshops, weeklong summer camps, and programming both onsite and offsite at schools,” Brick explained. TechShop also recently hosted 15 science and math teachers from Detroit Public Schools, who were building robot spiders as part of ongoing professional development required by the state. “We want to provide more in-depth training for professional development and introduce teachers to our curriculum. We’ll have kits they can check out,” he said.

TechShop has a dedicated kids’ space with 3D printers, laser cutters, computers, and more. “They can do [computer-assisted design] work and learn how to convert files to 3D printer files,” Brick said. “Then they cut out the raw materials and make their item, so they get the whole experience.”

Despite all the grumbling we adults do about today’s youth being obsessed with video games, smartphones, and social media, Brick said he has repeatedly witnessed a positive transformation when kids are introduced to TechShop.

“When we get a kid in here, they usually take to it immediately,” he said. “They have a wonderful pre-disposition for picking up these kinds of technologies. When we can connect them to it, they have no problem picking it up and adopting it. There doesn’t seem to be any barrier except exposure.”

Brick said that lack of exposure, however, poses a threat to Michigan’s economic future. “The advanced manufacturing jobs are here, most of the innovation is being done here, and the best universities and training programs are here, but the problem is that students are not being fed into the front end of the system,” he pointed out. “What we’re trying to do has relevance to their future.”

TechShop Detroit is doing a number of things to try and increase engagement with STEAM education: offering discounted memberships for teachers with the goal of getting their feedback on the direction of TechShop’s programming; engaging with home-schooled students and creating STEAM-related course work for them; and sponsoring robotics teams and summer camps. Thanks to Ford’s financial support, most classes for kids are about $30 or less.

Since TechShop Detroit launched in 2012, it has learned how to engage with budding scientists and garage tinkerers. (Its facility is located in Allen Park, about halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor.) Brick said the organization has hit on the formula of hosting a big community event every quarter, starting last October with a Homecoming party for lapsed members and those new to the space.

TechShop celebrated the new year with its “Make a Resolution” event, where members pledged to learn a new skill or bring a project to life by May 7. Although Brick was only hoping for 25 participants, nearly 100 signed up. Some of the projects they worked on included a custom, hand-built camera apparatus complete with old-timey leather bellows; a gas-powered sawmill that was set up in the parking lot; and “incredible artwork,” he said.

To keep the energy of the Make a Resolution event going, TechShop is embarking on another project challenge in conjunction with the Maker Faire, which will be held July 30-31 at the Henry Ford complex in Dearborn, MI. This time around, the theme is arcade games, and Brick expects to see people build everything from do-it-yourself game consoles to skee-ball tracks. The public votes on the winner, who will get a free yearlong membership and access to a giant rolling toolshed used to store equipment.

TechShop Detroit currently has about 800 members. Brick would like to see that number grow to 1,000. “We’re on track, but there’s plenty of room to grow,” he added.

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