The Turbo Trojans of Clawson High School, in Michigan, wanted to build a robot. And they wanted to enter said robot, a soccer-playing vehicle, in the national FIRST Robotics competition. There were just two little problems: The Trojans had no equipment, and they had nowhere to build a robot. But the team got lucky. I3 Detroit, a not-for-profit hacker space 8 miles away, stepped up to host the Trojans, who eventually made it all the way to the state championship.
Dale Dougherty doesn't think students should have to travel to sate their tinkering appetites. So last fall, the founder of Make magazine and Maker Faire sought—and received—a DARPA grant to open "makerspaces" in at least 1,000 U.S. schools over the next four years. Dougherty and Saul Griffith, the creator of an instructional comic series called Howtoons, will help schools develop work spaces brimming with state-of-the-art equipment such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, and power tools.
Whether they're called makerspaces, hacker spaces, or fab labs, such workshops prepare students to create anything they can imagine, using whatever materials they can find (Dumpster diving is common and often sanctioned by teachers). Participants become familiar with the tools and techniques involved in modern engineering and design while also honing critical problem-solving skills. And the spaces differ from a standard science or shop class in structure as much as in content. Instead of memorizing material for tests, students experiment and are encouraged to learn from their failures. They also document and share their creations, a key component of the broader Maker movement.
The ultimate goal is to instill in students a DIY ethos that helps stimulate a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. Increasingly, STEM talents are considered crucial to a country's economic success. Over the past 10 years in the United States, growth of STEM-related jobs was triple the growth of non-STEM jobs, and of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in the next decade, seven of them fall into this category.
But this is an international movement. Stanford professor Paulo Blikstein has run a similar effort since 2008, and his FabLab@School project is now at work in four labs on three continents. In June 2011, Blikstein worked with a foundation to open the first FabLab@School at a science-and-math-focused school in Moscow. "Russia used to have a great tradition of engineering and science," he explains. "Then most of the country's brightest minds started going into finance." If all goes well for Blikstein, the movement won't stop in Moscow: He says that FabLab@School is now being considered by educators in Brazil, Mongolia, Korea, Singapore, and Thailand.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.