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Maker Movement To Get Professional Makeover in Midwest

The culture of "making" and its potential to revive manufacturing and drive the national economy is getting National Science Foundation attention. Two researchers have just received grants from the federal agency to explore that topic over the next four years and compare what's going on in the United States with what's happening in Asia.

The concept of making includes non-experts experimenting with hardware and software to create new objects or innovations. Right now in this country it's primarily a hobbyist practice. But it has become serious business in places like China and Taiwan.

The work being undertaken by Indiana University's Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell will use empirical research, hands-on design workshops and international comparison to explore how to convert making as a hobby to making as a "socioeconomic driver" supported by policy, instruction, economic and technological infrastructure — and more particularly, how to do it in the Midwest. Silvia Lindtner from the University of Michigan will collaborate with them during certain parts of the project.

"In Shenzhen, [China], and Taipei, [Taiwan], making is serious business, with billions of dollars in public and private investment flowing in," said Shaowen Bardzell, an associate professor of informatics and co-director of Indiana U's Cultural Research in Technology Group. "It's seen as an important part of IT startup culture with government policies, local businesses, global businesses, universities and other collaborators working to support makers in their transition from the workshop to the marketplace."

In Taiwan, for example, there's support for "maker startups," such as OpenLab Taipei and MakerPro. China designates regions and cities as "development zones" to create tax and investment havens to encourage specific forms of manufacturing. Shenzhen is one example.

Similar support exists in the United States, but primarily on the coasts, not in the middle of the country, where, Bardzell observes, "there's a proud tradition of manufacturing." The next generation of products, she said, "from cars and dishwashers to clothing and medical devices" will be tied to manufacturing innovation. "We see potential for everything from prototyping to mass production in the region."

Aside from field studies in Asia, the researchers will examine makers in Michigan and Indiana, such as BloomingLabs in Bloomington and ClubCyberia in Indianapolis.

They also intend to run summer school workshops in Asia and this country to develop how-to guides, kits, policy recommendations, curricula and computer hardware supporting what they're calling "professional making."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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