Framingham Makerspace offers hobbyists a place to work, collaborate


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May 13, 2023

Framingham Makerspace offers hobbyists a place to work, collaborate

FRAMINGHAM — Paul Lane and Sara Jeter were having some trouble with their home

FRAMINGHAM — Paul Lane and Sara Jeter were having some trouble with their home workshop. They had some equipment, but their workspace was small, and often too hot, too cold or too dark.

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But the Framingham Makerspace, occupying a warehouse in the Saxonville Mills building since 2014, contains almost any tool one can dream of, and plenty of space. For the couple, it was just right — and it gave them access to a community of people like them.

"It's a place to take that creative energy and that aspiration to make stuff and be able to do that," Lane said.

Founder David Kent's hopes for the makerspace are three-pronged: exploring the intersection of art, technology and community.

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The space has wood, metal and welding shops, a 3D printer, an etching press and lots more.

The Framingham Makerspace doesn't offer formal classes. But if someone has an idea and doesn't know how to go about it, Kent can reach out to membership to determine whether anyone can help.

For example, one member didn't know how to weld, but learned while working with other members on a pellet stove with a long glass tube, a decorative piece that looks a bit like a propane heater without the heat.

Members have participated in Burning Man — an event held annually in the western part of the country that is focused on community, art, self-expression and self-reliance. Some formerly fire-breathing dragons — Pippa, the largest, with a propane pop gun, and "the teenagers," three smaller dragons — hang, mid-swoop, from the ceiling.

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"A lot of the art that goes to Burning Man needs a place to be made," Kent said. So there's a lot of overlap between makerspaces and large-scale art installations like Burning Man. Fledgling companies as well as professionals also use these types of spaces.

As the name suggests, Kent said the makerspace is available to enable people to make things. But there are also members who have a wood shop at home but come to the makerspace to use the metal shop, 3D printer or vinyl cutter. The Framingham Makerspace has a gym-style membership, with a monthly fee of $100 for 24/7 access to the building. Members needing to be trained on new equipment before they can use it by themselves and a basic membership is only $30 a month, but those members must arrange to be in-person when a premium member is there.

"It's a pretty fantastic deal, for what I pay a month, to use all this equipment and have all this space," said David Hilf, a one-man operation for the Saxonville Armory. He has his own workshop down the hall but comes to the makerspace as needed during the day.

No two makerspaces are alike, and that's made clear when one walks in to New England Sci-Tech in Natick. After being greeted by a life-sized R2D2 robot guarding the door, one can discuss space travel, contact far-flung countries or the space station on amateur radio waves, touch a dinosaur egg and learn why it's not going to have a "Jurassic Park moment."

"The idea here is we want to inspire people," and make them feel that science is more than just something one reads about in a book, said Bob Phinney, founder and president of the STEM education center and makerspace.

He said the necessity is twofold: there isn't a lot of hands-on learning in schools anymore, and there are few open-ended activities where there is no right answer.

Take Cubes In Space, a worldwide STEM activity for students ages 11-18. Students create small machines that can fit into the palm of one's hand that NASA then takes up to suborbital space. The most recent cube to return, Phinney said, was designed by students in fifth and sixth grade. NASA doesn't allow batteries, so a magnet inside the cube device vibrated during rocket lift-off, generating electricity that charged a supercapacitor so that a microchip could write data.

Phinney said key to the programs they offer — after-school programs, astronomy nights, rockets, kites and electronics, among other activities — is taking students and their curiosity seriously no matter their age; a student who always said he wanted to be an astronaut is now off at college studying astrophysics and a few other students who have passed through have gone on to be astronauts.

Phinney didn't want to take credit, but he acknowledged the hands-on learning space helps foster students' desire to learn, fills voids in education and helps students gain the self-confidence to solve problems and be versatile.

"Versatile comes from a Latin root word that means 'to turn,'" said Phinney, a retired Latin and science teacher. "You can turn in different directions. Versatility is learning a little bit about everything — not just about one thing and then not being able to do anything else."

He said "Battlin’ Bots" is a perfect example: creating robots that face off against one another in a cage-fight style match in the main area of the Natick makerspace. Students are sometimes given directions but there's often no kit — just a few motors, a platform, a way to connect them and a bit of imagination.

Phinney knows from experience that some fighting robots aren't going to work well — but students need to see them in action, and figure it out for themselves.

"It's a place where a kid can come and say, ‘Hey, can we try this?’" he said. "We are a makerspace for kids and families. We educate. We will start from nothing and say, ‘This is a drill, and this is what you can make with it.’"

Kent said many members at the Framingham Makerspace are older, white and male — but they’re working on bringing in more diversity by offering more, like the recently installed fiber arts studio. They have a long arm quilter large enough to handle the bulk of a quilt for a king-sized bed.

After a bit of trial and error, Jeter was able to set and forget a project on an embroidery machine, a baby blanket for her best friend's first child — a "T" for Tristan.

Kent joked that the makerspace has saved a few marriages by getting retired people out of the house to work on stuff.

As with many DIY-ers, many of Jeter's and Lane's projects are ongoing.

"It may take longer to do it ourselves — but we do have the ability to be that particular and get it the way that we want — and learn what we can along the way," Lane said. "I constantly say that I would be there all the time — I just need to retire first."

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