Can Funding Makerspaces Make STEM Cool?

Part of the difficulty of getting kids into science, tech, engineering and math is the stuffy lab coat image, the idea that it’s just for the nerds or the smartest kids. What if you could replace that image with the maker culture’s DIY, mad scientist ethos, complete with robots and tesla coils? At least one prominent IT company’s philanthropy arm wants to give it shot.

Now in its fourth year, Fortune 500 tech company Cognizant’s program, Making the Future, is an initiative that funds education-oriented nonprofits for out-of-school STEM programs. That alone is pretty standard, but Cognizant puts an interesting spin on it by funding makerspaces, including sponsoring one prominent space in the New York Hall of Science.

For the uninitiated, a makerspace, or hackerspace or techshop or fablab or whatever is a like community center, open to anyone regardless of educational pedigree, that provides all kinds of crazy tools for building stuff—3-D printers, plasma cutters, table saws, screen printers, sewing machines, etc. The maker movement is relatively new, and strives for the democratization of tech, engineering and manufacturing, with an emphasis on creative projects and communal space. The best spaces are super cool, allowing anyone to build pretty much anything you can imagine. And educators are catching on, as indicated by the space set up at NYSCI and others in a number of libraries and schools.

Cognizant’s program is attempting to seize on the trend, by making STEM education grants to both traditional education centers and makerspaces that act in the spirit of the movement, by offering fun and hands-on experiences. Making the Future is a partnership with NYSCI and the Maker Education Initiative, the latter being a nonprofit backed by Cognizant, Intel and the MacArthur Foundation.

The principle is that, when it comes to getting kids to pursue STEM careers, being good at science is much less important than being interested in science. The maker approach emphasizes fun, creativity and lack of a prescribed program. The premium is on kids doing something, anything fun, whether that involves electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, wearable tech, drones, pretty much whatever they want. They just have to make something. 

The Cognizant program has given out more than $5 million since it started, and also puts an emphasis on inspiring girls and minorities, who are chronically underrepresented in science and tech industries. The latest round of grantees, announced this month, will go to 33 programs in 22 states, including the LA Makerspace, Washington Maker Workshop in San Jose, and the South End Technology Center @ Tent City in Boston. Grants range from $5,000 to $25,000, and the company makes one round each year.

Find more information on Making the Future here, and on the Maker Education Initiative here.