Isaac Tucker looks for the “mad scientist factor” when interviewing potential new employees for his Dillsburg-based company, Katapult Engineering.
He and the Katapult team hope to find at least some of those budding mad scientists at The Libratory, a makerspace opened by the engineering firm in July 2016 at 17 S. Baltimore St. in the northern York County borough.
The Libratory, along with other makerspaces in the region, share a common goal: cultivating a community of so-called “makers” in Central Pennsylvania who will fill future jobs in increasingly automated and technology-oriented industries.
Makerspaces are designed to unleash the potential of makers — tinkerers, creative thinkers, collaborators, mad scientists. Commonly stocked with 3-D printers and other digital tools, the spaces are hubs for hands-on learning and collaboration, as well as for taking the mystery out of the technology.
“We’re taking some high-tech stuff out there and breaking it into … the simplest real form of it,” said Tucker, marketing director for Katapult,a software company.
They also provide greater accessibility to advanced technology, like libraries have historically done for books and other media. And like libraries, makerspaces often host public hours allowing free use of the machines. Some have costs attached or offer memberships for on-demand access to the machines.
“Digital literacy is a very big thing that I think no one in Central PA is really talking about … we owe it to the next generation to be looking at it,” said Rob Shoaff, a fellow at a Harrisburg makerspace called Foundry.
Foundry has occupied space at the Startup Harrisburg coworking space since summer. Before setting up shop there, it was based in classrooms at various Harrisburg city schools, guided by Foundry’s maker fellows.
What started out in 2014 as one fellow at Camp Curtin Academy has grown to four fellows, each dedicated to working with faculty at one or two schools. In all Foundry operates in seven schools — elementary, middle and high — with an eighth school being added in January.
“Our whole value proposition … is that the skills that the next generation needs for life and work in the 21st century are skills in the area of STEAM and particularly taught in ways like project-based learning, experiential learning around real things,” Frey said. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
Foundry’s schools-first approach allowed its president, Chad Frey, and its team of maker fellows to create a buzz about the importance of makerspaces. Now ensconced at Startup Harrisburg, Foundry hopes to start looping in the broader community.
With a small 3-D printer and a home-built rotating 3-D scanner, the Foundry team plans to start hosting “Maker Mondays,” participating in monthly 3rd in the Burg events in Harrisburg and offer consulting services to local organizations.
When it opened in 2016, The Libratory, housed in the old Dillsburg library building, drew people in with strategy-based board games, a low-cost way to reel in interested people, said Adam Schmehl, a marketing associate at Katapult.
Today, it houses machines such as 3-D printers, two sets of virtual-reality goggles compatible with a number of computer games, a laser cutter and a digitally programmable vinyl cutter. The space is open for “make nights” for free use of the machines on Fridays and Mondays and for game nights on Wednesdays.
Although The Libratory and Foundry gear their efforts to young people, there is a desire to bring seemingly futuristic, out-of-reach technology to all generations.
The way The Libratory is opening eyes is similar to what Katapult does for its clients. The firm sells proprietary software for utility companies that need to measure and analyze data about telephone poles.
“We’re developing new ways to do this thing that’s existed and has been done one outdated way for a long time,” Schmehl said.
Growing a hiring pool
Sustainable growth is a major focus of maker culture in Central Pennsylvania, which includes other makerspaces like Working Class in York and Make717 in Lancaster. The common thread among Foundry and The Libratory is to grow a pool of potential employees in Central Pennsylvania who can fill jobs that will require critical thinking and collaboration.
In manufacturing and other technical fields, for example, where jobs are becoming more automated, future workers will have to understand the concepts behind automation, Frey said. They are best taught through the project-based, hands-on learning that makerspaces espouse.
“We’re very intentional about being in a place like Harrisburg because Harrisburg is not necessarily a tech desert,” said Frey, who hopes to build on the foundation that already exists in the region. “We need to build those kinds of jobs that are able to retain our best and brightest.”
A larger tech workforce in Central Pennsylvania goes hand-in-hand with other economic development, said Tucker, who was recently elected to the Dillsburg borough council. Tucker sees the potential for Dillsburg to be a place where families want to settle because of ample job opportunities in thriving industries, which would in turn lead to more cultural development.
A network of makers
In place of a dedicated paid staff, the Libratory relies on Katapult employees. They balance time at the space with the busy pace of regular business operations, like consulting with utility clients and traveling to project sites as far as California.
On a Wednesday in mid-November, Katapult owner and president Jeremiah Stonge was busy at The Libratory assembling Makeboxes, kits of machine-building projects.
One hundred subscribers all over the country — many of whom discovered the program through Katapult’s investment of about $200 per week in Google ads — pay $24 per month for a year-long sequence of Makeboxes, which arrive in the mail on a monthly basis. The contents of each box build upon the previous month’s to teach its targeted audience of 12- to 13-year-olds concepts like mechanics, electricity and circuitry and to encourage creativity, independence and tinkering.
Beyond the Makebox subscriptions and the encouragement of local makers who want to volunteer their skills in exchange for access to The Libratory, there’s no membership fee or other revenue attached to the makerspace. So far, Katapult’s business model and an internal company culture of teaching are what keep The Libratory’s doors open, but the team understands that’s not necessarily sustainable.
“That’s why we want people in the community and people that are invested in tech education to see, ‘Oh wait, you’re not just … developing cutting-edge software. You also care about people and want to serve them.’ I think that’s what kind of makes us special,” Schmehl said.
Foundry, which operates as a branch of Frey’s volunteer-management software company Partnership Planners, has a similar model. The Foundry, for example, does not provide or fund equipment for the development of STEAM curricula. Rather, the maker fellows serve as dedicated resources for teachers to be able eventually to teach STEAM on their own.
At both The Libratory and Foundry, the goal is to nurture a network of makers with connections around the region.
“I see a group of referral systems where the kind of work that we do in schools and the kind of work that’s happening in the region can all come together and lift each other’s boats,” Frey said.