Made in Baltimore: Makerspaces Offer Alternatives for Adult Education

Over the last century, adult education in America has traditionally followed in two basic tracks: college or trade school. A university degree generally set one off on a path to higher earnings in stable industries, and a vocational certificate set one off on a path for lower earnings in industries that were more likely to suffer in recessions. However, this basic pattern has been fragmenting over the last 20 years. More and more of the workforce has shifted to contingent work, once-reliable white collar jobs like publishing have been decimated, and skilled trades work has seen increasing demand.

Makerspaces are emerging as a third way outside of the traditional binary path of either college or the trades. With a wide array of equipment and the flexibility to quickly prototype programs, makerspaces are in a great position to provide a new kind of adult education. At Open Works, we are in the midst of designing a program for adult learners that (we hope) will appeal to everyone from the hobbyist to the maker professional.

Classes are also a key component of any makerspace business plan. We need to balance designing a great experience, equitable teacher pay, and the cost of running our facility. To do so, we first calculated our per-hour overhead by dividing all of our costs (staff, utilities, insurance, etc.) over the number of hours we are open per year. Then, we settled on $25/hour for teacher pay, which is the going rate for comparable spaces around Baltimore and a fair living wage. Last, we set an enrollment floor of 4 and a cap of 10, which allowed us to model a cost per hour.

This cost calculator is built into a simple spreadsheet that allows us to quickly tabulate price of any potential offering. We can calculate in different profit margins for our elective offerings, or use it to tabulate costs for grant applications for subsidized classes. As we have iterated the model, we have added in more granular calculations like material fees, marketing costs, enrollment caps, or profit-sharing arrangements with partner organizations. I’ve set up an example in Google Sheets here for you to play around with.


Image: Our new deck is finally complete! Image by Will Holman.

Safety Classes

Every makerspace needs safety classes to make sure members don’t injure themselves or damage equipment. TechShop categorizes these shop orientations as “Safety and Basic Usage” classes, and requires them for pretty much every machine. Open Works is taking a slightly different approach, requiring them only in the heavy machine shops downstairs — CNC, laser cutting, wood, and metal. This helps keep costs as low as possible for the consumer and make sure they can get into the shops and start making right away.

We are also taking a unique approach to the curriculum. Instead of developing the class content in-house – a tricky task when we are in startup mode and have a limited staff – we are partnering with our friends at the Station North Tool Library. In addition to being a lending library for tools, they have been running a very successful public-access woodshop for 2-1/2 years now. They have developed a robust safety curriculum and have had no major accidents amongst users. We’ve partnered in a revenue-split model that allows both of us to grow without cutting into teacher pay. This type of partnership helps grow our corner of Baltimore into a kind of “maker campus” that puts many types of fabrication resources in close proximity.


Image: Our first CNC machine, a Laguna Swift, was delivered on July 7th. Image by Hannah Wides.

Project Classes

Most makerspaces have some sort of project-based classes. This strategy makes perfect sense – people are interested in making things, and want to walk away with a project at the end of the workshop. To that end, we are designing a wide variety of classes that run the gamut from furniture to 3D printers to sewn goods. Again, we are looking to a variety of partners to teach these classes. The Station North Tool Library will be translating some of their current classes, such as picture-frame building, over to our space. In a similar vein, we are negotiating with partner spaces like the Baltimore Jewelry Center to develop some collaborative workshops that combine inter-disciplinary making to build interesting projects. Our first member company, Jimmi, will be offering their Buildclass series on how to build a custom 3D bio-printer. And, we’ve just released a request for proposals so anyone with a skill to share can pitch us an idea.


Image: We’ve signed up to be a Zip Car host site to provide some vehicles as amenities to our members and the local neighborhood, and took delivery on June 30th. Image by Will Holman

Skills Classes

Skills classes are built more like traditional college courses – think “Welding 101” or “Introduction to Photoshop.” The objective is to walk through a progression of skill-building exercises over the course of several sessions. Learners walk away with a deeper, wider knowledge of processes and how to apply them. Skills classes may take place in the machine shops, but many will also be taught in the classrooms or computer lab. We are working with several partners to build out a roster of small business-development classes that help folks find capital, develop products, hire good employees, and market effectively.


Image: We hosted the leadership of Maryland Institute College of Art, including President Sammy Hoi (third from right) for a tour last week to discuss partnership possibilities. Photo by Will Holman.

University Partnerships

Baltimore has nine colleges and universities within the beltway – Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore City Community College, Towson University, and Goucher College. That gives Baltimore an incredible density of almost 100,000 college students, 900 of which graduate each year with maker-related degrees in fine arts, architecture, or engineering. This is a natural audience for any makerspace, as well as a demographic that is critical for the health and growth of any midsize city. We are working on an array of partnerships with several local colleges to provide classes in fabrication, operate as a satellite campus, discount memberships for faculty and students, and take on work-study students and interns.


Image: We recently got bike racks installed, perfect for the local commuting student. Photo by Will Holman


Massive open online courses are perfectly suited to a makerspace environment. The original makerspace-based class is based on Neal Gershenfeld’s very popular course at MIT, “How to Make Almost Anything.” Dr. Gershenfeld co-founded the first Fab Lab with Sherry Lassiter, and turned HTMAA into a MOOC that is now beamed to labs around the world under the auspices of the Fab Foundation. Following a traditional 15-week semester schedule, students survey five major methods of digital fabrication. Then, they put that knowledge to work with a capstone project of their own invention. The classroom portion of the class comes through video feed, and the lab portion of the class is facilitated by an onsite teacher.

While HTMAA is designed specifically for a makerspace environment, other MOOC platforms are growing. Traditional 4-year institutions are putting up content, companies like Skillshare and Coursera offer a wide variety of classes, and Instructables recently announced live video experiences by some of their most popular makers. In the future, as Open Works grows its own internal teacher corps, we could potentially develop and distribute our own MOOCs through these platforms.


Image: The base for our pylon sign at the corner of Oliver Street and Greenmount Avenue has the address of the building cast into the concrete. Photo by Will Holman

In our next post, we’ll examine how to market and grow a membership base.

Construction Update

Since the last post, we have:

1. Finished the entry deck.

2. Finished the accent walls in the lobby and conference room.

3. Got permanent power and began commissioning the air conditioning and elevator.

4. Started taking delivery of our first tools, starting with our CNC.