The Sears Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University
Having completed two successful site visits, my hopes were high for the last makerspace on my observation list. I was introduced to the nationally renowned makerspace at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio), the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears Think[box] (https://engi- neering.case.edu/sears-thinkbox), by Guengerich at UMN. At the time when I was still finalizing my observation sites from the available academic maker- spaces, Guengerich recommended Think[box] as a model makerspace given its esteemed staff members and the growing influence it had on academic makerspaces around the country. When I visited the makerspace in fall of 2017, Think[boxJ was hosting the second International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces (ISAM), having taken the baton from MIT, the previous symposium leader.
Among the most distinguishable features of Think[boxJ compared to its counterparts was its size. Think[boxj was a 7-story, 50,000-square-foot facility—a standalone building dedicated entirely to being a full-scale makerspace to the Case Western campus. Think[box] began in December 2012 in a smaller, 5,000 square-foot space where protocols, training, and processes were tested that would be appropriate for an open-access mission. In October 2015, it moved into the first phase (Floors 1 to 4) of its permanent home, with renovations continuing and phase two completion of additional floors in Fall 2016.
The Thinkfbox] Setup
Think[box] was open to all Case Western students, faculty, staff, and the Cleveland community at large. The makerspace branded itself as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation. The design of the building mirrored a 7-step process to a start-up business:
- • Floor 1 — Community: a welcome center; gathering space
- • Floor 2 — Collaboration: a meeting space to brainstorm ideas; collaborative ideation
- • Floor 3 — Prototyping: the initial makerspace; digital prototyping and development
- • Floor 4 — Fabrication: the next makerspace; non-digital construction and manufacturing
- • Floor 5 — Project Space: a large space for teams to test their physical prototypes
- • Floor 6 — Entrepreneurship: temporary cells for teams to assemble initial business endeavors
- • Floor 7 — Incubator: temporary office spaces for startups
During my visit, I was allowed access to Floors 1, 3, 4, and 5. Students would typically occupy Floors 2 to 5, using the fabrication materials and tools to build their own projects. The layouts of the two main “making” spaces, Floors 3 and 4, were well defined and organized. The spaces were clearly marked with dedicated areas for reception, computer-assisted design or work, hand tools, power tools, hardware and materials, material disposals, electronics, higher-risk activities such as laser or waterjet cutting, and a “dirt room” where prototypes get sanded or spray painted (safety glasses required in this area). According to my tour guide, Think[box] was open about 63 hours each week in the regular semester, and about 20 percent of the traffic was from the public (non-Case Western community).
The Thinkfbox] Workflow
As an open-access makerspace, Think[box] also served neighboring higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and industry around the area. Anyone walking into Floor 3, the main reception for the makerspace, would need to check in using a tablet at the reception desk. Makers were expected to familiarize themselves with safety measures and acquire knowledge of the power tools they plan to use on Floor 4. Unlike the Invention Studio, Think[box] did not have peer instructors who monitor the makerspace. It had student workers who are paid to assist makers with various tools. Think[boxJ received material donations from area industry, including plywood, filaments for 3D printers, and other raw materials. Makers did not need to pay for using these supplies in the makerspace.
On Floors 3 and 4, there were recycling and waste disposal spaces clearly marked to encourage makers to put away their unused materials.
The overall atmosphere at the makerspace seemed light and conducive for work. There was no background music. The student workers in the space were identified with their green apron and nametag. They walked around the space and were seen clearing up clutters and putting tools back into their storage areas. During my visit, there were 11 students in the makerspace on Floor 3. I observed one female student worker helping three students at the computer area at the same time. Another male student worker was cleaning a workbench, before he turned his attention to a maker who was trying to laser cut a wooden gift for his friends. The student worker offered to help the student, who turned out to be his classmate, to remove the stains on the wood after being cut up by laser, and he reminded his friend to wear goggles and gloves before entering the dirt room.
To access Floor 4, students must complete a few basic trainings online or one-on-one sessions with a staff. They would receive an “ability badge” after completion; and they must wear the badge when entering Floor 4. Students were also required to wear closed-toe shoes when visiting that floor. In case they forgot, there were safety clogs for checkout. According to a student worker, there were workshops, events, informal courses—anything that support, in their words, “an innovation ecosystem” (the student’s words) of the makerspace. When I toured the first and second floor, I was shown many collaboration spaces that resembled an active learning classroom one may find in modern colleges or universities—with pods and monitors and whiteboards where makers could perform focused brainstorming and discussions. There was also free coffee and tea. Since the building was a little bit away from the main student center on campus, there was even a pizza vending machine on the first floor of Think[box],
My student guide informed me that to ensure student safety after business hours, a buddy system was enforced after hours. Makers must be in pairs in order to remain in the facility, and no one was allowed in the building after midnight.
Maker Experience at Think[box]
Similar to my first two visits, I spoke with students who were present at Think[boxJ during my observation. My first informant here was Nicola, who worked as a student staff at the makerspace. When asked about her overall experience, Nicola said she liked how the Think[box] configuration encouraged conversations among makers. The layout of the space seemed to support peer-to-peer feedback on projects. In addition, Nicola also highlighted how the staff members of Think[box] made her feel welcomed at the space, which encouraged her to visit Think[box] often. Sounding a little like a sales pitch, Nicola shared that both staff members and community volunteers (working professionals) helped her and other makers feel comfortable pursuing their ideas.
Think[box] has great energy, and great people. It’s a great place to test an idea, to explore an idea. You have the resources there, you have the materials there. You also have the knowledge there. The staff members are super great. They are very knowledgeable, very friendly. They also have working professionals there who are willing to help you with your project. They seem fun and are interested and invested in the project you are working on. I have met architects and engineers there.
Another student user that I interviewed was Ryan, who was in his junior year studying art at the Cleveland Institute of Arts (CIA). I have learned through Ryan that the CIA had a unique collaborative relationship with Case Western Reserve University, and that students from both institutions often collaborated, including working together in the Think[box], Ryan was grateful for resources that he received as a CIA student through the makerspace.
I have a one-year grant through the Thinkfbox] so they supply me funding to support my own independent project. I will go there to 3D print, I will go there to laser cut. I will go there to just do general manufacturing. Sometimes I will just go up there to talk with other people and to see what they are working on. It’s an interesting environment. It’s just really fun to be up there.
When asked for his opinion on the kind of collaboration fostered through the Case Western-CIA collaborative initiative, Ryan noted that such effort is plausible because it brought artists and engineers together.
Think[box] is very crucial for my academic development. At the Cleveland Institute of Arts, sometimes it is very dense there with artists, and you are not exposed to engineers, to makers. It is nice to get out of there. This is one of the reasons I chose to study at the CIA—it’s because of its relations to Case Western and the Think[box], There are about 500 students at the CIA, and I know there are a couple of foundation classes that push students to the Think[box], Maybe 10% of CIA students make it over there before they graduate.
As with Nicola, Ryan was grateful for the resources made available through Think[box] and that students did not need to pay for most materials (e.g., plywood, filaments). He was also thankful for the expertise offered through the makerspace staff that has helped him with his projects.
Similar to my experience at the Invention Studio, I noticed a strong sense of community at Think[box]. The Thinkjbox] website emphasized that the makerspace aimed to serve not just students at Case Western, but also the greater Cleveland community—business and non-business organizations alike. As it was evident through Ryan’s experience, he benefited from an academic collaboration between CIA and Case Western. Nicola, too, pointed out that she was able to meet working engineers and architects in the makerspace. Think[box] has presented itself as a common space for communities beyond the university. The overall atmosphere of Think[boxJ established a sense of “entrepreneurship”—the way it was set up and run emphasized how individual projects could get ideated, designed, fabricated, and shipped as profitable products in a streamlined design process. This process followed the 7-step start-up route, which was also manifested in the makerspace physical structure (seven stories). With the additional incubator and project spaces, Think[box] stood out from the other two maker- spaces I observed, articulating an entrepreneurial stance.