Our Makerspace – part the first

The Makerspace movement seems to be gaining quite a lot of traction in some parts of the UK.

It used to be that makerspaces were something set up by a bunch of friends pooling resources for a co-operative workshop which gradually included other like-minded people.  As time goes on there appear to be more spaces set up primarily to attract people who wouldn’t normally class themselves as makers to come in and start a new hobby or a new business.  We like this trend and we think it’s something to be encouraged.

TechResort’s Makerspace at our base in East Sussex College in Eastbourne is mainly used for young people to learn coding and making skills but we also use it to build projects (see our “what we’ve made” section) for ourselves and when people ask us to build stuff for them.  In future, we’d love to develop our organisation to be somewhere that starts to seed new adult makers and possibly new businesses.

When we set up our space in 2015 we knew we wanted to get local people enthusiastic about coding and making but we didn’t know exactly how we’d do it…or what we’d need in our space to make it happen.

We learned a lot along the way and in the spirit of true engineers who make mistakes, don’t get discouraged by them but learn and share them,  we thought we’d share some details about the kit in our space and how it came to be there.

First up…computing power:

Laptops
Laptops are our mainstay.  Almost every session uses them so they need to be reasonably robust – most of them are lasting pretty well even after nearly five years.  We use ones with quite a big screen (15″) which makes them more tricky to carry and store but far nicer to use.  All of them have Windows installed but a few also have Fedora (a distribution of Linux) installed too for when we want to do Linux-based stuff.  We choose not to lock them down so that learners can install software they need for projects.

Lessons learned:
They get full of rubbish so reimage them regularly.
Get a load of USB sticks for attendees to save their work to – saves having to find the same laptop.

Tablets
When we started we were convinced we’d be doing some Android app development so we bought a bunch of Nexus 9 tablets.  We didn’t get going with them as soon as we expected so they haven’t been used anything like as much as we’d like.  If we had our time again, we’d buy far fewer and wait until we developed a programme first.  It has to be said, though, that App Inventor is great for getting going with App development.

Lessons learned:  they discharge quite quickly and charge slowly so if you need them plan in advance!

Raspberry Pi
These are an enormous asset to our space.  We must have had nearly 50 in one version or another.  Early ones didn’t come with wifi but we can still use them for some sessions.  The most recent model:  Pi 3 Model B+ is a great little device and can be used for a whole host of projects and learning sessions.  If you’re setting up a maker space, be sure to include a few of these and there’s also a Raspberry Pi in a tiny form factor (Pi Zero) – great for light/small projects.

Lessons learned:
Have plenty of fresh SD cards for users to have their own Raspbian image.  Some of our staff have their own for tinkering with.
Be really careful when you’re connecting things to the GPIO pins – they don’t have any protection again short circuits so we’ve lost a few that way.  Best to connect things when the Pi is unpowered.

Network Attached Server (NAS)
Ours is a microserver with enough diskspace to allow for separate staff and workshop file servers plus many instances of other sorts of server for projects, commissions and sessions like Minecraft.  Our network support company (who kindly donate time to TechResort) also set up remote access for us and this is brilliant for when we do work from home.

Lessons learned:
If you rely on your file server and especially if it’s in a building you don’t have control over (we’re based in a college) then make sure you have an uninterruptable power supply which will shut it down elegantly.
Also – backups!

Workstations
We have three of these at the moment – one mid-range, one graphics station and one slightly slow, tired machine.  We all use them more than we ever expected.  They’re on a staff network which is separate from the network the laptops work with.

Lessons learned:
If your staff or volunteers need to prepare stuff using a workstation then make sure you’ve separate machines and the space for them.

In the next episode we’ll talk about microcontrollers…

 

 

 

 

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