Makerspaces: A Growing Nebraska Trend

May 4, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Innovation Studio makerspace is a do-it-yourself place where people can gather to invent, learn, and create. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

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Makerspaces are do-it-yourself shops popping up all across the U.S. The fast-growing trend has caught the attention of Nebraska educators and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Koosha Mooghen Dastgerdi immigrated to the United States from Iran in 2014 for two reasons. The first:

"My wife. About five years ago she was coming back to visit her family in Iran. I saw her and I fell in love with her. It’s a long story,” Dastgerdi said.

The second reason was to follow a dream.

Before coming to the U.S., Koosha worked as a furniture maker in Iran. In his small shop, he would design and craft his own works and sell them to local outlets. But he often ran into problems because of his Bahá'í faith, an unpopular religious minority in Iran. He was unable to attend college and finding a landlord who would rent space to him for his business became increasingly difficult. When he came to the U.S., he knew he would essentially have to start over, and that was scary. But that’s when he heard about something called a makerspace.

Koosha Mooghen Dastgerdi is a furniture maker who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 2014. He now designs and creates furniture at the Innovation Studio on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

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“I found this place and I can make what I was making in Iran and it gives me the opportunity to make what I love,” Dastgerdi said.

Shane Farritor is director of the Nebraska Innovation Studio, a relatively new makerspace located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. A makerspace is a do-it-yourself place where people can gather to invent, learn; and in Koosha’s case create.

“He’s already made three or four sets of furniture here," Farritor said. "He makes them totally from scratch. He brings in 2x4’s of wood and rolls of leather and does everything here. The sewing, the upholstery, all the wood-working to make the furniture.”

It's also given Dasterdi the chance to keep pursuing a passion he has had for years.

“It’s the definition of the American dream, right? I hope he starts his own business someday, is able to move out of here and have his own business, and gets rich one day," Farritor said.

Stories like Koosha’s have been nothing new in the space’s young existence. Membership has grown rapidly from 70 members last fall to 280 this spring. There are 12 entrepreneurs like Koosha currently using the space to create their products. And the space is only about one-third done.

For as many aspiring entrepreneurs as you’ll find at the Innovation Studio, you’ll also find another group: students. The latest example of their work: A multi-purpose robot recently designed and created by a local high school robotics club.

“It's all laser cut," Farritor said. "A cell phone controls it. As you can see, they pick up the balls with this spinning, flailing thing, and then they have a catapult built in here that fires their balls. It’s really cool.”

Farritor said the space has worked to create a collaboration between aspiring entrepreneurs like Koosha and these high school students. That’s something Farritor said Nebraska could use.

“In the 90’s in the education systems, a lot of the vocational programs disappeared," Farritor said. "I think that left a lot of kids behind. A lot of kids think mechanically and visually and are physical builders. I think that’s coming back. I think we’ve realized there’s been a mistake and it’s coming back in a different form. It’s got a techy angle to it. It’s got a kind of innovation angle to it. I think are makerspaces are going to become more important as we move forward.”

Signs with inspirational quotes like this one line the walls of the Innovation Studio. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

Gregg Christensen is with the Nebraska Department of Education in Entrepreneurship and Work Based Learning. He agrees with Farritor. As he will tell you, the best way to learn is hands-on, minds-on. Then you retain it. Makerspaces fit the bill.

“I do think you’re seeing that makerspaces are filling a spot that allows young people and adults to explore and work with each other,” Christensen said.

With so much focus on core academics, Christensen said electives have sometimes taken a back seat, especially in small rural Nebraska schools. He says makerspaces like the Innovation Studio have the possibility to retain young people in those areas, and even encourage business growth.

“Entrepreneurship is absolutely vital to growing the economy, especially in rural Nebraska. As our population ages, we have got to have young people starting new businesses and also going into the succession mode where they’re taking over existing businesses," Christensen said.

This month, the Nebraska Library Commission announced it had been awarded a national grant to create temporary makerspaces in 33 rural communities’ libraries across Nebraska. Christensen says the goal is to advance economic development in those communities by working toward developing permanent makerspaces.

If that happens, they’ll largely be modeled off of the Innovation Studio here in Lincoln, with the goal of encouraging students and aspiring entrepreneurs like Koosha Mooghen Dastgerdi. Tomorrow, he’ll go to his day job as a machinist from 8-4 before returning here to begin on his next design. It’s hard work that makes for a long day, but he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Now I’m happy," Dastgerdi said. "I have this opportunity to work here and make furniture again. I have my own life. I have a beautiful life. That’s my happiness here. That’s all I need.”