Jeff Sturges

A few weeks ago, we sat down with Jeff Sturges at the Mt Elliott Makerspace. Jeff is a veteran of the NYC hacker scene, where he helped build two successful hackerspaces, NYC Resistor and the South Bronx Fab Lab. The former gave rise to the now wildly successful MakerBot, and the later pioneered putting creative agency (and laser cutters) in the hands of teens.

But Jeff left because he wanted to bring the maker culture to Detroit. So far he has started two successful maker spaces in Detroit, and he’s on a mission to build more. This is his story.

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“I grew up to be a tinkerer… my real learning environment was in my basement. School was just something I did because I had to.” Jeff bounces forward in his seat. He has so much energy you can almost see him vibrating. His words race to keep up with his thoughts as he talks us through his childhood, hands gesturing rapidly. It’s readily apparent that sitting still at a desk doing math problems is not what Jeff was made for.

“There’s a picture of me next to the valedictorian, standing next to my disassembled ATV 4-wheeler wearing a spam shirt. I guess I knew I was different, but I wasn’t sure how.”

Jeff studied economics in college and then got a job in IT, because those were the things closest to his passion for creating. As he put it, though, that got boring: “I was just fixing systems, not designing new things.” But then, in 2000, everything changed.

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Jeff had a job at an IT consultancy during the dot-com boom, and it was there that he met graduates of the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard School of Design. They showed Jeff spaces he didn’t know existed: schools built for people like him – people who love to invent and tinker and build. They inspired him, but he wasn’t sure what to do with that inspiration. Over the next eight years Jeff attended architecture school, built furniture, worked in IT, and then, in 2008, had the chance to join the MIT Fab Lab in the South Bronx, where he worked to provide opportunities for creation and invention for teenagers.

What Jeff gradually recognized is that are thousands – perhaps millions – of students like him; students who are bored in school, whose real passion is to build things, and whose creativity and passion are being ground out of them in 12 years of desk-based learning. And now there is the possibility of building spaces for those kids.

Hardware bins

Photo by Ting Kelly

So Jeff is on a mission to transform education. He wants to do that by building spaces where kids can give free reign to their curiosity and creative passion. In other words, building maker spaces. He sees the possibility of these spaces being integrated into every school in the country, and then integrating those spaces into communities, so that the formal barriers and structures we associate with schools melt away. Kids and teachers and community members can flow in and out of maker spaces, learning and teaching and creating, as a community.

At the end of our conversation, he summed it up like this:

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Rock on, Jeff.

If you want to learn more about what he’s up to, one place to check it out is here.