In a cluttered classroom at Cubberley Community Center last Friday afternoon, the sound of smooth jazz was playing in the background as a group of high school students labored over various projects. One watched a 3-D printer start to slowly print mini human-shaped figures for a foosball table he's making from scratch. Across the room, two teens chatted back and forth before carefully measuring plywood that later that day would become a tall, sturdy shelf. Without warning, the whirring collision of a power-saw meeting wood drowned out everything.
Welcome to MakeX, a maker's space where Palo Alto teens create things to their heart's content in a place entirely theirs. MakeX is student-run, with a group of Palo Alto students who designed the space from scratch now supervising it, managing the budget, planning publicity campaigns and continually thinking about how it can best serve Palo Alto youth.
The Cubberley space isn't state-of-the-art or expansive, but the students clearly like it that way. They have everything they need, from a laser cutter and two computers equipped with high-level engineering software to a sagging couch where they sit to watch movies or play video games.
MakeX, which is funded by the Palo Alto library system, was initially conceived as a mobile maker's space that would set up shop in one location for several months, then move somewhere else. It was born as a collaboration between the library and the Palo Alto Art Center, after Art Center Director Karen Kienzle brought to Library Director Monique leConge the idea of applying for a learning grant that could help them better serve Palo Alto teenagers. That grant fell through, but they secured a different one. With $67,500 from the California State Library and further donations, they ended up with close to $100,000, allowing them to work with a group of high school students to build their ideal maker's space.
Initial interviews with Palo Alto students indicated the need for a space that they could truly take ownership of, Kienzle said.
"Teens have always been an important audience for us and one we felt like we weren't serving as well as we could," she said. "Some of the things we learned from teens was the importance (of) having a third place -- not home, not work (or in their case, not school) -- a place of their own. We heard that they wanted to be treated like adults and they wanted their voices to be heard."
Twenty-two local students -- some from Palo Alto High and Gunn High, others from Castilleja School, The Nueva School in Hillsborough and elsewhere -- served as consultants for the maker's space (some volunteered and some were even paid). They visited other maker's spaces in the Bay Area, including Castilleja's Bourn Idea Lab, Stanford University's Fab Lab and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. They toured Palo Alto design firm Ideo's offices and talked with people at Stanford's famed d.school to learn about design thinking. They then sketched out their maker's space from top to bottom with precise purpose, from the design of the chairs and tables to the budget of $13,000 for equipment.
"One of the outcomes we were really hoping (for) is that they could understand how local government works," leConge said. "As people who work in local government, from the outside you don't necessarily realize how long it can take to purchase something or why we have to follow this restriction or policy."
MakeX first launched in mobile form in the Palo Alto Art Center in August 2013. It later moved to the lobby of City Hall before settling in a more permanent space at Cubberley. It's now open twice a week for two- to three-hour slots during which anyone, students of any age or simply interested adults, is welcome to drop in and tinker.
"We thought that instead of giving people a pretty superficial knowledge of how to build and how to design and then move away from them and have MakeX be harder to access, we wanted to find a more permanent space so we could develop a more permanent culture," said James Wang, Paly junior and one of the original 22 students.
Wang said what makes MakeX unique, too, is that it's a place without constraints. There are no adults looking over their shoulders (parents, don't worry: Everyone goes through safety training before operating the power tools) and no class requirements or expectations on what work happens there.
"We could have done a clay animation studio or an art studio or something, but we decided what was lacking the most in Palo Alto was a free-to-use, free-form industrial workshop where you could just flesh out your ideas," Wang said.
On a recent afternoon, students built a tall shelf at the same time as another teen put together a mini wooden fish toy (with felt spines so it actually moves). Two girls worked on an engineering project for a school club. Many Paly students use MakeX as a much-needed resource to develop their projects for SciOly, a student club focused on preparing for high-level science competitions like the Science Olympiad.
"This is our resource," said Paly junior and SciOly club member Emily Zhang, who was at MakeX last week with a female classmate testing a contraption they built to launch a ping-pong ball. "Before, we just went to some guy's garage that had power tools."
Wang said the space is also about making the maker movement, which espouses a do-it-yourself, engineering-oriented attitude, more accessible to young people in Palo Alto.
"The maker movement is kind of intimidating and kind of exclusive to older people right now," Wang said. "We're trying to bring it to a younger audience."
Though right now MakeX is very much this group of students' space, leConge and Kienzle are thinking about how the program will be sustained as these students move on and, perhaps, what modifications or evolution might occur. LeConge said library staff is looking at ways to extend MakeX's impact into local library branches, such as organizing programming around one piece of equipment, like the 3-D printer.
Regardless, Kienzle said the experience of a student-created project like this was unique, for both the city and the students.
"It was a really empowering process," she said. "When you empower people to do great things, they always step up and they make things happen."