As an institution, how would you define 'maker culture'?

We believe that a ‘maker culture’ is one where individuals are driven by a spirit of creativity and spontaneity, who then turn that spirit into ideas shared with others from both similar and dissimilar backgrounds. Those ideas then take root in a framework of innovation that impacts society, with that impact being made both intangibly as defined by improved quality of life, as well as tangibly in a physical item. Makers use their hands and minds to create new worlds without worrying about disciplinary or institutional boundaries. A ‘maker culture’ is about people and their ideas—and helping bring those ideas to life.

How does your institution foster maker culture?

Through our think[box] initiative, we are creating both physical and mental spaces to support creative individuals not only throughout campus, but also into our Northeast Ohio community. Think[box] is free, transparently operated, and open to 100% of our students/staff/faculty as well as free-of-charge to the public.

Our space and developing culture trumpets the serendipitous encounters between garage tinkerers and engineering students; between medical researchers and artists; between manufacturers and designers. The space provides both physical tools (digital and non-digital) and collaboration tools (white boards, play doh, etc.) to encourage creation of ideas.

Programmatically, we are pulling in the entire campus (which will be more easily done when Phase I of our renovated 50,000 sq. ft. space is open in August 2015) to participate in innovation activities, including both social innovation and design groups as well as IP clinics and entrepreneurial support students. This is also supplemented by our campus introductory SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education & Scholarship) courses where students from all disciplines work side-by-side in the classroom and in over 20 courses, these students get introduced to making through project development and spending time in think[box].

Finally, to help ensure a culture that is supportive of makers, we have carefully hired staff and courted supporters who believe passionately about collaboration, breaking down silos, and the beauty of ideas and thoughts that are found in the minds of all.

How are you approaching maker education with your current or future curricula?

Currently, we are embedding the think[box] approach in many of our freshman engineering courses, as well as the general university SAGES experiences (Seminar Approach to General Education & Scholarship) and our senior design courses. Faculty from departments are working together (Mechanical and Biomedical, as an example) to bring a tinkering and interdisciplinary project-based team approach to design and development. We have also piloted courses with our neighbor, the Cleveland Institute of Art that brings engineers and artists together over a summer experience.

From a physical space standpoint, we have seen departments, such as the Department of Chemical Engineering, develop their own labs (Chemical think[box]) that bring in the think[box] approach to specific courses. Our Biomedical Engineering Department is currently designing the BME think[box] with an emphasis on tissue cultures. And the Departments of Materials Science/Engineering and Macromolecular Science/Engineering are working on plans for an interdisciplinary facility that is innovation-driven called think[materials]

In the future, we are developing a core of faculty to engage in pedagogical discussions around the place of think[box], making, creativity within the engineering curriculum, also inviting other key thinkers from throughout the university to engage in the discussion. This is expected to result in new ideas about integrating the TBX-philosophy into the wider curriculum.

What are the key programs, initiatives or classes that support the development of maker skills?

Think[box] is the key initiative that supports the development of maker skills. Each user is provided an ability badge to represent a new piece of machinery mastered. The ability badge signifies the user has completed safety training, after which various stickers (drill, mill, saw, etc) may be earned to signify basic competence on those machines.

Another supporting program of TBX is the Student Project Fund. Last year we distributed $10k and this year it will be over $40k to student projects. Any student project, be they a personal idea or a class project or a design/engineering/business competition, is open to apply for these funds. This is open to all CWRU students, not just engineers. To date we have funded 41 projects ranging from aerodynamic adhesives to ionized fuel jets to urban gardens and high-tech fashion. With the increase in project fund dollars to $40K, we expect that number to grow to 200.

Finally, there are specific classes offered through multiple engineering school departments that build maker skills, such as the shop course offered by Mechanical/Aerospace where students learn to use tools like milling machines, drill presses, lathes, etc., and our EECS circuits course where students get hands-on experience with Arduino controllers, sensors, etc.

How are your students involved in making? Are there maker groups or organizations on campus organized by students?

Many students serve as teaching assistants in think[box]; there are currently 48 of them. In addition, we have over 3,000 visits each month to the facility, 80% of whom represent our students and 20% from the community outside of CWRU.

There is also a Hacker Society and Rocket Club on campus as well as an Entrepreneurs Club, both of which are interacting more fully with think[box]. In addition, many design teams and maker groups from Mini-Baja to Design-Build-Fly to the Autonomous Lawnmower/Snow Plow have used think[box], and numerous student startups from Sprav to Ecospinners to FGC Plasma to Carbon Origins have used think[box].

Give a snapshot overview of the primary facilities, technologies and tools that campus makers have or will have access to?

Currently, think[box] 1.0 has over $500,000 worth of equipment available to projects, supported by a $500,000 annual operating budget of personnel, assistants, and materials. These resources and space allows those working in the space to:

  • Meet with investors and interested parties to further ideate in a space that promotes creative solutions, including digital tools and materials.
  • Build prototypes of a quality beyond the bench prototype, allowing for more intricate product design as well as professionalism than is available in a research laboratory setting.
  • Access media equipment to build the advertising and pitch materials necessary to continue down the investment path.
  • Interact with multi-disciplinary skill sets, including talent from the Cleveland Institute of Art to assist with functional and aesthetic aspects of product design and development.

Individuals have access to these resources during all open business hours, which is currently available 63 hours a week, including evening and weekend hours. This primary facility is complemented by other facilities that are networked into think[box] and operated with the same student open policy, including the Foundry, the Sears Undergraduate Electronics Design Lab, and the Bingham Shop (which will be moving to our larger space so users have easy access in a one-stop-shop building).

Collaboration Space

Groups and classes, as well as individuals, may make use of the Design/Collaboration room at any time during open hours. This room operates on a first-come first-serve basis, with the exception of reserved work times which take priority. This room contains the following:

  • Three large rectangular workbenches
  • Two small circular meeting tables
  • A mobile tool cart with a variety of hand tools
  • A mobile supply cart
  • Six mobile double-sided whiteboards
  • Two Click-Share digital meeting workcenters


In addition to welding and wood-working machines, there is a wide variety of digitally-enabled equipment that facilitates professional prototype development, including three types of 3D Printers; Laser Cutters; a Printed Circuit Board Router; ShopBot Computerized Router (96x48); Miter Saw and Stand; 3D Stereo Inspection Microscope; Soldering Iron; Mixed Signal Oscilloscope; a Digital Multimeter; several 3D Scanners;

For projects needing access to professional presentation materials, think[box] 1.0 has a Vinyl Cutter; a Sewing & Embroidery Machine; a Smith Victor Photo Table; a Vinyl Cutter; Large Format Printer; Laminator; and high resolution cameras and video equipment. 

How does your school engage with the maker community at large?

We participate in as many community maker events as possible, from regional maker faires to organizations such as Ingenuity (a community group that sponsors festivals at the intersection of art and technology). In addition, we use every opportunity to invite our community to think[box] and regularly host tours for new groups on how to engage in the space and with one another.

As part of our outreach, we remind our community that think[box] is free and open to the public. The local business incubators such as LaunchHouse bring their startups over often for prototyping and networking. Local businesses and individual entrepreneurs use the facilities not only for prototyping but also for recruiting talented students who are working in think[box], students representing not only CWRU, but also the Cleveland Institute of Art and other area colleges and universities.

The think[box] Operations Manager has been consulting for free with numerous universities and high schools, speaking at places like MakerCon, the ASU Maker Summit, etc. to promote novel ways to manage makespaces that allow for the very high throughput of users seen due to the open access policy. 

What partnerships (informal or formal) do you have with makers and/or community organizations outside of campus?

We work with a large number of organizations, including the Cleveland Public Library, the Great Lakes Science Center, area institutions of higher education, the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Cleveland Municipal School District, MAGNET (our regional MEP), Jumpstart (early stage support)….the list is quite long! In addition to the many local organizations, we also are consulting with universities nationwide to share our experiences.

What has been the impact of maker culture on your campus?

We are changing conversations and changing the culture. It is driving the enrollment and student selection process. There is a re-energized entrepreneurial spirit on campus, which has allowed us to recruit incredible speakers to campus such as Steve Wozniak and Zev Siegl.

From a quantitative standpoint, we surveyed student users of think[box] and found that 34% listed TBX as one of the reasons for enrolling at CWRU. At the Consumer Electronics Show last year, there were seven student projects represented, all having used think[box] in the development of their ideas. This year, we have increased our booth space from one to three, and we are excited to see what student projects are identified to move into this space.

Qualitatively, we are breading down silos. In October, prior to our official start of renovation, we hosted a gathering of faculty and staff from across the university in THEIR think[box]; we had over 100 individuals from all schools/colleges join in the celebration.  

What are the success stories relating to your maker culture?

As seen on our Projects page (, we are seeing some incredible activity resulting from our efforts. A few of those are highlighted below:

1. Elsie’s Car: Elsie’s Car is a modified child-sized Toyota FJ Cruiser, re-designed and re-built to provide improved mobility for a local 7-year-old girl who lives with cerebral palsy. Due to her condition, she suffers from partial paralysis on the left side of her body and is unable to walk unassisted. The design team focused on making the vehicle easier to operate and more ergonomic, which included a fully-supportive seat, more tactile controls, and increased legroom. The think[box] Student Project Fund provided funding for the project, and modifications primarily took place in think[box] and the Bingham Machine Shop.

2. FGC Plasma: Using think[box] a novel way was developed to improve the way fuel burns in jet engines. Plasma is used to break apart fuel and air molecules before they are burned, this has the effect of "jump-starting" the combustion reaction making it safer and more efficient. Promising results were obtained whereby a stable flame was held with 63% less fuel than what is possible with conventional means. This could potentially translate to significant aviation fuel savings.

3. Ecospinners: EcoSpinners is designing an integrated and programmable electric bike with a proprietary fuel cell range extender. The bike’s power pack is a hybrid of advanced lithium-ion polymer battery and liquid-fueled fuel cell. The critical part of the bike design is a low-cost fuel cell, running on non-polluting and recyclable liquid fuel that allows an increase in range without increasing the cost of the power pack.

4. Pro2fit Inspiratory Muscle Trainer: Inspiratory Muscle Training, or IMT for short, has been around for decades in the medical and sports environments. Pro2Fit is bringing IMT to the masses with a personal device that pairs with your smartphone which provides a fun and highly motivating workout. The smartphone app and website makes it easy to share results, see how you are doing relative to people like you and even compete with others. Early prototypes, made partly in think[box], are in use on several NBA, NHL, and NFL teams as well as a handful of universities for both research and athletics.

5. Luminance: The second generation of wearable fashion and technology created by Team Pulse and winner of Best of Show in the 2014 Cleveland Institute of Art In the Dark fashion competition. Luminance improves on the technology of its antecedent, Pulse, by utilizing an accelerometer to capture the models movement and dynamically translate that data into effects that are either softly shimmering or bold and bright. Think[box] resources were instrumental in the assembly of the dress and the underlying technology.