While you might expect Silicon Valley, don't be surprised if the next high-tech innovation stems from Sidney, Neb. A new project from Nebraska Extension has established a makerspace at the Sidney Public Library.
A makerspace is a community-oriented physical space that serves as a hub for innovators, artists and entrepreneurs. It often features a variety of equipment, like the laser cutter, router and 3D printers found in Sidney. Youth and adults use the space to work with and learn from each other in pursuit of their next creation.
What we’re trying to do is take the knowledge and expertise found at Innovation Studio and share it with these rural communities so they have the same opportunities for creativity and innovation.” Brad Barker
The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Nebraska Extension and Nebraska 4-H are partnering with the Sidney Public Library, the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the College of Education at the University of Nebraska Omaha to develop a network of makerspaces around the state in small towns where they wouldn't normally exist, leveraging the resources from Innovation Studio, the makerspace at Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln.
4-H science and technology specialist and professor Bradley Barker is serving as the project leader. Barker also serves as outreach coordinator for the university's Center for Science, Math and Computer Education. He has spent a great deal of time studying makerspace models across the globe. One of his key findings is that most thriving makerspaces are found in highly populated areas. His idea is to create a new model, which will extend the resources of Innovation Studio in Lincoln to people across the state, regardless of community size.
"What we're trying to do is take the knowledge and expertise found at Innovation Studio and share it with these rural communities so they have the same opportunities for creativity and innovation," Barker said.
To bridge the resources of Innovation Studio with rural communities, the team uses telepresence robotics. There are matching robots in Lincoln and Sidney that live stream a feed of the activity in each location. Users of the makerspaces are able to interact and talk to each other through the robots, which are driven by humans using computer controls.
Shane Jones has been using the Sidney makerspace since it opened in late 2017. He uses the space multiple times a week and has created a number of small boxes, name plaques and Christmas ornaments.
"I think the makerspace is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for a rural community like Sidney," Jones said. "I tell people about it all of the time. I've created my own competition for time on the laser machine."
Learning to use new machinery such as the laser cutter could result in bringing new prototypes to market quickly, which is one of the goals of the makerspace.
"Giving people the opportunity to create their own products and businesses could really be an economic engine for these communities," said Barker.
Barker and the rest of the team are using Sidney as an example, and plan to study the outcomes to determine what a network of similar makerspaces could look like across Nebraska.