It’s a breezy, blustery Saturday afternoon in Plano, and I’m meeting with the leadership team of TheLab makerspace, or TheLab.ms for short. They’re the newest and fastest growing makerspace in North Dallas, and they’re already making an impact with the courses they offer. Aside from computer science-related programs, such as their Beginner Python coding class, they also conduct a monthly beer-brewing evening, co-orchestrate local events like Slingfest, and coming soon, they’ll be hosting an “Unboxing Party” to reveal their latest addition: A 3D printer! (More on this later). Proudly offering classes and events in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (the STEAM fields), it may be easier to ask what they don’t do. Today, I have the privilege of learning about this extraordinary group of volunteers.
I’m greeted first by Jason Wheeler, Treasurer, who kindly swipes his keychain remote to unlock the door and let me inside. From there, I find Shawn Porter, President of TheLab.ms. He takes me on a tour of the space they occupy right in the center of Plano, just off of Park Road and Hwy. 75. We observe two classrooms and a “project” room, kitted with soldering tools, a vending machine, a couch, and an alcove under construction that will soon house their servers and a mini-computer lab. The overall impression of their space feels like I’ve stepped into the middle of an exciting project, not yet completed, but an impressive and tangible realization of the leadership’s vision.
Once we’re all gathered, we decide to sit around a grouping of tables in one of the classrooms. I start off by asking them what they considered to be TheLab.ms’ greatest achievement since their founding last year. Their responses overwhelmingly center around the very building we’re sitting in. “Before, when we’d go to organizations who’d possibly be interested in sponsorship, it was difficult to engage a vested interest for funding without an actual location. We used to meet in a restaurant, but now it’s much easier to explain what we do,” said Jarrod Frates, Chief Technical Officer.
Additionally, Shawn Porter and Roxy Dehart, President and Vice President, commented on the great work the leadership team has been able to accomplish, given their volunteer status. “[TheLab.ms] has served as a breeding ground for new ideas and concepts,” said Roxy. “We started out just wanting to do computer science. Then we thought, why couldn’t we do STEM-focused courses? After that, all that was left was art, so the acronym became STEAM and now we’re encompassing all fields of interest, all topics.”
What about the educational value of the programs they offer? Are they filling a void where perhaps conventional education has fallen short? Gregory Miller, Education Coordinator, offered his view, “Conventional education may not be a good comparison. If we’re talking about public education, and especially higher education, you have people who are self-taught and self-motivated….” He goes on to explain that these self-motivated types go to “conventional” classes to get more of a baseline on the given subjects, but they already have the majority of the information they need. “The classes we provide here are for people who have eclipsed their knowledge points to a degree where they want to give back.” Shawn added, “It may be too early to tell, especially with higher education, but I think there’s potential there.”
Likewise, Jarrod observed, “One of the benefits from the path we’re taking, for example, is that many instructors have at least a couple of ways to approach a problem; perhaps the best instructors have at least five ways to approach a problem. We’re able to provide many, many different ways to explain the concepts and ideas we’re teaching.” Jason recalls his personal insight, “If someone doesn’t understand something, people will go around the room offering their own way to see the problem until it’s understood. It’s pretty cool to watch.”
“Another great opportunity we have to offer are classes that wouldn’t make financial sense for colleges,” Jarrod adds, explaining that the computer science courses are, for the most part, covered by higher education. “[We’ve had members] come to us expressing interest in teaching quilting classes…this was new to most of us, but when we looked into long-arm sewing, we discovered it was actually very advanced. You can write programs for these machines! We get to learn just how far some industries have come in the digital age.” Tommy Falgout, a floating board member, following on this point, recalls a member expressing interest in teaching a class on floral arrangement. “See!” Jason exclaims, “That’s something I would be interested in!”
How have their goals changed since their beginning? “Timelines and deadlines, they all change when you realize you’re run by an all-volunteer organization,” said Shawn. Judging by the nods of agreement that echo around the room, it would seem the others recognize this truth all too well. Jarrod quips, “However long we think [a project] is going to take, we just triple the time frame estimate.” As for the expansive changes that are being made for the future, Jason mentions that they’ve raised their fundraising goal from $36,000 to $50,000 and that they’re hoping to use some of that funding to open up a new industrial space.
Their plans for the industrial branch? Facilitate the exploration of some bigger, hands-on projects that wouldn’t be practical to undertake in their computer lab/recording studio/classroom space. “We plan on using it for welding and woodworking, and any number of other things people may be interested in building,” explained Shawn. They also plan to house their latest purchase, a 3D printer, in this multi-craft area.
From there, I move to a more personal question: Do all of you wish an organization like this had existed when you were younger? Overwhelmingly, they all answer, “Yes!” Tommy reminisces, “As a kid in the bayous of Louisiana, I had all of these ideas, but I didn’t have an outlet for them. Now, looking back, if I’d had a space like this, I definitely would have had a more fulfilling and enjoyable high-school experience.” Abby Wheeler, Fundraising Coordinator, also commented about her experiences growing up in Guatemala. “I had the Discovery channel and that was pretty much it. I did all the experiments they’d show during commercial breaks, I’d make barometers and I’d learn about recycling…” Again, however, she compares her lack of constructive opportunities with Tommy’s experience as well.
In light of this question, what would TheLab.ms like to be known for? “Global domination,” Shawn jokes (maybe?). After a few laughs, other suggestions are made: “Giving people the ability to bootstrap our process,” says Jason. Roxy adds,“We want to help people set up their own organizations just like we’ve set up ours.” Lastly, Tommy offers his hope for the future of TheLab.ms: “Becoming a thought leader.”
Considering the lengthy, informative, inspiring conversation we’ve just had, I’d say this goal is well within their immediate reach, not just an idea resigned to the future of their organization.
Does theLab.ms sound familiar?
Plano Profile spotlighted the group last November when they teamed up with the DFW Trebuchet Society to put on Slingfest, a “pumpkin chunkin’,” all-out showdown of champion-status physics and carpentry skills.
[Caption for group photo]
The all-volunteer think tank behind Lab.ms is (from left): Gregory Miller, Tommy Falgout, Roxy Dehart, Abby Wheeler, Jarrod Frates, Shawn Porter and Jason Wheeler.