Made in Chattanooga


By Catherine Smith / Photography by Trevor Long

At their core, makerspaces are a place for people to share ideas, collaborate on projects, and learn from others with similar interests. Here, we spoke with the people in charge of three prominent makerspaces in Chattanooga to learn more about the community they’ve fostered here in the Scenic City.

ChattLab Makerspace, Photos by Trevor Long

The Maker Movement

Makerspaces are becoming increasingly popular these days, but the history behind them dates back several decades. Dale Dougherty, who created and published the first web portal in 1993, is largely considered the father of the maker movement. As CEO of Maker Media, Dougherty published Make magazine for the first time in 2005, sharing information for at-home makers interested in technology, metalworking, woodworking, and similar projects.

In 2006, Maker Media held the first Maker Faire, a convention designed to give everyone from do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts to engineering experts a chance to share new ideas, show off their creations, and learn from each other. Since then, Maker Faires have become wildly popular around the world – even reaching the White House, which hosted its first Maker Faire in 2014. Given the success of these conventions, it’s no wonder that makerspaces began to gain popularity by offering makers a place to connect and collaborate at any time.

What is a Makerspace?

A makerspace is a shared studio within a school, business, or public building that houses specialized equipment to work on various DIY projects, from woodworking tools to 3D printers. The beauty of these spaces is that they welcome patrons of all skill levels. While most makerspaces will require safety training to use some of the equipment, workers and other patrons alike are more than happy to share their knowledge and skills with beginners. “We do not expect you to know how to use any of our equipment when you walk through the doors. If you do not know, we will teach you – that is what we are known for!” says Crissy Varnell, manager of the 4th Floor Makerspace at the Chattanooga Public Library. “We provide a space not only for experienced makers, but also for first timers – offering free one-on-one lessons for all of our equipment.”

Even those who may not consider themselves to be makers can enjoy the creative freedom that these spaces encourage. It’s never too late to tap into your potential, and these spaces offer a supportive and welcoming environment to do just that. Whether you have a specific project in mind or you simply want to try your hand at new skills and see if any of them stick, visiting a local makerspace can open up plenty of doors.

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Hatch It! Lab, Photos by Trevor Long

A Space for Students

Makerspaces like the Hatch It! Lab at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) provide fun and exciting opportunities for students, creating a unique educational environment that encourages innovation and self-directed learning. “Makerspaces are centers of experiential and hands-on learning. They offer educational opportunities for all students to acquire practical skills in fields such as STEM, business, and arts and crafts. This type of learning is crucial for workforce development and preparing individuals for the demands of modern industries,” says Krish Patel, lead makerspace manager at Hatch It! Lab.

The benefits of such programs have been touted by experts as our educational system has changed with the times. While chalkboards and books were staples of the past, educational technology has opened new doors for students to tap into their curiosity and explore their interests as they gain useful skills for the future. “Makerspaces emphasize project-based learning, and since I am a mechanical engineering major, this experience can better prepare me for my future career,” says Patel. “It provides me with a physical space and access to tools and equipment that allows me to bring my ideas to life, whether it’s through woodworking or 3D printing. It often fosters collaboration and teamwork, which brings people together in the lab to share ideas and work on different projects. It’s an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals, and I get to enhance my knowledge and skills by helping and learning from others.”

Creating a makerspace as part of a school gives students the opportunity to enrich their education without the need to purchase expensive equipment and materials. “Not everyone has access to specialized tools and equipment, especially those required for DIY projects or small-scale manufacturing,” Patel explains. “Makerspaces bridge this gap by offering a shared resource that can be utilized by any student at the university, democratizing access to technology.”

The technology available in the Hatch It! Lab allows students to take class projects to the next level. For example, Patel recalls, “In the context of a biology class research project, one of our students embarked on a compelling and educational endeavor – using 3D printing technology to create anatomically accurate bones that were smaller in size for research purposes. The source material for these 3D-printed bones was obtained through the careful scanning of anatomical specimens from deceased individuals.”

“My hope for the future of makerspaces is that they continue to be dynamic, inclusive, and transformative spaces that empower individuals and communities to imagine, create, and innovate in ways that enhance our shared future.” – Krish Patel, Hatch It! Lab

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4th Floor Makerspace at the Chattanooga Public Library, Photos by Hacker Medias

A Space for Entrepreneurs

Public makerspaces, like the 4th Floor Makerspace at the Chattanooga Public Library, offer creatives a space to work on everything from marketing graphics to physical products. “As a makerspace in a public library, we cater to anyone who walks through our doors,” Varnell shares. Within the 4th Floor Makerspace, a 12,000-square-foot workshop, visitors can access specialized equipment for work or for play. A startup business can create large storefront displays with the vinyl cutters, a college student can print full-size posters to decorate their dorm, and a kid can use the 3D printer to create a unique toy. All of this can be done for a fraction of the price they would pay elsewhere, as the majority of these services are available at the library for just the cost of materials.

Between software, equipment, rental spaces, and more, the average cost of starting a small business ranges from $35,000-$105,000 in the first year. Since the majority of entrepreneurs have to foot these bills on their own, those who don’t have the funds on hand will have great difficulty finding success – even with outstanding business ideas or talent.

Artists and small businesses are a huge part of what makes Chattanooga such a vibrant community, and makerspaces give them the tools to thrive. “Some of our favorite success stories include local photographer Andy Ramirez who uses our Adobe Suite to edit his photos, our large format printer for his prints, and our large working space to frame his work for exhibitions around Chattanooga,” Varnell shares. From storefront displays to merchandise, goods made at the 4th Floor Makerspace can be found throughout our city, and a number of local businesses exist today because they had access to the space at the start.

“Last year, at the Chattanooga Pride Festival, I purchased a pair of earrings from an amazing, woman-owned local business called Hello Disco. Without knowing who I was, one of the owners shared that they started their business using the laser cutters on the 4th Floor of the downtown public library, and their business became so successful they were able to purchase their own laser cutter. I have never been more excited to tell someone who I was and where I worked!” Varnell recalls. “Seeing small businesses flourish and grow from the resources and services we provide to our community truly brings joy to all of us.”

Makerspaces offer the public an affordable place to create works of art, marketing items, and other small business materials, ensuring that everyone in the community has the opportunity to create their own future.” – Crissy Varnell, 4th Floor Makerspace

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A Space for Community

Aside from the obvious benefit of having access to expensive, specialized equipment, makerspaces create a unique opportunity to connect with likeminded people. According to Jeff Johnson, co-founder and co-executive director of ChattLab Makerspace, these spaces are becoming increasingly important as Chattanooga continues to welcome new residents. “Being Gig City, we have lots of high-tech remote workers moving to Chattanooga, and many of them come from cities that had a makerspace or hackerspace. We give tours to many employees from LinkedIn, OpenAI, Microsoft, and other large tech firms that are considering Chattanooga,” Johnson says. “We’re an attractant for engineers, programmers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others that like to scratch that itch in the back of their maker brain.”

The presence of spaces like this in Chattanooga will continue to promote innovation as our city moves forward, providing an excellent place for socializing and networking – both of which are particularly beneficial for those who work from home. “Chattanooga has had a bustling art scene for years, and makerspaces provide great opportunities for artists to connect not only with each other, but with a wider group of people that includes technology professionals and contractors. This can enable their work to extend further than it might otherwise – both in reach and scope,” says Tim Martin, Fab Lab lead at ChattLab Makerspace. “To this end, they work to build a community where people can work together to build a better future for everyone, and allow Chattanooga to become a more vibrant and engaging place to live.”

“Being involved in a makerspace is cheaper than golf, more fulfilling than watching TV, and builds confidence as others admire something that you made.” – Jeff Johnson, ChattLab Makerspace

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