Pop up clubs for life-long learning begs the question: When do we RE-FUND education in the public interest?

 In Education policy, News, Save Our Schools

Sited in a former blacksmith shop, Site 3 coLaboratory is a maker space that offers members the use of tools and equipment, including a laser cutter, a metal lathe, an industrial sewing machine and a 3D printer. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL) *

Toronto’s four  publicly funded school boards would be wise to re-examine the importance of their remaining facilities for hands-on “shop” and technical training,  if  recent research by Denise Balkissoon is to be believed.   This past weekend’s Globe & Mail reports that Toronto, already awash in pop-up shops (to the delight of consumers intent on retail therapy), is witnessing the flourishing of community-based life-long learning centres in the form of pop-up clubs.

Academics, researchers, Social Planning Toronto and Campaign for Public Education has long promoted the central importance of our schools as centres of life-long learning – from early childhood education to adult job retraining for new Canadians to  multi service centres community building.

However, the provincially induced budget trimming of the past dozen years have led to a short-sighted and siloed K-12 approach to Toronto’s public education.  Within this vacuum, self-initiated clubs, have sprung up while our publicly-funded school board facilities and locked-up shops sit vacant.  A pretty embarrassing disconnect.    My question:  Will our elected school trustees see this as the canary in the mineshaft and deliver our demand for refunding education in the public interest?  Or, once again, simply repeat, their now tired explanation of, “Sorry, but our hands are tied”?                –Stephen Patrick Seaborn,   Mayworks in the Schools Program

*Sited in a former blacksmith shop, Site 3 coLaboratory is a maker space that offers members the use of tools and equipment, including a laser cutter, a metal lathe, an industrial sewing machine and a 3D printer. (photocredit: FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)     COMMUNITY    Toronto makers and hackers share a philosophy on tools           In a former blacksmith’s shop, down an alley off Ossington, a red door opens into a room full of shared industrial equipment. Further south, at Queen Street, electronics artists dip into a common cache of soldering irons and transistors. In Kensington Market, there’s a 3-D printer that belongs to a group of 50 people. And in Parkdale, next week, a set of 500 tools will become accessible to anyone who wants to use them.

Toronto is popping with tool and tech clubs that allow hobbyists to pool their resources and talent. Some members call themselves “makers” – people who like to tinker with tactile objects for self-sufficiency and fun – or “hackers,” with a burning desire to know how just about everything works.

None have profit as a motive; membership fees pay for rent and insurance and not much else. Sharing tools and others’ know-how is part of the draw, but so is the sense of community: At hangout spots like Hacklab and Site 3, the garbage is taken out when somebody feels like it, and generally, the spaces are clean (if not exactly tidy). The common belief is in experiential learning, and trying to do things regardless of money, space or even knowledge.

“People are already curious and want to learn,” says Ryan Dyment, a co-founder of the Tool Library, which is opening next week. “But they don’t always have the money to go out and buy the tools.”

Mr. Dyment studied finance and worked in accounting, then decided that a for-profit philosophy of the world didn’t work for him. He met the library’s co-founder, Lawrence Alvarez, when the two were volunteering on an environmental sustainability project a few years ago. They shared an interest in fixing, rather than buying, and sharing a lot of things, rather than owning a few. Mr. Alvarez had rebuilt his junky bicycle at Bike Pirates, a DIY bike shop in Bloorcourt that operates on a pay-what-you-can model. “There was all the stuff I needed to fix it, and a guy there to show me how,” he says. “I rode that bike for years afterward.”

It took less than a year for the Tool Library to move from an idea to its grand opening. Housed inside the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, it will hold 500 pieces as soon as it opens: There are generators, lawn mowers, an air compressor and a number of saws, all donated by personal and corporate sponsors. Membership is $50 a year, but no one will be turned away for lack of money; they’ve already raised enough cash to subsidize 30 spots.

If the Tool Library is the newest such venture, Interaccess is probably the oldest. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Queen West space provides electronics artists with circuits and saws for $100 a year.

It has 65 members, and uses half its space as a gallery. Hacklab is a more tech-based club in Kensington. It’s a five-year-old group with 50 members, and operates on a similar philosophy: Trying is the best way to learn.

All of them run various workshops and classes: Hacklab members might learn how to develop software or pick a lock, while the Tool Library will teach members how to use the equipment without losing a finger.

Somewhere in the centre of the technology, art and workshop tangle is Site 3, another maker space at Ossington and Bloor. The group donated a set of tools to the library, and was founded by a former member of Hacklab. “I wanted to build and fabricate more,” founder Seth Hardy explains. “In Kensington, the space was too small.”

Here, a $100 monthly membership provides full-time access to a stocked machine shop ($33 a month allows users in the space when keyholders are already there). There’s a lathe and various saws, an industrial sewing machine and leather-working tools, plus a 21/2-tonne mill that was bought from a chocolate factory, where it was used to make candy moulds. “You can make nearly everything that’s made out of metal,” member Kris Coward says.

Some of what’s made here – such as a guitar – is meant to be useful. But lots of it is just for fun. One member, an OCAD University student just used the laser cutter to make plastic reflectors for a light installation. Last year, Mr. Hardy produced Super Street Fire, a live-action version of the classic videogame Street Fighter, using real flame effects. The huge set-up involved woodworking, metalworking, software development and even gas plumbing. Players wearing motion-sensor gloves re-enacted videogame fights: If they made the right gestures, a connected laptop would trigger a flame. “I lost a lot of hair while we were testing,” says Mr. Hardy, who is quick to point out that he did flame testing in huge open spaces in Scarborough, and had the installation approved by provincial authorities.

Super Street Fire garnered notice from gamer and geek communities around the world, and was chosen as an official installation for the 2012 Burning Man festival. Eighteen Site 3 members and at least 60 volunteers were needed to put it all together. “This is a space where you show up to find people to work on your project, or to volunteer on someone else’s,” Mr. Hardy says.

News of the Tool Library has drawn skeptics, who predict failure based on breakage, theft and human nature. Mr. Dyment and Mr. Alvarez aren’t worried. “We’ve engraved and marked the tools, to track them if someone tries to pawn them,” says Mr. Dyment, who has studied shared-tool spaces around the world. “But the tool libraries that exist have a huge return rate. People know they’re not stealing from a company, they’re stealing from a community.”

DENISE BALKISSOON         Special to The Globe and Mail

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