Maker Faire Denver is getting bigger and more inclusive

6 min. read
Scenes from Maker Faire Denver. (Courtesy of Merhia Weise)

As Maker Faire Denver has grown, so have its scope and good intentions.

The event is in its eighth year in Colorado but only its second as a "feature fair," of which there are 30 around the world. It bills itself as "a gathering of fascinating, curious people who enjoy learning and who love sharing what they can do. From engineers to artists to scientists to crafters, Maker Faire is a venue for these 'makers' to show hobbies, experiments, projects."

Or as director Dan Griner put it, "the Maker Faire Denver is a showcase of all the different types of creativity in our community, not just showing what’s being done but sharing that knowledge with future generations.

"At its best it’s really very wide ranging. We try to take the broad view of the word 'make' and showcase all the different types of creativity going on in the community. We’ve got fine arts, sculpture, inventors — you name it — tech-based stuff like drones and robots, circuit bending."

If that all conjures a certain image for you — a homogenous image — you're not far off, and the organizers know that. That's why this year Maker Faire Denver is putting a special emphasis on inclusivity.

"It shouldn’t really be a theme, it should be something that's intrinsic in any event," Griner said. "We are trying to go out and find people and bring them to the fair as opposed to just saying everyone is welcome."

So how do you reach families that might not have access to a car or a computer, let alone a 3D printing lab or robotics education? Griner found inspiration on that front at a Meow Wolf event where the Santa Fe-based art collective presented its plan to move into Denver in a socially responsible way, then he asked local creative and community outreach coordinator Merhia Wiese if she could help Maker Faire achieve some of the same inclusivity goals.

This was less than a month before Maker Faire Denver.

"When we released our CSR and Dan Griner was there and got to hear what we’re trying to do as a corporation, it really sparked his desire to do better. And that was the goal for Meow Wolf, to spark … the system to change," Wiese said. "... They’re on the right path. It takes a lot of work."

With just three weeks to do something about it, Wiese turned to the school principals she knows, who pointed her in the direction of schools that could use free tickets to Maker Faire. She ended up with a list that include North High School, Jefferson County Open School, GALS Denver, Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Girls Inc., West Leadership Academy and West Early College. All told, Griner said, they gave out 500 tickets.

But it doesn't stop there.

"You can’t just leave the door open, you have to bring them in," Griner said.

The free tickets come with an offer of 50 percent off a ticket for one adult — an effort to encourage parents to take younger kids who can't call a Lyft or ride the bus across town. They also created a closed-to-the-public education day to precede the actual event, for which they brought in 200 elementary school students for a day of activities. They all get free ticket to come back for the main event on Saturday.

Scenes from Maker Faire Denver. (Courtesy of Merhia Weise)

"There’s a term called techquity — equity within technology. Most computer engineers are middle-aged white men, and not every kid has access to a computer at home," Griner said. "... We’re trying to include more parts of the community to be part of this, not just kids who have an interest in robots or kids who have an interest in art and have a means to be a part of that. We want to show everyone that their creativity is valued and there is a place for that."

It's a small step, Wiese said, but the important thing is that the Maker Faire Denver team has been humble in seeking advice and active in trying to change things. With more time, she knows they can think bigger.

"Making the ability to attend [inclusive] starts really small," Wiese said, "and is part of a much larger picture."

So what's the larger picture?

"The larger picture is dismantling the system from the top down, which probably will never happen," she said. "Working on community outreach with Meow Wolf and working with [community activist] Zoe Williams has really opened up my eyes to the problem."

This year's main attractions include a pitch-black alien world escape room, plus the usual crappy robot fights.

"Crappy" is their word choice, not ours, but, well, yeah. It's called HeboCon and it's one of Maker Faire Denver's continuous events. Other continuous events include Gearhead Garage, at which mechanics showcase creativity in vehicles, the Colorado Inventors Showcase, judged by a panel Griner described as "all the professionals you usually can’t get a meeting with," and Nocterra, which requires a longer explanation.

The escape room experience was created by tactile designer Matt Gesualdi, and it's meant to be an alien planet. It's "a tactile, sound and smell based experience, so you’re learning about an alien culture through those senses," Griner said. "It’s a planet where there is no visible light."

If that sounds a little Meow Wolf-esque, you won't be surprised to know Meow Wolf is sponsoring Nocterra. Other Maker Faire sponsors include the Office of Economic Development and local companies like Epilogue, Misty Robotics, Solidworks and Solderworks.

Speakers are scheduled throughout both days, representing BeeWise, the Colorado Flame Effect Guild, Hang-O-Matic and more. The keynote speaker is Misty Robotics' founder and head of product, Ian Bernstein. The schedule also includes local eighth-grader Gitanjali Rao, who earlier invented a compact device that identifies lead in drinking water and instantly tells you if it's safe to drink. (Here she is being very smart on CNN earlier this year.)

And Maker Faire's push for inclusivity goes beyond students. You don't need to be a maker yourself to attend and get something out of it. As Griner likes to say, "Come with your curiosity and leave with a new skill."

Maker Faire Denver is happening from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday an 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the National Western Complex, 4655 Humboldt St. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, $8 for kids ages 5-12 and free for kids younger than 5.

You'll want to sign up for Nocterra in advance. Five people can do in at a time and sessions last 10 minutes.

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