Creative Communities in Engineering

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I first got into technology and engineering when I was introduced to the world of hackathons in high school. The idea of getting together with a community of like-minded people who just like to tinker and sharing what everyone made really exciting me. Where I was from I could not really just talk about stuff I was interested in that much, so being able to share my thoughts and experiences really blew my mind and got me hooked.

I started going to as many hackathons as I could convince my parents to drive me too. I was waiting for once I went to college and could really in-grain myself into this community. But after entering college I started to notice that the tinkerer community is a lot more diverse and divided than I thought. Hackathons were also starting to wane from their original vibe. They became more about the competition than the curiosity. More and more “how can I make projects guaranteed to get the most wins and impress specific companies”. I’m not here to criticize that kind of thing, but it just wasn’t what originally interested me. I started to see little “just for fun” projects at any software hackathon. I started returning to online for sharing and seeing experiments and pure hobbyist projects.

A friend and I were talking about this one day, and we realized there really isn’t a large community for people who tinkered with software. Now there were hackathons and smaller more specialized clubs, but there wasn’t really just one place to share things you’ve made. Most of the discussion was around how to land a job or practicing for interviews. Definitely useful information and glad that we talked about it, but I still wanted to just share experiences about the entire field. However, engineering is a broad field and this really only encapsulated my experience with the software part of the school. In the general engineering college we had several makerspaces. These places were teeming with creative energy and a lot of curiosity for the craft of making things. They were structured as so: large physical spaces with tons of tools, heavy machinery, and parts that any student could use for practically any project they wanted. There were also teams of Peer Instructors whose sole role was to hang out and help students. Whether they needed ideas of how to solve a problem, use a tool, or just come up with an idea you could always rely on them. However, that support wasn’t limited to just the peer instructors, a lot of the time there were off duy peer instructors working on their projects or just regular students who were still more than happy to help. These were some of the most supportive spaces on campus and great places to just hangout and see people working on cool things.

When I saw this dichotomy between the physical makers and software makers I immediately started to question what led to the differences in their communities. Was it the fact that individuals being right next to each other led to a natural curiosity about what others were working on? Was it that the easiest place to go to for help was peers? With software a lot of the time just googling an issue can lead to the fastest answer so unless it was the same assignment I rarely saw students talk about how to make something. I’m sure it was a mix of both of those factors and probably a bunch of other things I couldn’t see, but regardless it was clear that there was a really strong culture of creation in these spaces that I could not find online or physically around software. In one of my clubs we had a roundtable discussion about potentially making a makerspace for software oriented folks, but we always ran in circle around what exactly that meant. What would a space for software include besides just desks and comfy chairs? A couple of ideas were thrown around: mixed reality devices and HPC access were the usual suspects. However, it was quickly brought up that high performance computing access really wasn’t necessary considering how every major cloud provider had an education offerring and there are a plethora of other ways to get free credits for personal projects. So a software oriented makerspace never moved forward a lot while I was involved. We made an attempt at creating a discord community around, but it didn’t gain a lot of tractions and quickly became more of a space for people to sell their startup ideas or ask for interview help.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I got into tech because of hackathons, but if I were to analyze that a little more deeply I would say the creative potential of software is what captivated me. Hackathons were just the place I found it. Nowadays it’s hard to find that with collegiate hackathons being sponsor driven and other hackathons being specific in nature often to specific problem statement or requiring the use of a specific (often web3) technology. A friend of mine criticized my pessimistic view by saying I shouldn’t need a hackathon to create, and he is right. But what I was looking for wasn’t an excuse to make, but rather a community to have fun and share my work with.

Even now, after college, I have struggled to find anything like that. I’ve messed around with joining discord communities, but they were often fine tunely focused on a specific technology or just inactive. Hackernews and similar forums were cool places to discover projects and find cool articles, but never felt (personally) like a place to ask specific questions or just workshop ideas. Although that’s probably more of a personal gripe with forum style platforms. I’m not saying there isn’t a community like the one I tried to describe in this piece, just that I haven’t quite found it yet, and not sure how one would be created either.