Tampa Hackerspace: A place for makers to grow, develop new careers

At Cape Canaveral, the rocket Artemis sits with a payload destined for the depths of outer space. On board is a mini-satellite the size of two loaves of bread that could help NASA travel more safely to Mars.

It’s been a long wait, but that mini-satellite -- built by a Tampa team led by Wes Faler -- may launch as early as mid-March.

“Its primary thing is to compete in the Deep Space Derby. To do that, you have to send back data successfully to Earth,” Faler explains.

The mini-satellite dates back to NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge in 2017, when Team Miles won $20,000 and became one of three chosen to send a payload into outer space and compete for a share of a $5 million prize. 

Through Tampa Hackerspace at 4931 W. Nassau St., Faler put together the team named for Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Morning.’’ He has since started his business Miles Space and moved it next door to Hackerspace. 

“We are demonstrating a very different way of doing communications that we think is very reliable and lower cost. That, of course, would benefit NASA,” Faler says. “Everybody else is focusing on making their signals strong. We are working, accepting that our signals are weak, and removing the noise.”

A life-changing experience

Nearly a decade ago, Faler had just moved to the Tampa Bay area from Dearborn, MI. When he exhibited at a mini-maker fair in Pasco County, he met Bill Shaw, who committed to taking the lead in researching a maker space. Shaw later took the reins of Tampa Hackerspace, co-founding it with Ryan Holmes, and Jon Adair in 2013.

“The Hackerspace brought about Team Miles and therefore Miles Space,” Faler says. “It totally changed my life.”

These days Faler, who founded Miles Space with Hackerspace President Alex Wingeier, provides Hackerspace membership to the staff of two full-time and three part-time workers.

“I look for people [to hire] who would be interested in being Hackerspace members,” Faler adds. “I need people who have multiple skill sets.”

Faler, who holds a bachelor’s of science degree in manufacturing engineering from Kettering University in Flint, MI, had been interested in plasma thrusters, an important part of the NASA project, since high school. The contest gave him the opportunity to share and test his ideas.

Faler is one of the makers who make Hackerspace what it is today. 83 Degrees also talked with creatives J. Kent, who sculpted the beloved Mabel dinosaur on display there, coding instructor Edna Jonsson, and sewing instructor Alice Hunt.

Mabel’s a familiar face 

Modeled after Sue from the Chicago Field Museum, Mabel the T-Rex is a familiar figure at the entryway to Tampa Hackerspace. Some six feet by 30 inches, the open-mouthed dinosaur skull with long protruding teeth is actually quick to endear visitors.

“Everybody loves her. I have had had to repair her base twice. Children will take a running leap up to hug her,” says Kent, who fashioned the creature with cardboard, paper, glue, and floor mats more than five years ago.

When he made it, Kent set about to create something from common, recyclable materials instead of expensive casting resin and rubbers or monster clay. With encouragement from friends, Mabel ended up too big to keep at home.

“The way people light up when they come into the shop, it makes it worth it,” says Kent, who spent nine months creating her.

“She’s literally my baby in that respect,” he quips.

Kent was studying mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida when a friend’s death in a car accident caused him to re-evaluate his life. He decided he’d be happier with a Fine Arts degree, so he made the switch even though he was close to completing his engineering degrees.

Now he’s found his engineering background helpful as an independent contractor doing graphics and Computer Aided Design in the aerospace industry. He also makes movie props and costumes.  

A trained blacksmith and artisan, Kent has been sculpting dragons acting like cats. He plans a full series of the two-foot-by-two-foot creatures. And he plans to do something large like Mabel.

“Mabel won’t be alone for long,” he says.

Teaching girls to code

Jonsson is working to close the gender gap in tech careers. A cyber security professional, Jonsson teaches middle and high school girls how to code at Hackerspace.

“We are focusing on women in tech, helping women get into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers,” she explains.

The group meets at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays during the school year to learn things like how to create a website chatbox with Python.

“We have a core group that comes every time. They’re very passionate and they’ve been learning a lot,” Jonsson says.

Jonsson brought the program to Hackerspace after having worked with the national organization Girls Who Code in Chattanooga. The Hackerspace chapter is one of multiple locations in the Tampa Bay Area, including a college-age group at USF.

Jonsson discovered she liked coding while working in real estate, making pre-built websites for clients. She decided to take a boot camp and learn to code.

In coding, she’s found a well-paid career where women are the minority. The number of women in computer science has been projected to decline from 37 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2022, according to Girls Who Code.

“Women aren’t encouraged as much when they are young to get into the STEM careers,” Jonsson says. “By getting them involved while they’re in middle school, we’re helping them believe in themselves and know they can do these things.”

There are opportunities for those with skills, even if they don’t hold a bachelor’s degree says Jonsson, who is working on a bachelor’s in cybersecurity and informational assurance.

Teaching sewing skills

The daughter of Bernina sewing machine dealers, Hunt was trying to sell sewing machines at age 5. As soon as she was big enough to reach the machine, she began learning to sew doll clothes and horse blankets. That evolved into sewing pillows and dresses to enter into 4-H contests.

Now with some 35 years of sewing experience, she is one of the sewing teachers at Hackerspace.

“It’s not a career for me, but I do sew quite a lot,” says the Tampa area resident, who works as a website designer. “I’ve done everything from dresses to T-shirts to kids’ pajamas.”

Hunt became involved with Hackerspace through the free, every-other-week meetups about three years ago. These days she’s one of the sewing teachers at meetups and at the Hackerspace sewing room, where students may learn to sew things like tool belts and Christmas tree skirts.

“A lot of people don’t have a sewing machine. That’s the benefit of the space,” Hunt explains. “The machines are already there. We have most of the equipment you would need for most sewing projects.”

Hackerspace has home sewing machines, which have lots of decorative stitches, plus an industrial machine, a couple of sergers, and an embroidery machine.

What brings people to Hackerspace

As a long-term member of the maker community, Kent has watched it grow from a 3D printer in a small workshop to a full building with belt sanders, jointers, table saws, a six-needle embroidery machine and more.

It’s become a place where people can connect with experts who have the skills they lack. Kent even got contract work with Miles Space.

“We’ve got everything from carpenters to blacksmiths, white hat security programmers to bankers,” Kent explains. “People come there and they make whatever they like. I’ve seen bankers make gorgeous custom-made wood furniture. I’ve seen blacksmiths sew satchels. And I’ve seen rocket scientists just sit there playing with clay.

“You don’t have to go there knowing anything. Our goal is to teach and to inspire,” says Kent, who has remained active while caregiving his parents.

People who have never sewn before can leave with a pouch they’ve made, and people who have never picked up a tool can say, “ ‘I fixed this,’ ” he points out.

Hunt decided to join Hackerspace because she wanted to support the creative community, which has a deep knowledge base. 

“If you’ve got a question about something you can ask the group,” she points out, adding there’s usually someone in the group who can answer it.

Jonsson, who also teaches python to an adult cybersecurity group, has been a Hackerspace member for three years.

“I love how friendly everyone one is. You can find a class on pretty much anything,” she says.

The facility has tripled in size to 12,000 square feet. 

“Our mission has always been educational. We exist to teach people maker skills. Lately, we've worked to add more focus to project-based classes to help keep people engaged and learning with us,” explains Shaw, its past president. “We have a pretty good balance of tech-focused and family-oriented classes. We consider families, hobbyists, and techies to be our three core audiences.”

When COVID struck, members of the community stepped in and helped produce protective gear.

“Despite those challenges, we retained 80 percent of our membership,” Shaw notes. “They stuck with us because they believe in our mission and still got value from being part of our community. It was amazing to see everyone come together and support each other like we did.”

Learn more, visit the Tampa Hackerspace website and check the Hackerspace calendar of events.

Read previously published stories about Tampa Hackerspace.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune