Hackstudio in Evanston (Courtesy of Hackstudio)
Hackstudio in Evanston (Courtesy of Hackstudio)

Off Central St. and Green Bay Rd. in Evanston, a former furniture store has been turned into a place where people come to turn their random ideas into reality.

It’s called Hackstudio. It’s part-maker space, part-after school activity, part-education experiment that aims to help people innovate from the inside out. “We’re helping people learn their passions through self-directed projects,” said director of engagement Lisa Degliantoni.

Hackstudio starts off as a "clean slate" said Lisa Degliantoni, so students are free to fill it with their own ideas.
Hackstudio starts off as a “clean slate” said Degliantoni, so students are free to fill it with their own ideas.

Here’s how that works. Students, currently elementary school and high school students (though they’re currently finishing up a pilot with adult learners), come into the space once per week for two hours. There is no universal curriculum. Instead, mentors guide groups of six to eight students along a journey of self-discovery to help understand what they’re passionate about creating and how they can achieve it (one question they use to help guide students: what would you do if you had $10 and eight free hours on a Saturday?).

Students craft a “definition of done,” which outlines how they will know they are finished. Then, they spend the next three months working toward the goal, and helping others in their group work on projects. When they’re finished, they ring a gong (something that happened multiple times on my visit), and start again.

Founder Mike Meiners talks with students before a session.
Founder Mike Meiners talks with students before a session.

But it’s more than just a creative space. Cofounder Mike Meiners said they are purposeful about creating a supportive community that helps each other achieve their goals. The main tenets of the space are courage, authenticity, grit, and respect. The most important takeaways are that everyone matters, everyone gives support, and everyone finishes their project.

The road to founding Hackstudio has been a lifelong journey for Meiners, who said the original inspiration came from his own childhood, where he was frustrated with a school system that didn’t allow him to follow his whims. This was a recurring theme through his undergraduate degree from Northwestern and graduate degree in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology, where a curiosity about an arch design inspired him to learn specialized math on his own. Why couldn’t all learning be like that, he wondered?

“Forget about skills, forget about tools,” he said. “What would happen if people just defined what they wanted and just started going after it?” 

“What would happen if people just defined what they wanted and just started going after it?”

First he tested out this idea with his own son, who was interested in Tasers’ electric circuits. They spent a year and a half exploring ways to recreate the circuit, motivated by their own passions and interests in the subject. A few years later, after launching an edtech company and researching education strategies, Meiners, along with cofounder Randy Blaugh (a former trader and University of Chicago Booth alum), decided to do a pilot program in January 2015 to see if the idea could scale.

Students work on projects at Hackstudio in Evanston.
Students work on projects at Hackstudio in Evanston.

Since officially launching this fall, they’ve had 16 groups go through the program. Projects include a skateboard ramp, a website for a pet sitting business, and hand-sewn stuffed animals. Hackstudio is also piloting a program for adults, where learners are working on projects including a financial blog, a website that curates artisan makers, and an academic working on an art project using materials science.

“What we’re concerned about here is, are you getting what you want?” said Meiners. “So we take tremendous pains to work with [students] to define very clearly what they want.”

“Any way you get there is fair game as long as it treats other people like they matter and you’re supportive of others,” he added.

Hackstudio costs approximately $65 per weekly two hour session according to their website, which adds up to about $715 over an 11 week session. The price includes a base level of materials, such as fabric, wood, paints, and industrial machines.

Here’s a look at a recent weekday at Hackstudio.

Students work in the wood shop.
Students work in the wood shop.
A student shows off her finished stuffed animal.
A student shows off her finished stuffed animal.
A conference room at Hackstudio.
A conference room at Hackstudio.
Funky chairs and seating in the reception area of Hackstudio.
Funky chairs and seating in the reception area of Hackstudio.
Main tenants of the Hackstudio philosophy.
Main tenets of the Hackstudio philosophy.
Students ring the gong when they complete a project.
Students ring the gong when they complete a project.