Walking into the bright orange-walled NOLOP makerspace, you’d expect to find mostly mechanical engineers making chairs (or whatever it is that mechanical engineers do). However, as soon as I stepped in, I realized that the makers in this space hail from a variety of majors, from studio art kids making sculptures to a sociology major laser cutting a plaque for her room. In the hustle and bustle of college students making everything under the sun is a man who walks around the space with the friendliest of smiles.
“That’s Brandon Stafford,” I was told when I first visited the space. “He basically runs this place.”
Stafford always had an interest in making things. His penchant towards handicraft developed through mediums like the tree house in his backyard, or a skate ramp for him and his friends to goof around on. Despite his inclination towards physical creations, he opted for something far less tangible in his higher academic pursuits—English.
“I think the question that comes up with me isn’t how did an English major end up being an engineer, but rather, how did someone who was supposed to be an engineer become an English major,” he joked. It was little things that led him on that path—for one, he was inspired by an extraordinary English teacher in high school. Moreover, the major required nine core classes to complete, some of which he had already taken.
By his senior year of college, Stafford circled back to something he had wanted to do since he was sixteen: teaching. “I’ve always thought that you can either solve problems in the world, or you can teach a few people how to solve problems and then they’ll solve a hundred more than you could.”
Stafford headed to the career center his last semester at Pomona College and inquired about internship opportunities. Despite how late he was entering the job process, there was a position teaching remedial math. Stafford took the job and began his next chapter.
Stafford told me about how he was always fascinated by math. Linear algebra seemed easy enough for him to teach.
This opportunity progressed into a series of adventures teaching mathematics at a high school level. And despite his uncharacteristic background, Stafford found himself at Stanford to complete a masters program in mathematics. “Who knew teaching math eight hours a day everyday for years prepares you well for the GRE,” Stafford joked.
“But you still got in for math, not engineering,” I noted.
He chuckled, “Yep, still going for math.”
It was at Stanford that Stafford returned back to his roots—working with his hands. He came across engineers for the first time in his life when he joined a group of students building a solar car.
“It was awesome and turned out I was good at it. I’m certainly not the best engineer… but my strength is that I don’t just clock in to my nine-to-five… I am ready to work on something all night to make it good,” he told me while demonstrating NOLOP’s new toy—a machine that can bend sheets of metal.
While his academic path may seem irregular, Stafford thinks the notion of what defines a “normal” educational path is shifting. “In college, it may seem that your job path has to be linear, because everyone who is teaching you is a professor and they have to follow a super linear pattern. But that isn’t true for the real world.”
Stafford went through a series of jobs in the engineering industry after graduation. Eventually, he landed where many new engineers do: starting his own company. He described, “I basically developed an early version of the Raspberry Pi. It was the first board that had Arduino headers.” Stafford still swears by the software—he says that the hardware is now obsolete but the software is still great.
Stafford’s entrepreneurial venture took off, and soon his boards were all over the Boston area and even the international market. He was getting interviewed for huge websites and going to trade shows. Now, back in his sunlit office inside NOLOP, he reflected that in an alternate timeline, that could have been his life. However, he decided to stop working on that independent venture because he wanted to dedicate himself to his daughter. On top of that, he realized he liked making things, but not the marketing that came with it.
Stafford doesn’t regret leaving the glitz and glamour behind; exciting opportunities were right around the corner. “One day I was biking down Davis Square and I bumped into a customer and we got talking,” he described. That customer was the chair of the Mechanical Engineering department at Tufts, and he wanted Stafford to teach a class. He started with one course a year, then began to teach an electronics class regularly. But Stafford was more intrigued by the concept of the makerspace that was just developing: “For about two years I was like, when they open that makerspace, they’re gonna need someone to run it, and I am going to be ready for it.”
Sitting in the Mechanical Engineering office, he was asked by the Department Chair if he knew anyone who could run a makerspace. “I’ll do it,” he replied.
Since then, Stafford has reformed the space, bringing in new machines and exposing the Tufts community to all kinds of materials. His philosophy is rooted in experimentation, on trying things for the heck of it, and making mistakes to learn. Throughout our interview, students kept approaching him asking for help. Stafford would guide them to the right place but would never do anything for them—whether it was fixing the 3D printer or finding a certain tool. When asked why this was, he replied with an innocent smile, “Well, that’s how they’ll learn, right?”
Stafford’s philosophy is also grounded in accessibility. He wants the materials he gets to be as cheap as possible. He doesn’t want anyone to be scared of making things. He wants anyone to come into NOLOP and be comfortable to try and make something, regardless of previous experience. He wanted busy Tufts students to have a place where they could come in, have resources to make everything, and just create anything.
His strategy is working, perhaps too well. All the 3D printers in NOLOP have broken at least once, but Stafford doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. In fact, he believes it has given students an opportunity to learn how to fix them. “So many kids can fix those things now, I don’t have to do any of that!” he said.
NOLOP is not an exclusive mechanical engineering makerspace. It’s open to all of Tufts from the Grafton Campus to the Fenway Campus. I remember being in a class that took place in NOLOP, being told the only thing we couldn’t laser cut was mirrors. But despite that warning, I brought in a sheet of mirror that I was sure was safe to cut. Stafford took a deep breath and said, “Well, you’ve done the research. Let’s try it, if it breaks it breaks.” The mirror didn’t break, and Brandon’s willingness to experiment ended up allowing me to have a unique final project.
Stafford wants people from all backgrounds to explore engineering. He came into the field as an outsider, and he doesn’t want others to be daunted by it. He doesn’t want to hand-hold anyone—he wants people to create, but he wants them to fail spectacularly, learn from their mistakes, and then build something interesting.