In 2012, educator Nicci Nunes had a big idea: open a space in Benicia where people could tinker with technology, 3-D printers and other cool stuff. A place where ideas could become reality. She dubbed it Benicia Makerspace, after the growing maker movement.
The Kickstarter campaign failed. The rented space didn’t work at all.
What did Nicci do? Same thing she’s done throughout her life when faced with obstacles: She tried again with a different approach.
“With that first try, I didn’t make Makerspace but I got the community together to make it happen. That failure got me the people we needed to get it going,” she says now.
Benicia Makerspace opened in July of 2015 in a warehouse on East Second Street. The 2,000-square foot workshop is full of equipment for 3-D printing, metal and wood working, welding, building with electronics, computer design software—even a one-ton hoist to lift the really big projects.
Nicci proudly calls herself a nerd, but admits she doesn’t yet know how to operate all the equipment. “Some of it’s intimidating, so I need to learn.”
Persistence has been a key characteristic in her life. She was on the verge of quitting her Ph.D. program when she decided instead to head in a different direction. In 1996, she earned her doctorate in chemistry along with a master’s degree in arts and teaching from Rice University in Texas.
Nicci, 46, began her teaching career at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in the Hunter’s Point area of San Francisco. She later taught science to students who had difficulty with the subject at De La Salle High in Concord. After that, Nicci took a break from the classroom to launch a program at UC Berkeley to bring science, engineering and math majors into teaching.
She now teaches science part-time at Liberty High School and is the school’s tech mentor. She and her husband are raising two sons in Benicia.
Why did you choose the teaching positions you’ve held? I felt like I wanted to go somewhere where it mattered that I was there, where people don’t normally get a lot of science education.
When I tell people I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, I usually get one of two responses: “You must be really smart” or “I hated chemistry.” I figured there must be a lot of bad chemistry teachers out there. I was always interested in widening the pipeline into chemistry, and I have a soft spot for the underdog. My favorite movie is Rudy.
Why did you consider quitting your Ph.D. program? Three years into grad school, I had an identity crisis. My computer in the lab got stolen, all my data was gone except what I’d printed out for winter break. …
In the meantime, everyone was telling me that you can do chemistry or education, but you can’t do both. But I wanted to be a high school teacher. I always had that dream. I have a really strong head and a really strong heart. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out which one will win.
I wrote my undergrad adviser and told him I was thinking of quitting. He told me to go see his friend who was a professor at Rice. I did, and he said, “Come work for me.” …
I took the summer off, and I drove around the West, visited friends and thought about it all. I decided to change advisers—something you’re never supposed to do when you’re working on a Ph.D. I made a big shift: I went from experimental physics to theoretical chemistry. My new adviser supported me becoming a teacher. I wrote a computer program for his research while I was working on my teaching credential. He gave me the summer off to do student teaching.
How has your persistence shaped your approach to life? For me, it’s the idea that no matter how many times people say it can’t be done, you just need to find one way to show that it can be done.
You have to be willing to do the hard thing. I convinced science and math students at UC Berkeley that they should teach. Here at Liberty, if something doesn’t work, I try something else. Sometimes it’s all about showing up and trying something new.
What excites you more: teaching or making? Both! Teaching people how to make things would be ideal.
What are you working on at Benicia Makerspace? I’m working on an aquaponics project to grow plants and raise crayfish in a way that the crayfish are below and their water fertilizes the plants above. The project is started, but I’m not sure when it will be done. The system is going, it has no leaks or anything and it’s temperature controlled.
What things have you seen created by others at Benicia Makerspace that excite you? One of the guys made a life-size R2D2 there. He just made a BB8, but not there. I haven’t seen it, but I’m dying to see it. He may bring it to the Mini Maker Faire.
How can people get involved with Makerspace? We have an open house every other Monday evening from 6 to 8 for people to come by.
We have Take-Apart Nights every Tuesday, also from 6 to 8. We take apart and salvage equipment that is broken. We even save the plastic so we can melt it down for the 3D printer, though we have to learn exactly how to do that.
We also have Project Nights every Thursday from 6 to 8.
People can also learn more at the Mini Maker Faire. The next one will be April 16 at Benicia Middle School. Last year was our first faire and about 1,300 people came.
How do you manage to do it all? Barely, I guess is the answer (shrugging as she laughs).
Planning, prioritizing, leaving some ideas for later, phasing in one new thing at a time. I’m phasing a biotech unit into bio this year. I’m always trying to make things more engaging, but I add things in bite-sized chunks.
What do you do to relax? I read—I read a lot. I like memoirs. I read about education.
I play board games with my kids. … I like to pet my dog. That helps, too.
What’s next for you? I’ve actually been pondering that. This year it’s been tougher to teach here than in the past—I’m not sure why. I still have more things I want to do here, but it’s asking a lot of me. I feel like we’ve been forgotten here in Benicia—people don’t want to acknowledge the problems like homelessness, mental health issues and drug use. We only have part-time counseling and part-time psychologist (to address the issues).
How do you balance work with your personal life? There are more moving pieces now. The hardest part is keeping your own emotional well full. My New Year’s resolution is to meditate and do the seven-minute workout every day.