Nova Labs Nurtures a Love for Robotics & Manufacturing

When you first meet Marybeth Haneline, the president of Nova Labs, you can’t help but love her. Maybe it’s her enthusiasm, or the warm welcome she gives to everyone who walks through the door, or the combination of kindness and intelligence she brings to every conversation. It’s all of these things, certainly. Marybeth is a spirited cheerleader for Nova Labs and the creative folks who make it their second home, and she’s also quite busy—she runs the Nova Labs space and the thriving FIRST robotics program attached to it. Between the robotics teams and the manufacturing makerspace, there’s plenty of excitement to go around at Nova Labs. The ARMATURE team was introduced to Nova Labs earlier this month on Manufacturing Day (#MFGDAY17), and we were enchanted—and determined to spread the word about this innovative nonprofit. With that goal in mind, we sat down with Marybeth to chat about the past, present, and future of Nova Labs. Here’s what we learned.

Hi Marybeth! How would you describe Nova Labs to the uninitiated?

Nova Labs is a place for people who have a passion for making. Our current facility in Reston features classrooms, a workspace, incubator offices, and a shop full of both common tools and advanced fabrication equipment for members to use. To put it simply, people come here because they want to share something that they know, and they want to learn something new. It’s a place of collaborative learning and creativity that was started almost six years ago, and we’re still going strong.


Nova Labs manufacturing
A view of the Nova Labs workshop.

I’ll say. Can you tell me more about your background and what drew you to Nova Labs?

I have a professional background in engineering, but I stepped off that track when I started a family. I first learned about Nova Labs when my kids joined the FIRST robotics program. I saw an opportunity to contribute my technical skills as a robotics volunteer, and over time began to take a leadership role in that program. As I did that, I took more of an interest in leading the makerspace. I’m a “right the ship” kind of person, a process person, and I like to follow best practices and solve challenges, and Nova Labs is a good match for my skills. I find it a satisfying place to volunteer—it’s an organization where my strengths are appreciated and rewarded.

So what brought FIRST robotics and the Nova Labs makerspace together?

Actually, the founder of our program, Tom Welsh, started the robotics club in his basement, and over time he brought it here because he saw a parallel between the hands-on learning and collaboration that happens at the makerspace and the work the kids were doing with the robots. It’s kind of new—this idea of marrying a maker space with a robotics program. We love it because it connects kids and their families to the larger community of makers and professionals, and it also introduces them to exciting new tools like 3D printers and CNC machines. It’s a lot of fun!

There’s a lot of conversation in the tech world about the shortage of women in engineering. [Editor’s Note: That’s not the case at ARMATURE—our tech team is 50 percent female!] I’m curious to know what you see here with the kids in robotics—do you attract a good number of girls?

You’re definitely getting at my passion. I love busting stereotypes and showing kids—boys and girls—a potential they didn’t know was there. When the robotics club first started, we weren’t recruiting kids in an intentional way, and as a result, we didn’t have many girls. But when I stepped up to run the robotics program, I worked with a diversity consultant and she helped me set diversity targets and ensure that we created a welcoming environment for everyone. That year, we had a 50/50 split between boys and girls, and we also had more than 20 percent groups that are underrepresented in engineering. That was a big change, and a great one. And we’ve kept our diversity going strong, even throughout the middle school years (which are particularly challenging years to keep kids engaged).

That’s excellent! I’m sure you could tell lots of great stories about the robotics program. Can you pick just one to share with us?

There’s a new initiative that just started this summer called First Global. It was a huge robotics event at DAR Constitutional Hall with teams from nearly 160 countries in attendance. You may have heard about First Global in the news because the Afghan team wasn’t allowed to come initially, and there was a massive outcry over it. Anyway, Nova Labs was a big part of the event’s success: we didn’t have a team, but we developed how-to documentation for the teams, served as mentors, and offered up our Nova Labs space for use. In terms of volunteering, it was amazing. We had professionals taking off 5 days in a row to support First Global. I loaded up my van with teenagers and we were downtown at 6:30 in the morning, running 12 hour days for 5 days in a row. Teenagers! And at the end, they were exhausted but also sad that it was over because it was so meaningful. That experience really demonstrated the power of our makerspace and our community’s commitment to supporting science and engineering on a global scale.


With Team Iran at First Global, DAR Constitution Hall.

It must have been incredible to see teens from all over the world embracing robotics! What about the makerspace—what are the members like?

The first thing I’ll say is that the people here are genuinely good people. We run a hackathon for good called Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), and the objective is to use our maker skills to build something that helps people who have some kind of challenge or disability. And I remember a few years ago, some of the makers came together to brainstorm ways they could help put an end to rhino-poaching in South Africa. We love tackling meaningful challenges through the things we build. And we’re also passionate about tools and gadgets—building 3D printers, working with laser engraver cutters, CNC mills, and all of the other machines in the space.

Where would you like Nova Labs to be in 5 years?

Two things: we plan to shift more authority from the Board to the members, and we will need to move to a new space because this whole development is slated to be torn down. That’s a huge vision, and it will take a lot of coordination and effort to coordinate, market, and fund it.

Well, I can tell that the organization is in good hands.

Thank you for saying that. It takes a village, for sure, but we’re lucky to have a passionate community of volunteers and members that will help us continue to grow.

That sounds like a perfect way to wrap up our conversation. Thank you for your time, Marybeth!

My pleasure.

Visit the Nova Labs website to find out about upcoming events, join the makerspace, sign up for FIRST, or explore a corporate sponsorship opportunity.