Surviving a Makeathon: Lessons from Tennessee Tech

Jacqueline Schulz, a University Innovation Fellow from Tennessee Tech University, shares her team’s tips and lessons learned from hosting their survival-themed makeathon this fall.


by Jacqueline Schulz

Recipe for Successful Makeathon:

  1. Various random objects and fabrication supplies
  2. A cool theme
  3. Free food, and lots of it

Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, not quite, but don’t get me wrong, the first Tennessee Tech University Makeathon was a HUGE success! Between 50 and 80 people showed up to hang out and create some really cool survival solutions out of materials like scrap wood, plastic table cloths, springs, wire, and a whole lot of creativity. We began with an open-ended scenario, “Create a solution to help you survive or get off a deserted island with the supplies provided,” in order to be inclusive of a variety of majors and encourage participants to have fun and be a little silly. The main goal we set out to accomplish with this event: show students from across a variety of disciplines that creativity, making, and prototyping is fun, and it’s for everyone! We chose to pursue this in the context of a makeathon, because it was a new and fresh idea at Tennessee Tech and it allowed the participants to be really creative and get involved. This post is a compilation of some of our biggest lessons learned and what we’ll do differently next time.



I’m going to be honest, the first night of RUSH UIF (the event series for which the Makeathon served as the grand finale) we only had three people show up. It was disheartening and frustrating, and frankly, we still aren’t quite sure what went wrong with our marketing. You better believe from that point on, we were telling EVERYONE and encouraging them to tell others. That (and the free food) is how we ended up with 50-80 participants for the Makeathon and what ultimately turned out to be one of the best events the I&E program has held in the last three years.



This was our plan for the makeathon, and it worked out really well. Realize one thing: stuff happens that is out of your control, and all you can do is go with it and pivot as needed. What do you do when people start showing up 30 minutes early? Start playing that really awesome playlist and ask them to sit tight while you finish getting ready. Catering DROPPED your food in the floor? No problem! Let people talk and chill until the replacements get there. They’ll enjoy the free time, especially if it’s been a busy week. Food runs out in five minutes flat? Have your back-up pizza franchise on speed dial and order ASAP. Then let people know more food is on the way, and start the makeathon so you don’t lose your participants. And the list literally keeps going. The point I’m making is that yours truly would have been FREAKING out if I had every minor detail planned out to the minute. Creativity and innovation is all about being flexible and your event can be no different.


Everyone knows the one thing you need to get university students ANYWHERE is free food, so we made sure we had plenty (even if we ran out at one point) and that no one had the chance to get “hangry.” We also made sure to have a killer playlist with a mix of popular and not-so-popular songs everyone could groove to while working. Here is a link to the playlist we use for ALL of our events. It has good variety of upbeat songs, and we have gotten nothing but compliments every time we play it. Make sure to also have a good sound system for the music! Finally, we were able to get four super awesome door prizes from a local outdoor store (we live in a really outdoors-y area), including a North Face backpack, YETI tumbler, Eno hammock, and a gift card to the store. You could tell everyone was really excited to hear who won when the winners were announced, just make sure your winners are there to pick their prize.



So here’s all the really logistical stuff you’ve been dying to read. What do you do if this is the first makeathon you’ve ever held and you have no idea how many people to plan for (especially after the turnout on day 1 of the series)? Here’s what we did, and trust me, we had no idea what to expect beforehand…

  • FOOD: As far as food goes, you just never know. We were able to get Chick-fil-A to cater our food (the first time) for about 50 people. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough. Like I mentioned earlier, make sure you have your local pizza franchise on speed dial and call them as soon as you get the gut feeling you might not have enough for everyone. We did end up having left overs, but what university student isn’t going to take a free pizza off your hands?
  • MATERIALS: When planning on materials and tools, get what you think you need and double it. Thankfully, we were able to confiscate some materials from our campus maker space, so we ended up with plenty for everyone. A list of our materials can be found here. Students were also allowed to use anything they brought with them (except electronics, since this was a survival situation).
  • LIABILITY: Make sure you think about the liability that comes with the use of tools and other materials!!! We required all participants to sign liability waivers and photo consents as they walked in the door. If an accident happens, your university will thank you.
  • BUDGET: We raised money for our event in a variety of ways, including asking university departments to sponsor our events, getting university discounts, working with local store owners and managers to establish partnerships in which we exchanged free publicity for free/discounted materials and food. This went a LONG way in keeping the cost of this event down. Originally we had budgeted $800 for food and supplies. We were able to keep our costs pretty close to this number, but in hindsight, we would budget ~$2,000* for an event like this, with 50-80 participants (*this number does not account for donations or discounts and is relative to the Cookeville, TN area).
  • STAFF & PERSONNEL: This is really important, because no one person can manage all of the moving parts of an event like this on their own. Thankfully, I had eleven helpers including four UIFellows/candidates, a student volunteer, my own boss, another student who helps us out with photography (which is super important for your future events!), and four local business supporters/entrepreneurs. I was able to count on all of these people to do whatever I needed them to do and make sure all the participants were taken care of while I directed and worked out logistics. It wouldn’t have been a success without each and every one of them and the special touch they brought to the event and its execution.



No offense guys, but really. This was a complete oversight we had, and even though we got some pretty legit designs, they were still weapons at the end of the day. SO, if you are giving your participants any type of scenario, make sure you think about some of the solutions that could come out of it and if they have any hazardous consequences.

We also had some trouble with participants misusing the tools we provided by making them part of their design. Make sure everyone knows tools are meant to be used as tools and not as building materials.

Final ground rule: Be explicit in your directions for cleaning up. This ended up being somewhat of a disaster for us and we had to go back and re-organize our makercart at a later time because of it. Clearly tell your participants to replace unused and salvageable materials back in the location from which they took them. Labeling any boxes used to store certain materials is also a good idea.



Last, but not least, check out what’s going on in your area before you set the date for your event. We ended up having our makeathon at the same time as the first home football game. Thankfully, our participants aren’t completely the football-going type, but we probably lost a few people due to the conflict.

So that’s the gist of what we learned! Overall it was an amazing event and we received a TON of good feedback from those who participated. Hopefully you’ll find this article helpful in planning for events of your own in the future! If you have any questions, feel free to email Jacqueline at


jmschulz_profileAbout the author

Jacqueline Schulz is a University Innovation Fellow at Tennessee Tech. She serves as an Innovation Intern in the university innovation facility, the iCube, and has helped plan and execute numerous events and programs including university-wide pop-ups, the Tennessee Governor’s School for Business & Information Technology, the annual Eagle Works Business Pitch Competition, and RUSH UIF, a 4 part event series held at the beginning of the Fall 2016 semester. This event series reached students through events such as a movie night, pop-up “circuit”, happy hour unconference, and Tennessee Tech’s very first makeathon. Jacqueline has also been instrumental in acquiring and stocking four makercarts at Tennessee Tech, writing and submitting the first UIFellow budget proposal at TN Tech, and has worked in conjunction with numerous faculty members to encourage integration of creative and experiential learning within university curriculum across disciplines.

Learn more about her work as a University Innovation Fellow »

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