This fall, 16 high schools in California started experimental workshops, billed as a kind of "shop class for the 21st century," that were financed by the federal government. And over the next three years, the $10 million program plans to expand to 1,000 high schools, modeled on the growing phenomenon of "hackerspaces" -- community clubhouses where hackers gather to build, invent or take things apart in their spare time.

But the money has stirred some controversy. The financing for the schools program is one of several recent grants that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has made to build closer ties to hackers.

Unlike the hackers who cripple websites and steal data, those the government is working with are more often computer professionals who indulge their curiosity outside their day jobs at their local hackerspace. But the financing has prompted criticism that the military's money could co-opt these workshops just as they are starting to spread quickly.

There are about 200 hackerspaces in the United States. The workshops, with names like Hazard Factory, Jigsaw Renaissance and Hacker Dojo, have incubated successful businesses like Pinterest.

"Magic comes from these places," said Peiter Zatko, a program manager at DARPA, who is reaching out to these workshops. His program has entered into 74 contracts, and about 40 projects have been completed, work that he said would have been stymied by traditional government bureaucracy.


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When his government colleagues see the results of his program's grants, "their jaws just drop," Zatko said.

Many people say that hackerspaces are promising incubators for innovation and should be cultivated.

However, not everyone agrees that the Defense Department should be playing a role.

"Having these programs in schools is fantastic, but the military calling the shots in American education?" said Mitch Altman, a co-founder of Noisebridge, a San Francisco hackerspace.

"I don't see that as a positive move," added Altman.

The controversy over the government programs led to a tense session at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference this summer in New York, where recipients and critics of the DARPA financing gathered.

"If you grow a piece of celery in red water, it's going to be red," said Sean Auriti, who is known as Psytek at the hackerspace Alpha One Labs in Brooklyn, which he runs. "I'm just wondering how this DARPA defense contract money is going to influence these projects."

And yet Auriti is benefiting from the DARPA money as a member of SpaceGambit, a consortium of hackerspaces that won a $500,000 grant for research in space exploration and colonization technologies. He said he hoped that the grant would help him build a mini-thruster to launch backpack-size satellites into orbit.