SAN MATEO, Calif. – As you might expect in the technologically savvy Bay Area, electronic gadgets loomed large at Maker Faire, an annual celebration of hackers, inventors, and do-it-yourself creators that drew 100,000-plus spectators last spring. A fleet of R2-D2s blipped and chirped just like their Star Wars inspiration. An inventor showed off a homemade 3-D camera, while a laptop maestro conducted a robotic orchestra. And then there was Saphira, an 81/2-foot-tall, fire-breathing dragon.
Saphira represented a new dimension for Maker Faire, a festival launched in 2006 by Make magazine that has spread to Austin, Detroit, New York, and the United Kingdom. A huge science fair with the ambience of Burning Man, the summer-solstice campers’ romp in the Nevada desert, Maker Faire attracts mostly adult exhibitors. Saphira, however, was the creation of Sam DeRose, 16, and Alex Jacobson, 15, who teamed up to build it as part of Young Makers. Spearheaded by Sam’s dad, Tony DeRose, a senior scientist and leader of the research group at Pixar Animation Studios, Young Makers joins middle and high school students and adult mentors in inventive projects that stimulate math and science learning.
Sam has always enjoyed creating things, beginning with Legos and graduating to more complex projects. Working out of their garage, he and his father built a 2-by-3-foot multitouch computer display – something like a giant iPad – that required knowledge of physics, electronics, software, and woodworking. DeRose’s younger son made a video documenting the project, and the family displayed the creation at the 2008 Maker Faire.
The next year, the DeRoses made a six-barrel Gatling gun that shoots potatoes. As creating something for Maker Faire became a family tradition, the elder DeRose began to think about how he could bring that experience to others. “Many kids are born makers, but there’s not much of a support network to help them,” DeRose observes.
In January, DeRose teamed up with the San Francisco Exploratorium museum to launch Young Makers. Eighteen students, ages 12 to 17, were recruited through DeRose’s social networks, the Exploratorium, and TechShop, a public do-it-yourself workshop in Menlo Park, Calif.
The students were matched with adult mentors who helped them find a project vision – if they didn’t already have one – and work out a plan to realize it in time for the Maker Faire in May. Kids and mentors met once a month at the Exploratorium to review designs.
The resulting projects covered a wide range: One father-son team designed an elevator that ferried tools up and down a ladder. Three girls teamed up to transform a table from IKEA into a hamster habitat.
Joining the younger DeRose in producing Saphira, Alex Jacobson had the job of handling the programming that controlled the dragon’s electrical system and pneumatics. He had built websites and written a chat program before but had never used his skills to control a live machine.
Nathaniel Cooney, 13, had always made things but figured Young Makers offered a chance to be more ambitious. He settled on turning a broken electric scooter into a vehicle that shot flames out the back. He and his dad spent Saturday mornings working on Flame Chopper, as the project was dubbed, in Tony DeRose’s garage. In the process, Nathaniel learned how to weld metal parts. “That was great!” he says.
The mentors took the opportunity to expose the math and science principles underlying the projects. Motivated, the kids learned material that was often more advanced than what is taught in middle school or even high school, DeRose says, and used it in their designs.
Shawn Neely doubled as mentor and fire safety consultant, helping with Saphira and Flame Chopper. Both projects burned propane for their flame effects, so the team talked about the chemical reaction and experimented with the fuel-air mixture to produce just the kind of flames that they wanted. The ignition system on the dragon gave them an opportunity to discuss how transformers work, since the electricity of the 110-volt wall outlet needed to be stepped-up to 5,000 volts to trigger a spark plug.
The projects also taught the young people that things don’t always work the first time. At the 11th hour, the charger failed on the chopper, which required a group debugging, using multi-meters to determine the location of the problem. They pinpointed it on a blown diode, and Nathaniel did some soldering to work around it. “It was kind of nerve-wracking at the end,” he says, but otherwise, the project went smoothly, and he met the Maker Faire deadline.
Fifteen out of the 18 kids exhibited their creations, talking with hundreds of people, young and old, over two days. “It was tremendously fun to see them describing their projects,” DeRose says. “You could really tell that the kids understood it deeply when you listened to them describe their projects at the fair.” Honing their communications skills will likely serve the students well in the future. “That’s really important in today’s industrial landscape,” says Michelle Hlubinka, education director at Maker Media. “What story are you telling people about what you’re making, and why they need it?”
Some parents were already makers themselves and could shepherd their kids through their chosen project. Others had the interest but not the skills, so established makers acted as “meta-mentors” to those parents.
The organizers of Young Makers want to open the program to 80 or 90 participants next year. The challenge will be to recruit mentors who have the tools and space to host fabrication centers, DeRose says. The ultimate goal is to scale up the program nationwide. For DeRose’s employer, Disney/Pixar, both a sponsor of Young Makers and a source of mentors, it’s part of an effort to make math and science education more inspiring and relevant. “Kids that like to do this stuff are like little Imagineers,” DeRose says, referring to Disney’s term for their designers and developers.
“The hope is that, as kids come back each year, their skills grow, their project visions become more ambitious, and they’ll eventually start serving as mentors to the younger kids,” DeRose says. They will do so with the encouragement of Maker Faire organizers. “We’d be delighted to see lots more kids become innovators and leaders in science and technology,” says Hlubinka. While waiting for Young Makers to reach their communities, parents and teachers who want to encourage kids to become makers have lots of online resources available. Maker SHED and SparkFun Electronics offer kits. Another website, Instructables, hosts forums so makers can share tips and network. “Learning to become makers together is great fun, so if possible, work on projects together, starting smaller and simpler and working up in complexity,” DeRose advises. “Kits are a great way to start.”
For Alex Jacobson, who is pondering projects for next year, it will be hard to top Saphira: “It was one of the most exciting things I’d done in a while.”
Corinna Wu is a science writer and editor based in Oakland, Calif.