When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, 10-year-old Mason Engstrom promptly replied, “Architectural engineer.”
Mason and nine other budding engineers, filmmakers and video game designers as young as eight years old showed up Wednesday morning for the third day of Young Makers Camp, a week-long summer camp hosted by the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock’s Argenta community. The day’s topic was 3D printing and laser cutting, but for the $400 they paid for the week, the kids will also learn programming, fabrication, manufacturing and design.
“Dude, I’ve got kids building robots this week,” Makers Camp Director Joel Gordon said.
Three-wheeled car robots, specifically. Mason and fellow maker Tristan Taylor, who call themselves the Killer Cookies, built one of the several bots that were lying ajar on the craft tables amid tape rolls and scissors. Rubber bands functioned as tire treads, and black cardboard cuboids contained breadboards and circuits, with wiring the kids had programmed to make the cars roll.
As Mason watched another team’s car turn into a table leg, he informed me, “We programmed ours to go straight.”
“I argue with people a lot,” Gordon said. “I get this a lot – people say kids are lazy. ‘Eh, all they wanna do is sit down on the computer.’ They’re not lazy. They’re craving this stuff. We haven’t put it out there for them. Kids walk in the door and say I wanna do this!”
Gordon said that over the past few years, people have fallen into an “internet mindset,” especially as Apple, Android and the app market have boomed. According to the online statistics database Statista, there were a cumulative 10 million app downloads from the app store in July, 2008, compared to 75 billion in June, 2014. But he said now we’re entering an era wherein people want to use their smartphones to control physical objects.
“That’s the future, man,” he said. “We’re out of the internet, and we’re coming into physical things … We’re in 1957. That’s when all the cool cars came out. That’s when everybody started getting appliances. Dishwashers. Washing machines. We’ve got 3D printers and laser cutters. These are things that manufacturers have been using for a while, but now it’s becoming ubiquitous. You’re starting to see people with 3D printers in their homes.”
Mason and his brother Jackson, 13, are two of those people. Jackson said he received a 3D printer for Christmas a couple of years ago, though he noted that was their “whole Christmas” that year. As he watched, Mason laid strips of blue painters tape over a plastic platform designed to support a model that would be carved in the printer. He explained that the tape prevents scratching and scarring on the platform.
Mason and Jackson represent part of the first wave of innovators Gordon hopes to cultivate through his innovation club, The Launch Pad, which is an initiative within the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. In the fall, he plans to begin hosting a 90-minute Makers Club every Saturday afternoon to teach skills ranging from computer graphics and programming to carpentry and sewing, open to Makers Club members of all ages. He hopes to attract people who have ideas, but not necessarily the tools or the capital to prototype and sell it themselves.
“We were joking the other day and saying it’s going to be like piano lessons for geeks,” he said.
The Argenta Innovation Center at the intersection of North Little Rock’s Broadway and Poplar will host The Launch Pad. The club will offer open hours during the day and evening to its members, who will have access to a tech shop, outfitted with laser cutters, 3D printers and sewing machines, as well as shops for carpentry and metalwork. The building, which will remain under renovation until the fall, will also hold a classroom that seats 100.
“One week might be robots,” Gordon said. “The next week might be – I’ve got an air-powered rocket launcher that I built out of PVC pipe, and every single one of [the kids] said, “I wanna do that.”
For more information on how to get involved with The Launch Pad, email Joel Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.