A Start Up Trek – The Lighter Side of Learning


Picture of various office suppliesPicture of various office supplies

Time to go back to school. Picture by Rebecca Feind, Creative Commons License.

I am starting a new public-access prototyping lab in Huntsville, Alabama, called MindGear Labs, based on the fab lab model. I’ve dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and have done a fair amount of research on the topic. But this is my first attempt at starting a business. Here is where I document weekly my mistakes and successes in creating a business from the ground up.

As summer comes to a close, like many other people I have education on my mind. I’ve been thinking about a number of items related to teaching. The concept of a fab lab came from a university (MIT) and was taught as a class (How to Make Almost Anything). There’s a lot of opportunity to use the lab to teach if I can properly incorporate it, and I feel like there are several paths that I need to consider.

How do I teach others how to use the equipment? Really, the difficulty is in teaching others how to use various design software to create. Any of these pieces of software could require its own class, with several hours of instruction. If each and every member that walks into the lab needs that before they can make anything then I doubt I’ll be able to hold on to members. Fortunately there are several websites out there that post designs ready to be fed to the appropriate machines. Also, in a town like Huntsville, I can expect many, if not most, of the people that walk through my door to have some level of knowledge of various CAD software. As for the rest, I’m looking at various open source codes. Right now I’m playing with Google Sketch-up. Its a pretty powerful tool and intuitive to start with, but like most software these days it annoys me by trying too hard to predict what I’m trying to do (iOS spell check – I’m speaking to you.)

More importantly, how to I teach others to be creative? Or rather, can you teach creativity. That was my topic last week, and I said then that all I can really do is remind people to not be afraid to be creative and to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable bringing out any crazy idea they have. Which means I’ll have to be a leader and bring out my crazy ideas. Fortunately I have a lot of crazy ideas. Like I don’t know … starting a fab lab.

I plan to offer classes at MindGear. But there are a lot of organizations out there offering classes on all sorts of subjects. It makes sense; there isn’t a high barrier to entry for offering a class, just a classroom and knowledge on a subject (and a few classes I’ve attended seem to skimp on that last requirement.) I’d like to think that I have an advantage here in that I get to offer classes where I have lab equipment. So I’ll want to work in the capabilities of the lab as much as possible in any class offering. That’s fine, because isn’t it better to learn with hands-on experience?

I’d like MindGear to be a good corporate citizen. I’ve thought about working with some non-profits I’ve met to offer retraining for adults that are having trouble finding work and wish to retrain. That’s complicated though because I’m not accredited in any way, so I couldn’t send these retrained adults out to find jobs with anything more than a recommendation from me. I have started to reach out to some local vocational schools and related organizations, but clearly I have a lot to do in this area.

Another area I’d like to get into is working with kids. Right now my son is working for his Geology activity badge for Webelos. I’d like to be able to offer Boy and Girl Scouts the opportunity to earn badges related to science and engineering. And the nice part of this is that it also allows me to engage the community. There’s a lot of details to be worked out here too, learning all the requirements for the different belt loops, activity pins, merit badges and whatnot. I don’t even know what different award levels the Girl Scouts use, but I intend to find out.

In all these areas I have to meet the challenge of educating while being fun. That is quite a challenge, its hard enough to be entertaining without the added requirement of being educational. And organizing and presenting information to be easily digested is equally difficult without the added requirement of engaging the audience. But like chocolate and peanut butter there is an incredible payback to skillfully integrating fun and learning. The material gets across much better, people come back for more, and most importantly I don’t have to stand in front of class asking, “Anyone, anyone?”

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