“I get twenty-one-year-old seniors who can code, write anything for CNC, but don’t know whether to use a screwdriver or a hammer in the shop,” says Jenny Blacklock, teaching associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Along with Greg VanderBeek (ME) and BJ Titchenal (Ne’er-Do-Well), Blacklock runs Coalesce, a design and fabrication space in Boulder, CO.
“I’m on the other side,” says Greg, who started out as a hydrological engineer before retreating to his garage to build custom choppers. “We get architects and contractors coming to us with fabrication ideas, but then we’re like, man, you gotta do this with a bolt and not a welded joint unless you want to cut through the back wall to get to it!”
Among other projects, Coalesce collaborates with artist and foodie Jen Lewin on projects like the laser harp. Greg has a huge tattoo on his upper-right arm of books and a bicycle chain. He hopes the newest incarnation of the laser harp, being installed at Buckingham Palace, will weather better with its lacquer-over-patina finish than the first generation, which is “a bit beat up after touring,” he says. Coalesce kicks ass: tricked-out workbenches are adjustable to a child’s height and they’re willing to overlook the obvious fact that my 6-year-old, Kestrel, is obviously not yet seven for summer camp (d’oh! They won’t actually read this, will they?)
Together, the mission of Coalesce is to nip ivory tower idiocy in the bud by enrolling kids in classes that teach skills ranging from basic woodworking through badass design thinking and scary tools that hopefully will not require Ziplocs of ice to transport lost digits. When we chatted yesterday, my kids were running washers through their new Plinko boards; Greg and Jenny were talking about creativity, specifically, the idea that in order to connect information in novel ways, you gotta load that information into your brain to start with. You have to learn how to measure with a sliding square, drill pilot holes, pound nails, and make a materials list so that later you can visualize the steps needed to create the new, innovative project of your dreams. They teach the tools first so that kids can come to their own ideas of design later.
Founded in 2008, Coalesce is on the front edge of spaces in Boulder and alternate universes elsewhere in the hypothetical country where people can build stuff or be taught how to build stuff. Take the Solid State Depot, a Boulder hackerspace where $65/month gets you access to the building where Arduino enthusiasts rub elbows with artists and technopreneur disruptors (and, of course, ne’er-do-wells). We’re also home to SparkFun, which you might remember from educational films such as “Firecrackers: The Silent Killer” or the absolutely spectacular (and hilarious) New Product Fridays, in which itinerant hackers from the SparkFun galaxy roll out their hacks and tweaks to what is overall already awesome coolness. If you haven’t watched, you should. We’ve taught our 6-year-old, Kestrel, to insist (rightly) that the burns on her arms are from soldering SparkFun kits. A couple more scars and we can sue.
As a side note, the wife, offspring and I attended the annual Autonomous Vehicle Festival, sponsored by SparkFun, at the Boulder Reservoir about a month ago. (Can you tell I’ve been stockpiling posts? Blame it on a herniated disc…damn. And when I should be publicizing my new book…)
In the competition, unmanned terrestrial vehicles had to navigate a course that included turns, cones, hoops, and a jump, while aerial vehicles tried to drop a tennis ball on a peninsula, fly under a wicket, and land without human control and/or exploding in ball(s) of fire. A stock-looking helicopter took at rotor-first dive into a protective fence, sparking a small brush fire. Officials yelled into walkie-talkies and extinguishers were produced. Much fun was had by all. The highlights were free sunscreen, SparkFun engineers willing to spend half and hour hacking a kit with my 6-year-old toward a bug that vibrated instead of fluoresced (really, you are awesome!), and the desperate race to re-engineer out-of-the-box quad copters to run the course. As far as I could tell, most AV’s ran on a combination of GPS and sensors to correct when GPS failed. There was much failure and rejoicing, especially in failure.
I’m not much for rah-rah-rah hometown stories. I just skipped my 20th high school reunion. And I’ve bopped from small hometowns including Bellingham, WA, to San Rafael, CA, to Bozeman, MT, to Louisville, CO (the cheaper alternative to Boulder, yet still cool due to the recent visit of the March Fourth Marching Band, whose trumpet player I know from back in the day, and who could use a new trumpet after having his stolen at the Oregon Country Fair). But, dude, c’mon: can you suggest another small town where making is happening above and beyond Boulder — and don’t, for god’s sake, say Austin…frickin’ Austin.
If you’re elsewhere, I’m sorry. But seriously: there’s opportunity in living somewhere lame! You, too, can start a maker space! You might be the first! Greg from Coalesce says that, “Jenny gives kids a problem: they have to make a winch with three constraints. And they start complaining: ‘what are the assumptions!’ ‘What are we supposed to do!'”
What they’re supposed to do is come up with the assumptions themselves. All the theory in the world can’t make up for the hands-on experience of building sh*t. Whether here, there or elsewhere, let’s put some tools in our kids’ hands and get the Ziploc bags ready.