Batman and Aliens Meet the Real World: GeekDad Interviews Nate Ball

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Nate Ball power ascends.
Nate Ball power ascends. Photo Credit: Nate Ball.

I spoke recently to uber-geek and new dad Nate Ball about his inventions, his books, and his role in helping a new generation of makers get inspired about engineering. We didn’t get to discuss his beatboxing, but you’ll find a link to his Ted X talk on that here also.

GeekDad: Please tell us who you are in 41 words.

Ball: My name is Nate Ball and I am the host of Design Squad and Design Squad Nation on PBS. I am the author of the Alien in My Pocket science-adventure chapter book series and co-founder and CTO of Atlas Devices, LLC.

GeekDad: Tell us about Design Squad.

Ball: I’ve been working on Design Squad for twelve years – it’s a show designed to get kids excited about engineering, produced by Marisa Wolsky at WGBH. I was the kind of kid who grew up tinkering with things and pulling stuff apart. I only found out I could apply that interest to engineering when I was in college. With that and a background in projects like making potato guns and a Tesla coil that I built in high school, I had a long list of projects that would be fun to build.

GeekDad: Design Squad gives kids challenges to build. What have been some of your favorites?

Ball: One was the episode where teams had to build a prosthetic device to help a woman who had multiple limbs amputated after a severe bacterial infection. She loved doing performances in swimming pools, and the challenge for the teams was to design functional and beautiful prosthetics to help her dance in the water. It showed such a different side of what engineering could be and do – it combined the arts and helping someone in the real world.

GeekDad: And now Design Squad is going global?

Ball: Yes — we’re bringing along the strong and exciting messaging that engineering can help people, but we’re adding a global perspective. We’re teaming up with after-school programs in the US and a number of countries across southern Africa to work directly together on real life problems.

Cover art from Alien in My Pocket book.
Cover art from Alien in My Pocket. Credit: Harper Collins, used with permission.

GeekDad: And you write books?

Ball: Books had a great impact on my childhood, as an escape and a chance to run wild with my imagination and as a place for learning. I thought it would be awesome to wrap those two together along with my love for hands-on projects. I designed a series where an alien comes to Earth and tries to take over after crashing into a fourth grader Zack’s bedroom. It’s up to Zack and his best friend Olivia to figure out how to fix the ship and call off an invasion of tiny 4-inch tall aliens.

GeekDad: And while we’re stepping into the world of science fiction with real-world engineering, you seem to have built a non-fictional business with tools I’ve only seen on movies like the Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Ball: My company makes specialized equipment for making hard jobs easier, with a focus on access and rescue. Our products are primarily for people in the military or first responders to do climbing tasks, or to inspect containers coming into a port, or perform a rescue on the side of a mountain. Those kinds of jobs are fatiguing and dangerous so we have developed special equipment to make it easier such as devices that enable Batman-like rescue capabilities and real-life grappling hook launchers. And we have power ascenders that let you run up the side of a building.

GeekDad: What are you working on next?

Ball: It’s a ladder that can reach 7 feet, weighs less than 10 pounds and fits in a backpack, but it’s also strong enough to be a bridge or a litter, a field stretcher. You could also use it to hoist someone into a helicopter.

And if that wasn’t enough variety, here is Nate beatboxing:

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