Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.

What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?

No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S.

As a family, we’ve attended World Maker Faire New York (twice) and Bay Area Maker Faire (once). We live in the middle of the country, so these events required plane tickets, days off from work and school, rental cars, and hotels. We have taken some truly wonderful family vacations, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen my husband and daughter as happy and excited as they were on those adventures. And from the very first step my daughter took into her very first Maker Faire, she had one goal: to exhibit one of her projects someday.

The Barnes & Noble Mini Maker Faire seemed like the perfect chance to let her get her feet wet. She talked to her best friend, who also loves to invent and create, and they decided they would like to have an exhibit about “Simple Robotics” to encourage kids of all ages to build and program machines to do cool stuff. It helped that they both had some projects already in the can: My daughter had built HugBot 60k, a robot that gives hugs, for her fourth-grade science fair last spring, and her friend had ColorBot, a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot he’d built to sort bricks of different colors.

HugBot 60k is essentially a giant wooden box, wrapped in fleece (to make him huggable!). He has two servos to move his arms, a proximity sensor to tell when someone’s within hugging range, and an LED on top of his head that tells you what mood he’s in (it’s green when he’s hugging someone because that makes him happy, and it’s blue when he’s not because that makes him sad). He’s programmed in Scratch, and his sole purpose in life (or tech) is making people smile. Our daughter did everything herself except the more advanced/dangerous power tool work. She says she built him to show people that robots can be more than butlers or evil machines. He’s a goodwill ambassador for robots.

The fact that he was already done, frankly, was one of the reasons we agreed to let her apply for the Mini Maker Faire. It wasn’t going to require an insane amount of work to get ready to go. Plus, these events were bound to be fairly small–a nice way for our introverted daughter to try sharing her project with the public (read: having to talk to strangers) without getting too overwhelmed.

She and her friend wrote up their ideas for their application, and we helped submit it through the Barnes & Noble website. The idea of two 10-year-olds showing off robots was popular, and two stores in our area called and invited them to participate at their events!

The events were a couple of weeks ago, and they were a lot of fun. I asked our daughter to think about other people, especially kids, who might be thinking about exhibiting at a Mini Maker Faire. What did she like? What surprised her? What tips did she have?

Tip #1: Know what you’re going to say before you have to say it.

Behind the scenes with HugBot 60k. Photo: Jessie Atchison
Behind the scenes with HugBot 60k. Photo: Jessie Atchison

She said it helped her a lot to think through what she was going to tell people before the event. “Otherwise,” she said, “people are standing there staring at you and all you can say is ‘um’ or ‘uh’ and they won’t learn anything about your project.” She decided to first invite people to give HugBot a hug, then she asked them if they’d like to come around to the back to see how he was wired, and then she showed them the program that made him work. This got her smoothly through a lot of interactions.

Tip #2: Be really sure your space and power needs are going to be met.

We noted on the application that we needed power for the computer that runs HugBot’s program, and the exhibit tables were supposed to be about 8 feet long. However, at the first store, we showed up to find they’d run out of tables (because other exhibitors who got there first took up more than their allotted space), so the store staff was scrambling to find a table for the bots. Then they had to figure out how to get power to us. It all worked out well, but the delay was a little stressful.

Best Part: Getting to show off a project she’d worked hard on, and see that people really liked it.

I think this is what Maker Faires of any size are really about. Makers make stuff, not to get to the end result, but to experience and enjoy the process. Getting to talk about that process was a lot of fun for her.

Biggest Surprise: There weren’t a lot of people there, and not everyone stopped.

Considering we’d anchored her Maker Faire visions with the two biggest events of them all, this really shouldn’t have been a surprise for us, and we didn’t manage expectations very well. While she would have liked to have a bigger crowd, I think the bigger surprise was how many people didn’t stop to talk. “It’s a giant, neon green robot that gives hugs!” she cried. “Why wouldn’t you want to stop and see that?”

The size and scale, to me, were just right for introducing a young maker to what it takes to exhibit at a Maker Faire. The staff at both stores couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming to the kids, and were very impressed with what they had to show. They only needed to be there for an hour or so each day–enough to have fun showing off the projects, but not enough to get bored.

HugBot 60k was a big hit, which made our daughter very happy, and I was extremely proud of how well she did with talking to visitors and telling them about her project. She’s not shy, but she doesn’t always like to be the center of attention, and sometimes she gets flustered when she has to think of things to say to people she doesn’t know, so it was a lot of fun watching her engage with so many people. As my husband said, “Look, we introverts hate small talk. But we can talk all day about something interesting like HugBot.”

One of the things my husband and I loved about these events was that it gave us (mostly him) an opportunity to talk to other parents about what our kid was doing, and give them ideas for their kids who were interested in HugBot. One mom had heard of Scratch but didn’t know it could be used to make a machine do things–she thought it was just for making games. HugBot opened up a whole new world of possibility for her son.

Bottom line? If your kids or others in your family are makers, get them to a Maker Faire in your area. According to the website, Barnes & Noble plans to host events again next year. Start building!

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Jessie Atchison is proudly geek-adjacent. She does a lot of geeky stuff with her husband and daughter where she feels like a poser, but always has fun. Her priority is raising an empowered girl geek in the most geek-friendly time in history. Her favorite place to be is on her bicycle. She wants to be Wonder Woman when she grows up.