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Maker Faire: Mad science for the masses

Maker Faire mixes youthful enterprise with accessible tech. Now more than ever, it's kids doing the mad science.

By James TurnerCorrespondent / November 1, 2011

Attendees learned soldering skills at the Alpha One Labs booth at Maker Faire in New York.

James Turner

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New York

To the uninitiated, the scene at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, N.Y., might look like a bus load of engineering students staging a carnival. A car drives around outside covered in mechanical fish singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." Under one pavilion, kids get a first taste of how to solder electronics, while inside the main building, a group called ArcAttack makes music with half-million-volt Tesla coils.

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In short, it's Maker Faire, a three-day event in September that brings artists, engineers, crafters, and mad scientists together to share their joy of creating. And increasingly, it's kids who are doing the mad science.

Among them stands 14-year-old Joe Hudy, a self-professed "maker," with a massive pneumatic marshmallow cannon to prove it. He's been constructing his own fun for as long as he can remember, and the reason is simple, Joe says: "People just love to build things."

David Giancaspro, a writer for Wired magazine's GeekDad website, believes that people – adults and kids alike – have a natural urge to want to build things. "As we've moved further and further away from that, towards what people call 'knowledge work,' as opposed to producing something physical, that urge is starting to come back," he says.

For Joe, Mr. Giancaspro, and other makers, this primal urge struck at a wonderful time. Lots of once-expensive electronics have now become low-cost toys for tinkerers. For example, Giancaspro points to the Arduino single-board microcontroller. The board, available for around $30, allows budding inventors to embed computer controls into anything from homemade robots to color-changing origami lanterns like the ones the Wired writer designed himself.

"The Arduino really lowered the bar of how much you needed to know just to get some interesting electronics going," he says.

Recently, inexpensive 3-D "printers" have also made creating things more accessible. These devices generate physical objects, such as small figurines or parts, by squirting out plastic or resin to build up objects layer by layer, all according to a computer model.

As more makers spread their wings, corporate America is starting to take notice.

RadioShack used to be a local hangout for young electronics geeks looking for parts or advice, but in recent years the company has pushed away from do-it-yourself projects and toward consumer electronics. Now, RadioShack has signaled a move back toward the DIY community, releasing a survey to ask makers what parts they'd like to see for sale. And this fall, all RadioShack stores will start stocking Arduino hardware, according to Amy Shineman, the retailer's director of consumer and product marketing.

"We miss having the consumer group in our stores," she says. "We feel like they're an audience that is being underserved."

Computer-design giant Autodesk has long supported programs such as the annual student competition FIRST Robotics, but this year they took the unexpected step of acquiring Instructables, a website devoted to DIY enthusiasts, particularly young ones.

"Our CEO is a giant maker, along with a lot of our upper staff," says Jesse Harrington Au, Autodesk's official "maker advocate." The company hopes to introduce Instructables to a broader audience.

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