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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.

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The website's founder, Eric Wilhelm, says his readers share a need for individual expression. "They want to learn how to make physical objects and customize things in the way that they can easily personalize things in the digital world," he says. To him, the benefit of working with your hands is obvious: "Engagement. Just being engaged with your world leads to all sorts of positive outcomes."

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Back home in Phoenix, Joe heads out once a week to the local "Hackerspace" in nearby Mesa, Ariz. These communal sites have popped up all over the country, offering makers the chance to meet, collaborate, and use more advanced equipment, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters.

With his marshmallow cannon complete, Joe has bigger projects in his sights. He'd like to build an electric car, but that will require more money and new skills, such as welding.

Across the fairground, a group called the Brooklyn Aerodrome demonstrates its radio-controlled airplanes built using trash. Luca Vermeer, 13, caught the builder bug at last year's Maker Faire, and is now a member of the Brooklyn group.

Like many young makers, Luca is not the first in her family to show an interest. She says that her parents have always been working on projects. And unlike previous generations, where "geek" proclivities isolated kids from peers, the current batch of makers is surprisingly social.

"If you look in the right places, it's pretty easy to find other people who like to do stuff like this," says Luca. "Here, it's really easy because everyone [does]. But if you go online, you can find different websites, different people who are into it."

To many, the father of the maker movement is Dale Dougherty, one of the founders of Make Magazine and creator of Maker Faire, which now runs yearly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Detroit, New York, and occasionally in other cities. While the movement started among adults, Mr. Dougherty says it's perhaps more important for kids to join their ranks.

"Today, many kids have lots of choices and their lives are very structured; other kids are disadvantaged by the community and resources available to them," writes Dougherty in an e-mail. "We'd like to see each of them have the opportunity to explore their own interests and develop a sense that they are directing their own learning and their own future."

President Obama has made an increased emphasis on the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) a cornerstone of his education program. But walking around the fair, you'd be hard-pressed to believe there is a shortage of kids interested in the subject.

For Wired's Giancaspro, the maker movement is a natural partner to STEM education. "I call it recreational engineering," he says. "It's helping kids see that there are things you can do, that there are futures in this kind of industry."

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