How to Learn New Skills From Experts Near You

learn from experts,
There’s nothing like learning hands-on. (CC by 2.0

Successful societies have always respected what the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn from people whose grasp of any subject is well beyond our own, in part because our culture doesn’t emphasize the extraordinary benefits of person-to-person education.

I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Passion for a subject becomes a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there, what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.

If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, make pasta by hand at Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, let my kids partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Libraries, colleges and universities, museums, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes too.

This can happen more informally as well. As homeschoolers, we’ve found it doesn’t hurt to ask people to share a little of what they know.

  • The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums crafted there.
  • A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program.
  • A potter shared his thoughts about the nature of clay, taught us how to form vessels on a wheel, then invited us back for the opening of his kiln to see our creations emerge.
  • An archaeologist invited us to spend the day at a dig where we worked along with a team of grad students.

We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Surprisingly, we’ve gotten all this expert instruction for free. People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes.

If someone possesses knowledge or abilities you’d like to gain, try asking. And don’t forget to look close to home. Your own contact list is also a knowledge network just waiting to be activated. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn cake decorating from your sister the caterer, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, pick up horse-racing lingo from your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined.

Of course, there are all sorts of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.

DIY and Maker movements along with Maker Faires are popping up in more and more places. (Not in your area yet? Check out the Mini Maker Faire Starter Kit.) Find hackerspaces like NoisebridgePumping Station OneNYC ResistorTechShops, and Artisan’s Asylum. Or start your own hackerspace.

Trade School is a barter-based learning space, meaning you don’t have to pay to learn. You might barter for a class with a homemade pie or art supplies or research help. The founders describe it as “a global movement for community, connection, and educational justice.” The first Trade School was started by three friends in a NYC storefront in 2010. Now self-organized Trade Schools are opening up or running in places like Milan, Cologne, Virginia, Oakland, Singapore, New Delhi, and Paris. Want to start one in your community? Here’s how.

FreeSkools are created by participants. There’s no central organizing manifesto on one site or in one book. Some are informal gatherings to share knowledge, others are active networks meeting in parks, living rooms, and community centers. All are devoted to learning freely. You’ll find them in IthacaSanta Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Check out piece in Shareable about how to set up a FreeSkool.

Skillshares are similar to FreeSkools, built around the experience and skill offered by people in the community. They may be set up as a one-time session, an annual event, or ongoing program. Here’s how to start one.

The School of Life is teeming with great stuff. They feature secular sermons with big thinkers talking about big ideas. Classes by experts with titles like How to Have Better Conversations, and Finding a Job You Love. The place is also teeming with activity beyond the sit-still-and-think variety. There are engaging programs with transformative potential and weekend adventures developed by scientists, artists, and others. So far there are eight locations including London, Melbourne, Paris, and Amsterdam.

Citizen Circles are small groups of people who meet to learn together for a limited period of time with an emphasis on collective learning and action. There’s no fee. Some Citizen Circle topics have included women as social innovators, systems dynamics, exploring indigenous knowledge, and design thinking. There’s plenty of information to help you start your own.

In addition, there are all sorts of inspiring methods you can use to construct a more hands-on DIY education—many of them free. If you know of other resources, share it in the comments.

Now go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, or car engine as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.

NoCo Maker Faire: Exactly What I Imagined a Maker Faire to Be!

I really, really wanted my son to reach out to the R2 unit and say, “Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.” But he didn’t. Oh well. This R2 unit was built and operated by the Mountain States R2 Builders. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

This past weekend my family and I made a two-hour trek up I-25 to Loveland, Colorado, for the state’s first-ever NoCo (Northern Colorado) Mini Maker Faire. This event was set up in a repurposed Agilent Technologies factory on the south side of the city. This factory environment was absolutely perfect for the Faire…despite there being no indoor restrooms. But there were plenty of portable toilets outside!

Portable toilets aside, and after spending about 10 minutes in the wrong line, our family made it into the Faire just after 10am and we were overwhelmed with all the booths to choose from!

Note: I’d like to apologize for the poor quality pictures. I’m convinced my iPhone camera got messed up when I upgraded to iOS7.

I loved the small size of this Faire. There were just over 150 exhibits, and the vast majority of them were local to Colorado and Wyoming. Activities for all ages were in abundance, and everybody was so friendly. The kids, my husband, and I were able to ask many questions and all were answered enthusiastically. I truly felt welcomed and we learned quite a bit, not to mentioned fueled our imaginations.

My husband’s interest in 3D printing for model railroading meant that he was keeping his eyes out for 3D printing vendors and demonstrations. There were many to choose from, including several live demonstrations, so Dave could see a printer in action up-close and personal. He enjoyed seeing those.

My sons enjoyed the numerous robots walking along among the guests, and we arrived early enough for them to enjoy several hands-on demonstrations. For example, a booth from XYZ Bot from Denver had hands-on demonstrations of their two flagship products: Fritz and the Rubber Band Machine Gun (RBmG). If you’re interested in buying an RBmG of your very own, check out their Kickstarter campaign. My youngest son got to check out both products and was very impressed.

My youngest son enjoyed playing with Fritz: A Robotic Puppet, which specializes in facial expressions. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My youngest son enjoyed playing with Fritz: A Robotic Puppet, which specializes in facial expressions. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
He then tried out the Rubber Band Machine Gun. He reports that it was sighted a bit high, which is why he didn’t hit any of the cups. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Down at one end of the exhibit hall, Boulder’s SparkFun Electronics dominated the area. A line was growing, so I hurried my sons over there to see what was so popular.

It turned out SparkFun had about 30 soldering stations set up and guests could assemble one of their basic kits. There were three to choose from, and between the four of us in my family, we assembled each of the choices. I saw children as young as five years old sitting at the soldering stations. With a lot of help from parents and SparkFun employees, even these young children could make a WeevilEye of their very own.

We spent a lot of time with SparkFun and I had a great time talking to the employees as well. Each one I talked to seemed to love working for the company, and I even got some information on taking a tour of their Boulder facility (which they offer every Friday).

Parents helping kids make great things! In this case, my husband is helping my youngest son solder together a photo-sensitive light-up bug. This was at the SparkFun area. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Parents helping kids make great things! In this case, my husband is helping my youngest son solder together a photosensitive light-up bug. This was at the SparkFun area. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

My family enjoyed many other exhibits that covered everything from Lego to fiber arts. Numerous makerspaces and hackerspaces from throughout the area were represented also.

My youngest son saw an exhibit where you could build a fairy garden. He was excited to do this, so we checked it out. Fiona’s Fairy Gardens sold small kits for $20 that included three plants, a couple of little structures, and all of the planting materials and decorative rocks. We had a wonderful time setting it up.

My youngest son assembling his fairy garden. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The finished product — he did most of this work himself. He is so proud of his work, as am I. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Northern Colorado Weavers Guild had a large area set up that including several spinning wheels for making yarn, and assorted looms to demonstrate weaving. I got to try out a spinning wheel myself, while my youngest son checked out a Mayan-style loom.

I twisted some thread into yarn with this spinning wheel. It wasn’t easy and I wholeheartedly admire those who do this routinely. Photo: Dave Vollmer.

The last activity we spent time with was the Cardboard Challenge. This was something I wish we had spent time with earlier in the event. By the time we made time to make something with the piles of cardboard several of the accessories had been exhausted—including scissors, tape, and hinges. We still made do with what we had and came up with some silly concoctions. This Instagram photo shows some of the other creations.

A cardboard shirt, anyone? Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Finally, we were treated with a GeekMom meetup! Whoo hoo! I am always excited to meet the other GeekMom writers and I’m tickled pink to now live only an hour from GeekMom Judy.

We're looking at Judy's son's camera here. Photo: Dave Vollmer.
We’re looking at Judy’s son’s camera here. Photo: Dave Vollmer.

To conclude, my family and I had a wonderful day in Loveland! We highly encourage anyone in a community with a Maker Faire or Mini Maker Faire to make the trip. It’s worth it!

I was provided complimentary adult and child tickets for this event.

Who’s Joining Judy and Patricia at NoCo Maker Faire?

Image credit: Northern Colorado Maker Faire.
Everything you need to know for NoCo Maker Faire is right here! Who’s in? Image credit: Northern Colorado Maker Faire.

We’re so excited that Colorado now has its very own Maker Faire! If you’re within driving distance, be sure to join GeekMom Judy and me on Saturday, October 5th at the Rocky Mountain Center for Innovation and Technology in Loveland, Colorado (between Denver and Fort Collins) for some Maker fun!

This is my first-ever Maker Faire and I’m beyond thrilled about going! While I plan to be there with Judy, covering it for GeekMom, my husband is very excited about getting to see 3D printing up front and personal for the first time. My sons are expressing interest in the giant Lego crane and the electronics opportunities with Boulder’s SparkFun.

I was really impressed with the number of Colorado-based Maker groups. Being a newcomer, there are many things that impress me about my new home state, such as Colorado’s sense of independence. This independence is proven with how many of the 172 booths at this weekend’s event will be local. I was tickled to see two groups near and dear to my heart on the list. Yes, they’re governmental organizations but I’m pleased to see the Maker spirit in what they’re planning to do. The US Air Force Academy STEM Club with homemade rockets as well as Boulder’s own National Center for Atmospheric Research with homemade weather observing systems will be represented. You can also enjoy other local Makers such as the Phoenix Asylum makerspace from Boulder, the Northern Colorado Weavers Guild, and the Mountain States R2 Builders.

Plan your trip to NoCo Maker Faire by visiting their website or you can follow the event on Facebook or Twitter. I plan to live-tweet the event from my own Twitter feed @vollmerdp on Saturday.

See you there!

Maker Faire New York: Fueling My 3D Fantasies

The BotBuilder 3D printer in action. Photo: Amy Kraft

I’ve been fantasizing about getting a 3D printer. I don’t think my husband realized how serious I am about wanting one until he saw me (and our 8-year-old daughter) drooling over the entire 3D printing section at Maker Faire New York.

The first question is what printer to get. Maker Faire had booth after booth of 3D printers in tons of different shapes and sizes. MakerBot has evolved into a sleek, beautiful device that looks totally pro. (And did you know there’s a MakerBot store in Manhattan? I must make a field trip downtown.)

There’s something to be said, though, for all of the smaller companies making 3D printers and printer kits. A couple of the preassembled options that caught my eye are the Solidoodle, which starts at $499, and the Litto, which starts at $999 (add $300 for the assembly). Both are open-source and have small desktop footprints. I have to say, though, I was most intrigued by BotBuilder. Making a printer from a kit on my own sounds like pressure, but BotBuilder offers weekend workshops where you walk away with your finished printer. The workshop, including printer, is $999. I love the idea of building with a community of builders, plus the workshop offers the security that you’re doing it right and in a set amount of time. When you’re finished, you’re also better equipped to troubleshoot your printer.

The next question is what I would make with it once I had it. There are three things I fantasize about most:

  • Game Pieces: I’m a game designer and I want to inspire my kids to design their own games as well. Making our own game pieces would add a nice level of professionalism.
  • Jewelry: Every year at Maker Faire I end up coming home with 3D-printed jewelry. Why not try my own?
  • Party supplies: We throw oddball parties and we’d love to make the things that we can’t find, like cake-toppers, or party favors, or what I dream of most, custom cookie cutters. I’d like to be the mom that brings the narwhal cookies to the party.

Of course, Maker Faire New York had no shortage of great ideas for 3D printing. Here are some of my favorites.

Make your own 3D mini twin. Photo: Amy Kraft

Mixee Labs caught my eye with these adorable Mii-like figures that you create at You customize your figure using their online software, then for $25 you get it mailed to you. 3D printing has a certain low-tech look to it, but these were something different. They look adorable, totally unique in the 3D printing space, and they feel great to hold, too.

Mixee Labs is also making molecule jewelry that I love. You can customize the material (nylon plastic, stainless steel, silver, and gold-plated brass), the size, and the molecule. Some of the molecules include estrogen, adrenaline, nicotine, and Xanax. I have a pink plastic caffeine molecule that I’ve been wearing often.

Portraits from Coney Island Scan-A-Rama. Photo: Amy Kraft

Another set of portraits caught my eye, from The Great Fredini’s Coney Island Scan-A-Rama. Outside of Maker Faire, you can visit this photo booth on Saturdays in Coney Island. Portraits range from $60-$100 depending on the number of people in them, and the final result is lovely. In fact, while I was at their table, a couple was being scanned to get a portrait that they are planning to use as the cake topper on their wedding cake.

Art meets Pez. Photo: Amy Kraft

I had read about the maker classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it was cool to see some of the results from those classes in person. The Met enables teens to take scans of the collections and remix them in new and unusual ways. I love this head attached to a Pez dispenser, by far the classiest Pez dispenser I’ve seen.

Blokify lets kids be the king of the castle. Photo: Amy Kraft

Minecraft fans will be particularly keen on this next one. Blokify provides kid-friendly software that lets kids build digitally with building blocks. Once they’re satisfied with their creation, they can send it to a digital printer to make a castle, tower, or anything else they can imagine.

3D printed tube connectors. Photo: Amy Kraft

I saw a bunch of other inspiring creations, like robot sculptures, handy objects to windup your earbuds or rest your phone in, toys, and household items, even a toilet-paper dispenser! Maker Faire offered a great glimpse into the possibilities of 3D printing at home. I can’t wait to see the leaps and bounds that 3D printing makes at each Maker Faire. And, more than that, I can’t wait to have a 3D printer of my very own.

Toolbox Jewelry: Adornments for Makers

The Neon Tetra Bracelet. Photo: Amy Kraft
Image: Klutz

This weekend is the World Maker Faire in New York, and we got Klutz’s latest kit, Toolbox Jewelry, just in time to bedazzle ourselves in Maker Faire-appropriate accessories.

I’ve long been a fan of Klutz. Klutz kits are my go-to birthday party presents. At the last New York Toy Fair, Toolbox Jewelry was a stand-out product in a sea of tired products. My 8-year-old daughter and I were excited to give it a try. Or, more accurately, I was excited to have my 8-year-old daughter give it a try. She’s tried many Klutz kits in the past with varying degrees of independence and success. I enjoy jumping in and helping, like I did with their Wicked Cool Friendship Bracelets, but I value more the projects she can do from start to finish. On a weekend morning when it was my turn to sleep in, I awoke to three new creations she had made that morning.

Some of the kit components. Photo: Amy Kraft

Toolbox Jewelry provides a combination of ribbon, cord, nuts, washers, retaining rings, beads, and earring wires, enough to give every project in the book a try. My daughter had no trouble following the instructions, and she even called my attention to the parts of the books that have handy tips, like how to position a knot. And the resulting jewelry? It’s beautiful. It’s not beautiful in the “that’s nice, honey” way. It’s beautiful in a way that when my daughter was finishing up a bracelet, I pleaded with her to finish it at a size to fit me.

My daughter shows off the Ribbon and Stars bracelet and the Sunburst necklace. Photo: Amy Kraft

Often with Klutz kits, you’re beholden to the supplies that come with the kit. (Pro tip: you can reorder refill supplies from Klutz in those cases.) With Toolbox Jewelry, our imagination is already running wild. We’re excited to scavenge the closets and hit the hardware store to see how to apply the techniques in the book to different materials. I’m a fan of anything that gets my maker girl excited to go to the hardware store.

If you see us at Maker Faire, have a look at our beautiful accessories. Or make your own mini Maker Faire with this delightful kit.

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

The Two Sides of Detroit

Once thriving Detroit
Habitat for Humanity is trying to bring the Morningside Commons neighborhood in Detroit back but it has a long way to go. Witness what’s left of its neighborhood stores. Photo by Corrina Lawson

The Greater Detroit area is a place of contradictions. I learned this during my trip to the Further With Ford event last month and was further reminded when a bankruptcy filing was approved last Thursday for the city by its emergency manager and the Governor of Michigan.

On the one hand, Ford Motor Company cannot fill its engineering jobs fast enough and strong sales show that it seems to be recovering from the economic downturn. It has also seen its reputation soar ever since it was the only major U.S. automobile company not to take a government bailout.

But then there is the area around them. As part of the conference, Ford arranged for the attendees to drive F-150 trucks loaded with building material to a Habitat for Humanity project in one of the distressed neighborhoods, Morningside Commons.

That neighborhood was one of the saddest places I’ve ever visited.

About half  of the homes in this very middle-class suburban neighborhood were well kept and obviously loved by their residents. The others? Some of the once-beautiful homes were completely burned out and gutted, some merely vacant, and others had boarded up windows and were on the verge of roof collapse. The corner shopping area, pictured above, clearly had once been a thriving center but the local bank branch, a gray-stone building, was empty, and the dry cleaners and other stores were gutted.

Detroit revitilization
A beautiful home in that same neighborhood. Photo by Corrina Lawson

There were a few homes for sale. They had steel doors and windows bolted on to prevent trespassing and, presumably, destruction.

In the midst of this, Habitat said it would build its 100th house by the end of the summer. The residents aren’t ready to give up.

Ford seems to be trying to help bring them together and has a long history with the home-building charity, but, obviously, the area has a long way to go.

And yet on the other side of the universe is the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a museum dedicated not just to the history of Ford but to American ideas and innovation. It’s the site of Maker Faire Detroit next weekend.

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I spent an evening in the Henry Ford, expecting to see a shrine to Ford automobiles and instead climbed aboard the actual bus where Rosa Parks made her stand for equal rights, looked over the Kennedy limousine, and toured the Dymaxion House, a home designed by R. Buckminster Fuller to be the wave of the future in the 1940s.

The House was designed to be “the strongest, lightest, and most cost-effective housing” according to the museum, not to mention tornado proof.

Touring the museum, it was easy to forget about the other Detroit. But those that built the industry, from presidents to assembly line workers, started with very little. Perhaps it can be done again and the bankruptcy, which might allow Detroit to get out from debt that prevents the city from spending on the future, has hit bottom and can only get better.


From Artificial Limbs to Art: How 3D Printers Are Changing Everything

Photo: Andrea Schwalm

Here at we get excited about new technology. We also get excited about creating things. When the two come together, we get really excited. We got our first peek at 3D printers a couple of years ago. If you missed it the first time, be sure to read Andrea’s post about all of the cool things she saw, including 3D printers, at Maker Faire NY. At the time, it was an interesting concept and an exciting glimpse into the future.

That future is here, as are 3D printers. They’re in regular people’s houses and they are changing so many areas of our lives.

I found this great list on the web today, 10 Amazing New Uses of 3D Printers, and I thought you’d like to see it, too. My favorite, of course, is number four, the creation of custom prosthetics. A few weeks ago I showed you an exciting new prosthetic hand that was allowing people to create prosthetic fingers much more quickly and accurately, thanks to the use of a 3D printer.

There is such a wide variety of uses for 3D printers that I bet you’ll find something on this list that excites you, too. Now it’s time to go draw up your Christmas list and you know what item goes on the top.

Don’t Miss Maker Faire Kansas City

Kansas City is actually a pretty cool place to be a maker. It’s one of a few locations of the larger “featured” Maker Faires. The other locations are Detroit, Newcastle (UK), Rome, and Tokyo. It’s still about one tenth the size of the World Maker Faire in New York, but over 10,000 attendees is still not bad. If you’re in the midwest, it’s totally worth the drive.

By the way, the Mini Maker Faires are also very awesome. You should check to see if there is one near you. If not, consider starting one. These family-friendly DIY showcases are amazing. I credit Maker Faire for sparking my daughter’s interest in robotics.

This year’s Maker Faire Kansas City will feature crowd favorites like ArcAttack, deals from the Maker Shed, and up to 400 Maker booths, including a food, arts and crafts, robotics, and Young Makers. This is only the third year for Kansas City’s event, but it’s already become Union Station’s most popular draw.

Maker Faire KC will be held:

Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10 am – 7 pm
Sunday, June 30, 2013, 10 am – 5 pm

Union Station
30 W. Pershing Rd.
Kansas City, MO 64108

You can purchase tickets online, but if you’re a Union Station member (like I am), you should buy them on site to take advantage of the discount.

Full disclosure: GeekMom and GeekDad publisher, Ken Denmead is the editorial director for Maker Media.


Don’t Miss Maker Faire: NC This Weekend

Courtesy  Maker Faire: North Carolina

If you’re in North Carolina—or even a neighboring state—it’s worth a trip to the NC State Fairgrounds this Saturday for Maker Faire: North Carolina, one of the many Mini Maker Faires around the country. This is the fourth year for MF:NC, and I can attest that it only gets better every year.

One of the makers you’ll meet is Dean Segovis, creator of Photon, an autonomous robot that is powered by four drive motors with the main board salvaged from a Roomba vacuum. It uses an Arduino as well and has five cameras on board recording what it sees, which it streams to the internet. Photon also has pre-programmed strings of text that give him a “personality” you can interact with.

Photo by Dean Segovis
Photon photo by Dean Segovis

“We were once a country of makers,” Segovis says about why he participates in Maker Faire. “We fixed things instead of throwing them away when they stopped working. We made our own tools and devices to get through the challenges of the day. I feel that I am part of the maker movement that is bringing back this mind set.”

You can find more of his projects on, where he’s been posting projects weekly for more than two years.

A few of the makers and organizations you’ll see at Maker Faire: North Carolina are:

You’ll also meet the Whomping Willow team, a group of makers that created an award-winning contraption that hurls pumpkins hundreds of meters.

And if you’re not lucky enough to be in North Carolina this weekend, there’s almost certainly a similar Mini Maker Faire somewhere near you.

GeekMom and GeekDad Will Be at Maker Faire Bay Area 2013

Maker Faire Logo, image from
Maker Faire Logo, image from

Just when it feels like everyone knows about Maker Faire, I take a step back out of my geek circle and find that, to my surprise, very few of my non-geeks friends know about Maker Faire or even about the maker movement as a whole. Gasp! Impossible!

If you’re a GeekMom reader, I know I’m preaching to the choir when I remind you that Maker Faire Bay Area is this weekend, May 18th and 19th. Perhaps most importantly, I should remind you to talk about it with your friends. My goal isn’t to sell tickets for Maker Faire, but to spread the word about what a positive community a makerspace, hackerspace, or craft group can be. It’s not just for self-labeled geeks, it’s for anyone interested in finding an open source of knowledge and camaraderie with people who share a hobby or just a general interest in learning, creating, and innovating.

GeekMom/GeekDad will have a booth in the Expo Hall, so come say hi! I will be there as long as my tired pregnant body can cooperate, along with some of the GeekDad writers. GeekMom Ruth will have a booth with a Raspberry Pi musical project called Alcyone, and will also be giving a talk on The Pop Culture Guide to Open Source.

This Week With the GeekMoms

GeekMom News

This week, the GeekMoms are relaxing before a Star Wars weekend, buying new cars, stage managing, and back from vacation!

Dakster Sullivan will be enjoying her last Saturday free before the Star Wars Weekends season. This means resting up, drinking lots of water, and making sure all of her costumes are good to go. She hopes to debut a new costume this year, so stay tuned to see what she has planned.

Rachel Cericola just got herself a new car. Continue reading This Week With the GeekMoms

Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Vintage Tomorrows cover, O'Reilly
Vintage Tomorrows cover, O’Reilly

Often we do, quite literally, judge a book by its cover. And like the cliché implies, sometimes what’s inside is so much more than what we expected. I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative about the cover of Vintage Tomorrows–in fact, it was the cover that first drew my eye. What I didn’t expect was 383 pages that connected so many dots for me, so many of my interests that I had no idea were related, much less that they could all draw lines back to steampunk.

The book’s subtitle, A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology, summarizes as well as so few words can what’s to be found inside, but what it really gives you a glimpse of is the duality of the co-authors, one looking back and the other looking forwards. James Carrott is the historian half, but also was once the global product manager for the Xbox 360. Brian David Johnson looks into the metaphorical crystal ball to see technology’s future for Intel. The title of the first chapter, “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walk Into a Bar,” gives you a good idea of the tone of the rest of the book (much of which was imagined over pints of beer). It’s an academic tome with distinctly non-academic language. In referring to steampunk as “‘postmodern’ like nobody’s business,” Carrott notes, “and I hope never to use this word again in the course of this entire book (scary, bad academic things happen when one invokes such demons).” I wholeheartedly agree.

Continue reading Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

10 Takeaway Lessons From Maker Faire New York

Last weekend the kids, husband, and I attended the 2nd annual Maker Faire New York at the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens. We were all blown away by the experience–I spent the weekend happily geeking out: touching stuff, pushing buttons, exclaiming repeatedly to anyone who would listen This is what our SCHOOLS should look like! (Well..I said that in between meeting tons of fabulous people at the GeekDad/GeekMom booth where Dave Giancaspro, Amy Kraft and I chatted up visitors and ran a photo scavenger hunt, with prizes provided by ThinkGeek.)

It’s hard to put into words what Maker Faire is, so I’ve resorted to trying to tell my story through pictures and sound bites. Understand: back in the day, I was one of those kids who kind of compulsively enjoyed taking things apart to see what was inside (but could never get everything to go back together again afterwards). If you or your kids are that kind of a person? Maker Faire will make you happy…

1. 3D printers are the new “it” gadget. There are a couple of different kinds–and keeping with the “maker” ethos, most are kits that the user first builds themselves–but the concept is exactly what the name implies: 3D printers produce a 3-dimensional model of whatever you’d like to create, including intricate pieces for that board game you’re designing, space age jewelry, or components for the robot your team is designing to compete in their next FIRST challenge. Enthusiasts even have their own online community, Thingiverse, where they can upload and share their open source digital designs.

CdTe “thin film” solar panels powered GE’s Carousolar as well as the free phone-charging stations surrounding the ride.

2. Makers like sustainable energy. From GE’s Carousolar to Bootstrap Solar’s kickstarter promotion to The BioBus (a mobile science laboratory fueled by vegetable oil and powered by wind and solar energy), renewable energy sources were a hot area of pursuit at the Faire. (On a related note: GE’s EcoMagination is my new go-to resource to find out about what’s happening in the energy world–they’ve got a zippy, thought-provoking page on Facebook, as well.)

3. If you can figure out how to use Arduino microcontrollers, you can make ANYTHING interactive. Not sure what the significance of the Arduino is? Check out Judy Culkin’s comic to get started.

4. College is so much cooler now than when I was going. Gabriela Guttierez, a graduate student at NYU’s ITP program, promises to put up open source plans of this award-winning mechanical display on her blog soon. I want one.

5. My son is awesome (something I’d already suspected). Just this week, Wired’s blog ran a great interview on the unappreciated benefits of dyslexia, arguing that dyslexia is not so much a disability but a difference in wiring “that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details” and that results in individuals with excellent spatial reasoning, heightened ability to see multiple perspectives, an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, and an ability to “reason well in dynamic settings” (ie: roll with the punches when somebody moves their cheese).

One line resonated with me particularly: “These individuals excel in fields where telling and understanding stories are important, like sales, counseling, trial law or even teaching.” Sales and teaching? Yup!

As you can see from the hat my younger son is wearing in this picture, he is something of an Angry Birds fan–he hasn’t taken that hat off since we bought it and he assures me that it is a huge hit with gamers (as well as a very special subset of the ladies…).

So, when he came upon an exhibit at Maker Faire that attempted to bring the video game “to life” he was immediately drawn to it. With a charm and initiative that apparently skips multiple generations, he convinced the owners of the exhibit to allow him to run the space (keeping the kids in line excited, keeping the line moving) as if he were doing “an internship.” Outside of his meals, I didn’t see him for the entire weekend. “Free range kids” advocate Lenore Skenazy would have been proud…

6. There are a lot of cool “maker” books out there, including:

7. You no longer need to know Morse code in order to join a ham radio club (yeah, this picture has nothing to do with ham radio–I just like it). Nor do you need to build your own radio before you can be admitted to a club. And, yes: the clubs are open to teenagers as well as adults–so you can bring along the recalcitrant teenager who now requests that you publicly walk half a block behind him, if you’d like.

Finally: if the NY Hall of Science’s amateur radio club (HoSARC) is any indication, even if there are no other women in the group, you will be enthusiastically welcomed to join…

8. Hackerspaces and Makespaces are the village halls of the maker community and they are mushrooming up everywhere. What’s a hackerspace? It’s a communal, passion-led, workshop space where members can gather together to make things with tools they might not be able to afford individually. Members usually pay a monthly fee, just as they would for a gym membership, but instead of workout machines, members access power tools, 3D printers, and the knowledge and support of a like-minded community.

9. Soldering is THE gateway activity into hacking. This year, my son and I received some personalized instruction from the nice people at Radio Shack’s “Make a Squeeze Light” station and I am feeling a lot more confident about my own soldering skills (hint: it is all about letting the solder run down the channel on the side of the soldering iron INTO the space you need filled with solder.) Maybe this week we’ll make the Simon kit the equally nice people at Sparkfun gave me!

10. Play is important. One of the aspects of Maker Faire that I like best is its willingness to delight, its acknowledgement that playfulness is an integral component of an inventive mind. I recently described Maker Faire to a friend as Hogwarts meets wood shop: everywhere we turned last weekend there were people riding something they’d built themselves–a scooter, a custom bicycle, a Segway, a motorized skateboard…actually, the only things missing were the broomsticks.

At one point, on my way to a lock-picking class, I walked past a giant, fire-breathing dragon (that doubled as a playground) and into the happy chaos of a mobile sword fight. I realized that no one in this Maker crowd seemed overwhelmed or bored–everyone just seemed to be IN THE ZONE, inhabiting that cognitive sweet spot where concentration and engagement happily collide–and I was struck by how profoundly happy we humans become in the face of meaningful work and experiences.

Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires occur annually throughout the United States. If you’re interested in attending one, check out the Maker Faire site to find out if one is taking place anywhere near you.