At 5:30 p.m. Monday, when his mother told him it was time to leave the Homer Maker Space for the day, an elementary school student let out a moan of ultimate suffering.
“You’ll be back tomorrow,” said Mom.
“Yeah, I will,” responded her son with absolute conviction, grudgingly closing a laptop on the boat design he was working on.
Sitting nearby helping another student on a laptop, Daniel Zatz smiled.
Zatz opened the Homer Maker Space in September. It’s a room full of tables and laptops, with three state-of-the-art 3D printers sitting by a window that faces Two Sisters Bakery on East Bunnell Street.
This is the Homer manifestation of the Maker Movement, an international trend of Do-It-Yourself engineers and artists who are combining creativity with technology.
As Adweek explained it in a 2014 article, “Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise.”
3D printers take designs created with computer software and mold them out of plastic, turning theoretical innovations to reality before your very eyes. Zatz started working with the technology three years ago in his helicopter camera business, ZatzWorks, which he runs with his wife in the same building as the Maker Space. When he saw that his 8-year-old son Eli was both interested in and able to design and print things on his own, Zatz realized the technology might make a good introduction to engineering for kids.
Last spring, he brought laptops outfitted with a free Google design platform to Eli’s fourth-grade class at West Homer Elementary. With just a few lessons, students were able to design and print all kinds of small objects, from rings to boats to rockets — and they loved it.
So Zatz bought more computers. A $400 donation from the company that makes software for his business allowed him to outfit 10 computers with a more advanced design software called SpaceClaim. He put the laptops in the side room of his office, and the Maker Space was born.
“For a fairly minimal investment … now we have a place where kids can go and design things,” Zatz said. “And not only be creative but also kind of explore at the same speed as kids down Outside in some of the wealthier parts of the United States. So they’re not lagging just for being in Homer.”
That’s an understatement. As Zatz explained, “These kids are using the same design software that you might be using if you were designing a car in Detroit.”
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 to noon, fourth- through eighth-grade students can come design anything they want to for free.
And they come.
Attendance has increased steadily over the last few months, with between six and 10 students sitting down at a computer each afternoon.
“I really like that we can just come here and design whatever we want,” said Eli Zatz on Monday, taking a break from working on a rubber band-powered boat. “And it’s not like in school where they set something and we have to follow those rules, ’cause we can be creative here.”
Eli is getting his boat in racing condition — this month is Nautical November at the Maker Space. On Nov. 20, young engineers will race the boats they’ve printed outside of the building.
Each month will have a theme, Zatz said. In December, any kid who wants to is encouraged to 3D print holiday gifts.
Across the table from Eli on Monday, Little Fireweed second-grader Marina Co was working on designing a 3D version of her friend’s name. She and her dad, Kevin Co, had just made matching rings.
“It’s just phenomenal. I don’t know any other group of kids that gets to do this stuff,” said Kevin, who had stopped by to watch his children work. “It’s a pretty amazing investment in all of their futures.”
“And I think it’s a really good thing for community,” offered Eli. “If kids don’t have something to do they can come here and do something. It’s a productive thing. It can probably help keep kids out of trouble.”
Zatz said he’d like for the Space to be open every day, but he lacks the adult supervision. He’s looking for people interested in helping the kids innovate — people like Homer High School junior Eryn Gillam.
Gillam supervises students at the Maker Space two days a week. She said she’s shocked by how quickly the young engineers catch on. Eli Zatz’s boat, for example, took him 15 minutes to design and 35 to print.
“I wasn’t really able to get into (engineering) until I was already almost entering high school, so it was kind of later that I was like, ‘I really like this, this is probably what I want to do with my life,’” Gillam said. “So I would’ve loved to have something like this when I was younger.”
It’s hard to imagine what kinds of things the kids at the Maker Space will be able to create by the time they’re Gillam’s age. Zatz whole-heartedly believes that in a few months time, some of the students at the Space will be skilled enough to design and make parts for Homer boat businesses.
He hopes they won’t stop there.
“My hope is that eventually there’s a component of all this where the kids are working with people throughout the community,” he said. “Like going up to the senior center and looking to see what they could use and inventing solutions for them. And then not just design them but actually print them and create things to make people’s lives better.”
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at email@example.com.