Pittsburgh Maker Faire unites creators of all ages

| Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Inventors Jordan Hale-Coleman and Phillip Barker Jr. have figured out how to create a circuit wire that links several electronic toys together, so that the toys turn on or off at the same time. Not bad for two first-graders who are students at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 on the North Side.

Jordan and Phillip, with the guidance of teachers leading the school's Children's Innovation Project, took apart battery-operated toys, including cars and telephones, and examined their mechanisms. Then, using a wire, the boys and their classmates connected the toys' battery compartments. The work was exciting, but challenging, and felt like a “brain wrinkle” when they finished, Phillip and Jordan say.

Jordan, 6, says he wants to become an artist and teach his principal, Molly O'Malley. Phillip, also 6, says he wants to grow up to be an inventor. And O'Malley is impressed.

“It is really amazing,” she says. “I felt like I had to position myself as a learner as they were going through this. ... It's out-of-the-box thinking.”

Jordan and Phillip, along with 18 other first-graders from the school, will be showing off their work on Saturday at the Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire, which showcases the creations of makers from in and near Western Pennsylvania. The “mini” in Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire doesn't refer to the age of the makers: It refers to the amount of them, which is around five dozen. It may sound like a lot, but not compared to the main Maker Faire, which attracted more than 600 makers in May to San Mateo, Calif. The staff of MAKE magazines organizes the big event, which also has big flagship events in Detroit and New York.

Makers in the Pittsburgh event, licensed by Maker Faire and in its second year, range from early elementary schoolers to retirees. Only about a quarter of the makers are kids, says Angela Seals, fair coordinator.

“It's one of the things I love about it,” says Seals, program manager for the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, one of the presenters of the event that will be held outside the North Side museum.

“I feel like, most of the time, we draw such sharp distinctions between events that are for adults and events that are for kids,” Seals says. “I'm excited to see people of all ages come, and they will see people of all ages present in a place that celebrates curiosity and creativity and innovation, no matter how old you are.”

At the event, visitors will see more than 60 projects, including “Knit the Bridge,” which plans to wrap the 7th Street Bridge in bright knitting; “Hot Air Engines,” little engines that run on the warmth of the palm of your hand; and “Mechanimals,” robot animals including a kangaroo, giraffe and bee. Seals says that attending the Mini Maker Faire makes people feel like kids, because the event is like an all-ages science fair, with elements of art, craft, science and engineering.

“Often, we talk about it as a futuristic county fair ... minus the blueberry pie,” she says.

The event offers makers a chance to “take pride and show off what they've done,” and inspire people with the message, “You can do this, too,” says Doug Philips of HackPittsburgh, the other presenter of the event. People who see the makers' projects might tap into their ingenuity, and look to solve problems by making things themselves rather than buying some products.

“I think the big benefit is ... it's a return to a set of values when you're not dependent on someone else to make things; you make things yourself,” says Philips, a council member of HackPittburgh, a nonprofit community-based workshop in an Uptown basement. Members of HackPittsburgh are encouraged to share tools and skills to help each other create and make things by hand.

Aria Eppinger, 10, of Squirrel Hill, uses LED lights to create light-up clothes in her “Shine So Bright” project that she will show at the event. The fifth-grader at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside creates a thread of LED lights with a kid-friendly battery pack, and sews the lights into a patch — like a heart for a Valentine's Day shirt — that will be attached to the garment. Aria says she hopes to license and sell her circuit sewing kits — which recently won Warren Buffett's Secret Millionaires Club contest — when she is older and make a business out of her craft, which Mini Maker Faire visitors can sample.

“I'm hoping that she gets it done in the next five years so we can pay for college,” Aria's proud mother, Francesmary Modugno, says jokingly.

“I think it's very cool,” Modugno, 46, says about the Mini Maker Faire. “I'm excited to go and see the other artists. I think it's really great to give especially young people the opportunity to try their stuff out and get that experience in a really welcoming environment.

“All of this is just incredible life experience, and we're really happy about that,” she says.

Seals says that the young makers can teach technology to adults who might find the topic intimidating. But technology is happening not just in labs, but in garages and basements, with people creating gadgets, she says.

Melissa Butler, the Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 kindergarten teacher who co-directs the Children's Innovation Project, says that she learned from watching the kids work.

“They're fully expressive and articulate and excited,” Butler says. “They come up with the most amazing things.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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