Tech savvy connecting at Hackerspace

It just might be the fastest growing club in town.

Nelson Tech Club started out in the back room of a local computer store and as word spread – almost in a rumour-like fashion, more and more new people came to check it out, said club president Brad Pommen.

“It seemed every week someone new would come through the doors,” he said. “We almost had to keep it under wraps sometimes because we knew if we had another influx of people, we’d have nowhere to put them.”

Tech Club is an inclusive club focusing on computers, programming, electronics and robotics – all under the umbrella of technology. They host weekly meetings called Hackerspace at the Selkirk College Annex Building up at the 10th street campus.

Started in Oct. 2010 by Pommen, a computer programmer by trade, the club just celebrated its second anniversary having moved four times prior to their current location. Over 200 new people have attended a Hackerspace since its inception.

When Pommen moved to Nelson that spring, he knew there was a bit of a technology following; it was a matter of connecting and organization.

“These are all areas that pique everybody’s interest and this is the social outlet to share it at,” he said.

Tech club members are anyone with a keen interest in technology whether they’re involved in the industry directly or not. All ages are represented from seven to 70-years-old, said Pommen.

“Because of the varied experience of the members, you get some people that will know one subject and know nothing about another one. It’s varied so anyone who comes though the door, will typically find a few people that will have an idea what he or she is talking about,” he said. “There are all levels of experience. Some people can barely turn on a computer and others know how to program it. We really try and find ways that everyone can talk the same language.”

There are about 15 to 30 people at any given meeting and the group delves into projects involving media and design, photo shopping and video editing or programming video games. They use equipment such as soldering irons and something called an Arduino, a computer controller about the size of a pack of gum. It allows the hook up of sensors, buttons and lights – anything that allows you to make an interactive project.

“It can be an art project. This can be a tracker that watches the sun and moves something along the way. It can be a door sensor. It can be pretty much anything that anyone can dream up,” said Pommen. “You can modify a toy, modify a gadget and hook this up to it and it ads a whole new level that you couldn’t do otherwise. It opens up doors and breaks down the barriers for you.”

The Arduino allows computer programming to go from the screen to the physical world so enhances the learning experience, he said.

“It allows real world objects to now become your playthings in a digital world. With things like iPhones and such, they’re built so you can never really play with them or tamper with them or fix them, really,” described Pommen with great enthusiasm. “This is the whole other side of the coin where you can do that. You can solder things, you can break things on purpose but do it in a way that it actually makes sense.”

Getting their hands into things are Thibaud (16) and Akira (14) Engelbrecht.

Thibaud joined Tech Club after attending with his younger brother and friends. He wasn’t sure at first and spent the first meeting watching what the others were doing.

“It was fun,” he said and has since returned every week.

The boys’ mom, Maya Engelbrecht is enthusiastic about the potential for learning that this club gives her sons.

“The club provides an great opportunity for my teenage boys to explore technology in a small town and to learn from others who share the same interests,” she said.

Mentoring young technology savvy kids is an important component of the club, explained Pommen. He wants to see more connection to schools where these subjects aren’t readily available for students already exhibiting a keen interest. Hackerspace isn’t about doing a project for someone; it’s about showing them the way or leading by example.

“One person does something and everyone learns from that example,” he said.

Other communities are also learning from the example Nelson Tech Club is setting.

A very popular event held in November, RoboGames featured robots using Arduino brains. Over 100 people attended the games for 11 to 17-year-olds.

“Those people are now talking about the tech club and what we’re doing. We’re branching out to about a 100-mile radius in the community now. From Trail to Rossland to Kaslo and New Denver, Creston to Kelowna, people are connecting to our club to find out how they can start this up in their community,” said Pommen.

Hackerspace host Selkirk College has supported the club from the very beginning, because they see that continuing education component. They recognize Tech Club introduces programs to kids who will become their next generation of students. These connections are something that Pommen is happy to maintain and grow.

“We’re excited to find ways to get the community more involved,” he said.

As the club advances with that comes members with expertise on grant writing. Tech club recently secured $4000 earmarked for new laptops.

“It’s just been a tremendous year of growth for the club and we’re excited to see what we can do with it,” Pommen said.

There are over 1000 Hackerspaces worldwide with the local group meeting on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. There is a $2 drop in fee to support tools needed.


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