Bill Hitchon and his nine-year-old son Dakar like going to Nelson Tech Club’s weekly hackerspace together.
“There are no restrictions or rules,” says Dakar. “I can do creative stuff. I like to build things that go, like cars, anything that has the most wheels and I can put the most engines on.”
Dakar says he’s learned “how to hook up a battery to an engine, how physics works, and a lot of aerodynamics.”
His father says Dakar is “a smart kid who needs intellectual stimulation, so this is good for him. He has always been mechanically minded and very hands on, likes to build things, likes to be challenged. It’s fun to do stuff with him. I like to see him figuring things out.”
Dakar says he and his father are there for similar reasons.
“I think my Dad likes to come here,” says Dakar, “because he likes to fix stuff and make things, just like I do.”
Hitchon is impressed by the quality of the equipment and tools, and the professional mentoring.
“I have owned shops all my life and this place is really well set up. I do stuff for the film industry, doing special effects and things like that. I always wanted to learn about 3-D printers. That is the next wave of evolution for most industries. You don’t have to buy parts, all you do is buy a code and download it and print it.”
Screwdrivers and 3-D printers
Brad Pommen runs the hackerspace. The night of the Star’s visit, about 20 people were there, most under 30, a few under 10. Pommen circulates, finding tools, talking tech, advising on techniques, connecting people who might be able to help each other. Complete strangers, often from different generations, spontaneously get together and talk about technical problems and solutions.
“Six years ago I started this as an all ages hackerspace, and it has grown beyond my expectations,” Pommen says. “The first couple years we had 10 to 20 people coming, and now we have 25 to 50. It is 70 per cent youth so I am tied into every school in the district. Selkirk College is a major partner, and so is the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology (KAST).”
At left: Brad Pommen helps out six-year-old Samuel Pentecost. All photos by Bill Metcalfe.
Pommen says much of the tools and equipment in the space — 3D printers, laser cutters, snap circuits, Lego Mindstorms, soldering equipment, electronic testing tools, robotic parts and circuits, and hobby tools such as hot glue guns, battery testers, pliers and screwdrivers — have been donated by Selkirk and KAST.
The Nelson Tech Club meets Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. in room 208 on Selkirk’s Tenth St. campus.
Sharing your learning
Caradoc Brennain is 15 and in Grade 9. He says he’s only missed three of the weekly hackerspace sessions in three years.
“Since I have been here I have improved my skills with tech a lot,” he says. “For example, when I first came I wanted to do some electronics projects that involved Arduino but I had no idea how to use one.”
An Arduino, according to Pommen, “is an open-source computer the size of a pack of gum. It allows you to program logic, hook up sensors, motors, and lights easily. It is designed to make electronics more accessible to youth, artists, designers, and hobbyists.”
Brennain has been working on some out-of-the box ideas.
“One goal I had in mind was musical floppy drives, just turning an old floppy drive into a musical device, and honestly I got that to work in my school just a few weeks ago and it used all the skills I learned here.”
He says he’s learned to repair his own computer and Xbox 360s.
At left: Seven-year-old Tiago Pentecost and Tobin Eberle, who had never met before this evening at the tech club.
“This is a place where you can learn, you can build, and you definitely are going to end up sharing with somebody what you are doing. It’s helpful being here: you encounter a problem and there is almost always one person in the room who can answer it.”
Asked to compare hackerspace to school, he says “This is one of my interests, so I learn quickly. The environment here, you would expect it to be distracting, but with all the people having so much knowledge, you learn a lot more than you are distracted. It is a great atmosphere. I love it here.”
Take an idea and run with it
Pommen says it’s about having control over your own ideas.
“Previously you needed an engineering degree or be trained in carpentry or machining to do any of this stuff. Once someone walks in the door they can take their idea and be running with it right away, so you can learn to 3-D print, you can learn to design what you want to do, or engineer a product, start playing with circuits.”
Jacob Timmermans and Tobin Eberle, two young men, are trying to make a tiny helicopter into an autonomous drone.
“We have an Arduino,” Eberle says, “and it will have infrared sensors that will detect where obstacles are, and avoid them. We need to order some parts online. It will take us most of the summer.”
They’re impressed with the selection of computers and tools available to them.
“We wanted a scale for really small weights.” Timmermans says. “That is a specialty item that I would not have just kicking around.”
One 12-year-old sums up the members’ enthusiasm for the club: “It is always something to look forward to. I really enjoy it here. Every time, I say, ‘Yes, tomorrow is tech club I can’t wait’ and I am counting the seconds.”