Creativity lessons at Warren

VINCENT – Warren High School sophomore Braydon Johnson has a simple rationale for staying after school every Wednesday.

“I’m not allowed to take stuff apart at home and build things up from that,” he said. “My mom doesn’t like that.”

But that sort of activity is encouraged in the Science Builders Group.

“We’re basically a creativity lab. We teach the kids electronics … and anything they want to learn,” said Warren physics and science teacher Larry King, who has had a similar group under different names for about a decade. “A lot of it’s playing together and playing with science in order to learn it.”

About 10 students regularly participate in the group, which meets on Wednesday afternoons. They don’t have to be in one of King’s classes or meet any other requirements to join.

Sophomore Lilly Wintrow found an intersection of her interests in science and art when she joined last year.

“School is so repetitive to me. I don’t like the monotony of everything,” she said. “So coming here every Wednesday evening and utilizing what you learn in school is a good idea to me.

“It’s not just a waste-your-time thing,” Wintrow said.

The group meets in a room dubbed the “Makerspace” off a computer lab at the school. In addition to machines salvaged from the school’s defunct industrial arts program, there are drawers and containers filled with small motors, telephone cable, switches, pieces of plastic and stainless steel; advanced Lego sets; and even a 1960s-era dental drill and light stand that King and the students hope to turn into a roving robot named Orin, after the dentist from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

One of the newest and most cutting-edge additions to the club – and the school’s – repertoire is a 3D printer, a device that can craft plastic items based on students’ designs input into a computer.

The device, a MakerBot Replicator, was purchased last fall with funds from an AT&T STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grant. Students in King’s physics class have used it to make name tags, and a couple others even designed and fabricated Christmas presents with it. King and his students have also made whistles, frog and squirrel figurines and miniature versions of Dr. Who’s Tardis as they explore the device’s capabilities.

“Right now we’re just making (items from) other people’s plans and learning how to make our own,” King said.

Previously used by hobbyists or heavy industry that could afford larger, more expensive models, 3D printers are becoming more commonplace, King said. They could easily be something students use in future careers. In fact, he said officials from Micro Machine Works told him they usually have to train employees on such devices after they hire them.

King doesn’t think 3D printing will completely overtake traditional manufacturing, but he has no difficulty envisioning a future where instead of buying an item at a store, a person downloads a design and “prints” it or has it printed somewhere.

The Replicator was bought for $2,000, and a newer model has since come out that can cost between $2,100 and $3,000. King said he’d like to add more devices, but is looking at a less expensive approach – building their own.

“That’s kind of what we do,” he said. “We make things.”

The room’s name, Makerspace, comes from an initiative of Make magazine and the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to establish makerspaces in 1,000 high schools. King said he liked the concept but didn’t wait for a grant award to get the ball rolling.

A lot of the items in the school’s makerspace are brought in by King himself, who volunteers at secondhand shops in Athens County. He’s also considering selling some of the items made by the 3D printer, like skull-shaped piggy banks, to raise money for more plastic, which costs about $30 a spool.

In addition to King, students in the group are guided in their endeavors by Warren Township resident Mitch Maifield, 38, an electrical engineer. Maifield was recruited by a co-worker of his wife’s at DuPont to help out in the local schools and soon found he and King could work well together.

Maifield said he wants to help create an experience for today’s students that he would have appreciated as a youth.

“I wish I had had exposure to engineers when I was in high school,” he said.

King wants to see the group’s membership and activities grow. Toward that end, he’s starting a new initiative called SCAM Lab, which stands for Science, Contraption and Amazing Machine Laboratory.

“SCAM Lab is eventually going to become an idea incubator,” he said.

The concepts could be turned into actual products, with the 3D printer providing an opportunity to make prototypes. But “the designs are going to remain the kids’ intellectual property,” King said.

He considers the Science Building Group only an affiliate of SCAM Lab, which he would like to see expand to other schools.