The Future of the World in a Hot Air Balloon: Young Makers at Maker Faire Bay Area 2016

As I made my way through this year’s labyrinthine Maker Faire Bay Area, I wasn’t prepared for what would end up catching and keeping my attention. The size, complexity, and novelty of the literal thousands of inventions were certainly impressive, if not inspiring, but they quickly receded into the background against the energy and animation of the youth in attendance. Throughout the entire weekend, an increasing number of kids (of all ages) not only roamed the fairgrounds in elemental awe at what they saw, but themselves filled others with inspiration through their own exhilarating creations.

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This year, Maker Ed’s Young Makers program hosted a dazzling array of youth-chosen and youth-driven inventions from the Bay Area and beyond, all located in the northeast corner of Sequoia Hall. Between Friday and Sunday, 212 kids (spanning ages 5 to 18) exhibited some 66 projects with the support of almost 70 adult mentors and attracted the curiosity of other like-minded youth and adults. Even an R2D2 robot roving nearby couldn’t resist the magnetism of the youth’s enthusiasm.

Photo May 22The projects on display comprised the entire spectrum of technologies from the analogue to the digital. Youth from the Richmond District YMCA STEM program (San Francisco, CA) built elaborate, fun, and engaging games of all sorts using nothing other than cardboard and a hot glue gun. The minimalism of material didn’t stop players from coming back for more, and the enticing, cardboard-wrought rewards for points and wins didn’t turn them away either. At the same time, two teenage students from Davidson Middle School (San Rafael, CA) invited passers-by to play their wooden harp, whose strings were made out of rays of light instead of nylon and, when interrupted, produced a lovely synaesthetic soundscape.

Other projects were similarly interactive and stayed with the kids well after their trip to Sequoia Hall. On the other side of the fairgrounds, you could easily spot children coddling stuffed animals they themselves had fashioned and sewn with the aid of another young maker a few hours prior. Visitors could also test drive YWCA Silicon Valley TechGYRLS’ “wearable homeless shelters,” whole habits designed to meet all basic needs from warmth and comfort to food and storage.

Some young makers debuted brand new inventions while others iterated and improved upon earlier versions of the same project. One young girl’s creation, which used Arduino nano-sensors to register moisture levels in a plant’s surroundings, represented a provocative prototype and gestured toward infinite applications. An entire group from the informal makers club Met Makers (Sacramento, CA) exhibited for a second year in a row, showing off projects of increased and evolved sophistication. One Met Maker refashioned a tissue-paper hot air balloon, which he had designed in his chemistry class, to greater scale using heat resistant tarp.

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Perhaps more impressive than the projects themselves was the sincerity and purposiveness with which the young makers spoke about their creations. An 8th grade girl from Fremont, CA, who designed and built a dazzling light-up umbrella, convincingly detailed the various uses to which her invention could be put. The umbrella could light up the ground underneath your feet on a particularly dark and stormy day and it could benefit the senior citizen who often walked alone or at dusk. In each instance, she had deliberated a purpose and a context to her project beyond mere functionalism and aesthetics.

By talking to young makers in Sequoia Hall, you could catch a glimpse of the future, of better worlds dreamed up with alarming ingenuity by those who would inhabit them. It is this power of possibility, embodied in every child who roamed the San Mateo Event Center, that I took away from Maker Faire Bay Area 2016.

Continued thanks to Oracle and Cognizant for their support of the Young Makers program!

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