Tampa Mini Maker Faire: Nirvana 4 Geeks & Nerds

Under the roof of The Concourse in Hudson, a celebration of innovation and the DIY culture is under way on a sunny Saturday in March. Mini Maker Faire exhibitors and attendees are largely indistinguishable. From the very young to the very old, participants flow through together, engaging each other and all the wonderful things their minds can conjure up. It is human creativity on full display, just waiting a chance to play.

In its second year in the Tampa Bay region, the Mini Maker Faire is still finding its footing, but the participants are passionate.

"There are a lot of amazing things going on that people don’t know about,'' says Terri Willingham, the event coordinator and president of Learning is 4 Everyone. She sees the Mini Maker Faire as a spark that will ignite the shift from being "passive consumers to active producers.''

Quoting Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and Founder of FIRST robotics K-12 program, Willingham says, "You get what you celebrate.''

Willingham's goal is to showcase talented people in the Tampa Bay region and build the Maker community here, modeled after the nationwide movement. Begun by Make magazine, the movement seeks to "celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself mindset.'' The first Makers Faire was in 2006 in the San Francisco Bay area and has since spread to dozens of cities around the world, including Tokyo and Rome. This year will see 60 community-driven Mini Maker Faires.

The Tampa Mini Maker Faire reflects the passion inherent in the movement. It can be seen in the eyes of the kids gathered around the Deconstruction Zone, where every day machines and gadgets are laid bare to be taken apart and put back together. It is in the voices of the exhibitors answering question after question about their projects. It’s in the smiles of the parents watching their children’s discovery. While the focus, then, does rest on that which is being created, the faire, more than anything, is about people.

Imagination Is The Driving Force

At the edge of The Concourse, Brennen Huller and Mark Perrett stand among piles of twisting cardboard shapes and just as many kids. It's early in the day, but this opportunity to dive in and begin is just too interesting to pass up for many of the young attendees. The shapes are varied in size and slotted to allow for connection to one another. They are relatively uniform, lending themselves to construction, but unique enough for imagination to be the driving force. That's exactly what Huller and Perrett, USF architecture students and two of the creators of the Urban Conga, have in mind.

The Urban Conga is a "collective group of creators activating urban spaces through interactive installations.'' Huller is tired of seeing $100,000 spent on art that can’t be touched. Art and architecture should be interactive, he says, and "people have become socially unavailable'' in public spaces. They want to change that and their "deconstruction'' display is a perfect example. Spread before them on the concrete and grass is the chance for people to interact and create. It is engagement writ large in cardboard. Perret, surrounded by a half dozen kids, puts it into words as he helps to guide them, "you guys were sharing ideas and came up with this great hybrid idea.''

Really, that’s the faire in a phrase -- shared ideas into hybrid creations.

Across the way is another, albeit different, example of the interactive spirit. Ellie Willingham, like all of the makers, wasn't content to just be an observer. When she was 12 years old, she saw the mounted animals in a museum and determined that she wanted to learn about the process of taxidermy. So, she began doing it, first on her own, then in an apprenticeship. Now she runs Willingham Furs and Taxidermy in Odessa, just north of Tampa. At the faire she gives a demonstration of her craft with a squirrel she trapped just days before. She skins, cleans and mounts the animal before a rapt group of onlookers. When she confesses that she has never done a demonstration like this before, the camaraderie of the maker movement is evident in the immediate and unanimous support, "You’re doing great!''

Where No One Is Watching From The Sideline

Though the creations take different forms throughout the faire, there is a heavy emphasis on robotics, as might be expected from a collective of inventors. The enthusiasm and engagement among them is palpable. From the younger Lego builders to the older FIRST Robotics League competitors, it's clear that there isn't anything else they would rather be doing and no one else with whom they would rather be doing it. It is a community first and a competition second. Regardless of level, they are all solving problems; identifying the issue, conceptualizing and designing the solution and building it to completion. When you are with them, you know you are among the innovators of tomorrow -- and today, for that matter.

Marissa Schiereck of Team Duct Tape (complete with a duct tape hat) says the interaction with the other teams is her favorite part, which is clear when she stops answering questions for a moment to help solve a problem that has come up with one of the robots. Similarly, Bennett Nichols' face lights up when he begins talking soldering guns.

These kids have no interest in sitting on the sideline. It's unclear whether they know there is one.

Bill Shaw is the adult leader of the North Tampa Robotics Club, which has entered six different automated habitats of their robotics zoo at the faire. He says his youngest participant is 5 years old, but the ages typically range from 8-12. His goal is to find engaging ways to involve math, engineering, mechanics and gear ratios while fostering team work, problem solving and critical thinking through fun, after-school activities. The kids get instant feedback about what is working and what isn't.

"There's nothing better than that when you’re learning,'' says Shaw.

The faces of his students are like those all around the concourse. They are bright and happy and excited. When they aren't displaying their own work or tinkering with a last-minute adjustment, they are bounding to the work of the other kids and interacting with another display. They are learning by doing and creating the foundation for the innovation of tomorrow.

It's impossible to leave the Mini Maker Faire uninspired. Ultimately, that's the whole idea.

Mitchell Brown is a freelance writer who lives with his wife and two daughters in Clearwater. He is passionate about living a healthy, happy life which is one of the reasons he loves the community in which he lives. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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