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Monday, September 23, 2013

Is Maker Faire Made for Kids?

At New York’s Maker Faire this weekend, an event that has built a following by showcasing the tinkering of homespun inventors, children were front and center at every booth, touching, playing and asking the exhibitors how their inventions work.

To some, that was a boon. To others, the child-friendly vibe made for a less-edgy event than in years past, and could risk turning the event into little more than a D.I.Y. refresh on the traditional science museum concept.

“In San Francisco, there was a lot more fire. There was a lot more Burning Man-type stuff,” said Michael Newman, an exhibitor who showed off a paper-based video game (great for kids, by the way). But this year’s New York event seemed more genteel, he said. More toddlers. Less danger.

As the event has grown, both in terms of attendance and corporate sponsorship, it has become a magnet for families looking for hands-on learning that could augment science, engineering and math education, while helping to develop the next generation of what has been called, the “maker movement,” a renaissance in building, making and fixing things yourself.

“I love that it is becoming more kid-centric,” said Stephen Gilman, who brought his son Ben, 7, to the event, and works to help create “makerspaces,” or  hands-on learning workshops, for children.

“This is where the power of the maker movement is,” he said.

Amber Garcia is only 2 1/2, but her mother, Christine Rosario, brought her and her older sister to the Learn How to Solder tent at the fair.

“If they think they can do it here,” her mother said, “they can do it in the future.”

Many of the festival’s activities, like a large-scale demonstration of Mentos candy reacting with Coke Zero, air rockets and toy guns constructed out of PVC pipe, seemed designed to pique the interests of children, and were accompanied by family-friendly kits  for everything from cardboard robots to quadcopters to soldering tools. All of them were for sale.

The grounds also featured a life-size re-creation of the board game Mouse Trap.

Children flocked to the Take It Apart booth to dismantle the kinds of technology they are usually not allowed to touch.

Miles Labat-Comess, 7, and his sister, Marion, 9, tore into several donated Canon EOS-5D Mark II cameras.

“Their grandfather would be horrified,” said their father, Noel Labat-Comess. “He’s a photographer.”

Robots, or really anything with a face, was a sure draw. Many exhibitors, from homegrown chip inventors to Microsoft, drew children in by displaying friendly-faced (or boxing-gloved) robots, which the software giant used to demonstrate its Kinect motion sensing system.

Ben Gilman tried out an electric glove at a station featuring Furry Electric Zoo kits that incorporate basic electronics into stuffed animals, felt and fabric.

Like many parents at Maker Faire, Michael Carroll, a fourth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, said he thought that hands-on learning was the future of education.

Using a homemade lie detector, the kind he has his students build in class, Mr. Carroll interrogated a middle-school student about whether or not she does her homework. She said she usually did, and passed.

Popcade is a pint-size arcade console that Joshua Axelrod, right, built to revive the experience of playing over 100 classic video games. It took him about 100 hours to build, including seven trips to Radio Shack and 11 trips to Home Depot, and attracted a long line of children wanting to play.

One booth, sponsored by a cereal maker, encouraged kids to make racecars out of fruits and vegetables, which were then put to the test on a wooden speed track.

Alijah James, 12, center, has been to Maker Faire the past two years and brought his friend Jaylen Taylor this year. Andy Gikling, an engineer from St. Paul, Minn., showed them the remote camera for his robot, which tows a cooler of “beer” (which was actually filled with wires, he said, since the organizers wouldn’t allow actual beer in his exhibit).

Robert Beatty was touring the exhibits with his daughter Camille, quizzing her on the electronics used in the projects on the display.

“Wire, a battery, capacitor, regulators, ” answered Camille, 13, examining a whirring mobile of wooden cubes. An experienced robotics maker, Camille and her sister have a permanent project on display at the New York Hall of Science, a replica of the Mars rover. Camille worked on most of the machining for the rover, while her sister, Genevieve, 11, handled the soldering.

A lot of people assume Camille wants to become an engineer someday, she said, but she is interested in lots of things. Robotics right now is just a hobby. She said the project was more important as “inspiration to other kids to be creative,” which seemed to be the primary message of Maker Faire this year.

If nothing else, the event seemed to be making more makers, getting children excited about circuit electronics or soldering, putting small assembly kits in their hands (and making a large tent of merchandise available to their parents).