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Among the makers

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The Observer has printed a document or two in our days as a wordsmith, and our finest creations lie flat, cast in ink. Until last week, we'd never had the privilege to witness the "printing," so they call it, of three-dimensional sculptures, let alone those digitally crafted with some of the most powerful processors in the world — the minds of 10-year-olds.

These kids were making three-wheeled cardboard boxcar robots at Young Makers Camp, hosted by Joel Gordon, who opened the camp as something of a springboard for the Launch Pad, an initiative within North Little Rock's Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub that he runs. And as we learned at our day at camp, you need more than 3D printing skills to build a robot. You also need laser cutting, computer programming, additive and subtractive manufacturing and a host of other two-word phrases referring to skills Yours Truly has never taken the time nor the capital to teach himself. Surrounded by lights, lasers and robots, we felt acutely the bare nature of our own craft, which demands we spend day after day fighting to put nothing more than mere words in sensible, original sequence. Rewarding, no doubt, but robots? Certainly not.

Soon after we arrived, we stepped up alongside Jackson Engstrom, 13, who was browsing a website called Thingiverse, a library of open-source 3D design files. Before we could ask him a question, he solicited our favorite cartoon character. Our answer, CatDog, inspired a furrowed brow on Jackson's forehead, and the conjoined pair of pets wasn't even available on Thingiverse. Jackson decided to print out an intricate bracelet instead. He and his brother Mason, 10, got a 3D printer for Christmas a couple of years ago, and just as they pride themselves on knowing the ropes of digital sculpting, Gordon's happy to cultivate that skillset.

"I argue with people a lot," Gordon said. "I get this a lot — people say kids are lazy. 'Eh, all they wanna do is sit down on the computer.' They're not lazy. They're craving this stuff. ... Kids walk in the door and say 'I wanna do this!' "

Mason and fellow maker Tristan Taylor, who call themselves The Killer Cookies, built one of the several bots that were lying on the craft tables amid tape rolls and scissors. Rubber bands functioned as tire treads. Black cardboard cuboids contained breadboards and circuits and wiring, which the kids had programmed to make the cars roll. As Mason watched another team's car turn and smack into a table leg, he informed me, "We programmed ours to go straight."

Mason, Jackson and Tristan represent three of the young minds Gordon hopes to attract to The Launch Pad, which will open in the fall after the completion of the Argenta Innovation Center's renovation at the corner of Poplar and Broadway in North Little Rock. The Pad will offer open hours during the day and evening to its members, who will have access to a tech shop, outfitted with laser cutters, 3D printers and sewing machines, as well as shops for carpentry and metalwork. Gordon hopes to expand on it by opening a weekly Makers Club in the coming months. The club will be open to engineers of all ages, and he hopes to teach students the same skills he's teaching at Makers Camp, plus some.

"I've got an air-powered rocket launcher that I built out of PVC pipe, and every single one of [the kids] said, 'I wanna do that,' " Gordon said.

As The Observer marveled at the vision of these brilliant children quietly surpassing our own creative capacities, one little engineer, Austin Carpenter, asked us how we felt about our own job. Before we could provide any superficially optimistic affirmative, Austin himself offered a bright, beautiful truth in our stead: "You get paid to explore Arkansas!"

That's better than we could say it, come to think of it. Straight out of the minds and mouths of babes.

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