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Get your geek on

Posted: September 23, 2012 - 12:01am
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STEM Education Specialist Bob Vieth demonstrates a wave form generator he built with a volunteer at the workshop.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
STEM Education Specialist Bob Vieth demonstrates a wave form generator he built with a volunteer at the workshop.

Technically, it’s an office, but the STEM satellite space of the Juneau Economic Development Council is not your average office. It is a workshop. It’s a wonderland for the curious. It is where Bob Vieth, STEM Education Specialist for JEDC spends way more than 40 hours a week. There are some floor-to-ceiling shelves with bins and boxes of parts and supplies, tools and things. There are tables covered in devices and gadgets and more tools. Under the table there are appliances, machines and computers, in disrepair, but waiting for some curiosity-driven fingers to disassemble and reassemble and re-imagine. And Bob is there to help anyone with the imagination and motivation. Meet The Saturday Thing.

“It’s to teach the lost art of tinkering. When I was a kid, I tinkered. My father tinkered. My father was not an educated man, he was a farmer from Missouri” Bob said, pronouncing it like a true Missouran would, “But I remember when I was a kid, my dad’s hobby was to collect old TV sets that people would throw in the garbage, and taking these TV sets and building new ones that worked. He had no education, he just learned how to do it. By reading, seeing how things worked.”

The Saturday Thing allows kids to tinker with the help and supervision of Bob and other volunteers on Saturday mornings through whenever, Bob said. It starts at 9:30 and parents should pre-register their kids. Now, adults can get in on the fun too. Bob is starting a Saturday Thing (after dark) every third Thursday, starting this week. Yep, that’s The Saturday Thing (after dark) on Thursdays.

“(The Saturday Thing for kids) has been going on here in Juneau for a bit more than a year. But it didn’t originate here in Juneau. It started actually about 15 years ago by a good friend of mine at MIT in Cambridge, who runs a laboratory at the Edgerton Center, and he started opening up his door on Saturday mornings to whoever wanted to come in and tinker. It became very popular.” Bob said. “As it turns out, his college roommate when he went to MIT is a professor up at UAF in Fairbanks, who just retired actually a week ago, he started a Thing in Fairbanks about two years ago. I heard about it… and we had some extra space here in the office, so I figured ‘why not do it here?’”

Bob volunteers his Saturdays doing The Saturday Thing, his Sundays opening up the STEM workshop to Bigs and Littles through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and now some Thursday evenings to extend the opportunity to adults. And he volunteers more than that, but let’s focus on The Saturday Thing events.

“There are a lot of people in town, adults, who are — I hesitate to use the term – Nerdy. But they are. I am a nerd, I fully admit it. But they either don’t have the time or don’t have the resources or don’t have the space, or they never learned how to do the stuff when they were younger and figure it’s too hard to do now — so I figured, you know, let’s give it a try and see how popular it is.” Bob said, explaining the reason for the new third-Thursday event for adults.

He knew there was an interest in an adult-oriented event because parents of kids who participate in The Saturday Thing were angling to stick around the STEM workshop themselves.

“I had one young lady who brought her kid in, and she was one of those parents who said, “This looks so good, can I stay?” and she did.” Bob said. “She saw a toaster underneath the table and she didn’t know how a toaster worked, so I said “Take it apart. See how it works.” She did and she loved it. “I didn’t know this is how a toaster works!””

Bob is easy to talk to. Though one might think his education and background would make him intimidating in a conversation, one would be surprised to find his demeanor friendly and welcoming. You know Bob loves what he’s doing and that he wants nothing more than to share it.

“We (at JEDC) do STEM outreach and clearly I love it. But it’s also my passion — you know, my hobby is building rockets when I go home at night, or doing electronics projects — but I’m actually a biochemist by training. I worked at the University of Connecticut for almost 20 years doing research biochemistry. Then I got into engineering through biochemical engineering and did that until I was about 45-, 46-years-old.” Bob said. “And I was good friends with the dean of education, he and I used to play racquet ball together, and he knew about all I’d been doing — I’d been doing outreach for years — and he knew about my activities and so forth. (He asked) “Why don’t you go to school and get your graduate degree in education?” and I said, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” But he finally convinced me, so one day I just quit my job and entered graduate school. I got most of my way through a PhD but didn’t finish it because of economic reasons unfortunately, but then after that I went to work for a small non-profit in Connecticut doing essentially the same thing I do here, which was also Department of Defense funded, as we used to be, but they lost funding so I got laid off.”

After eight months of “not even a nibble” Bob had three interviews lined up within a couple weeks’ time, all for positions to do exactly what he had been doing with STEM outreach. For various reasons — he cited the job itself, the people he works with and, of course, Juneau itself — Bob chose to relocate to Alaska a few years ago.

“I work for JEDC, we have a STEM education division and do STEM programming. STEM, by the way, is Science Technology Engineering and Math. JEDC does STEM programming not only in Juneau, but across the state. My colleague Becca (Parks) runs the First Lego Robotics Program statewide, which is huge, she had over 250 teams last year which, by the way, is the largest number of teams per capita in any state in the country. The largest number of kids involved per capita. (There are kids from) Bethel, Kotzebue, a lot of the bush communities are involved, it’s not only the big populations centers.” Bob said.

The Saturday Thing and The Saturday Thing (after dark) (on Thursdays) are sort of separate from his job. JEDC provides the space and some support, but they are run by Bob with some help from other volunteers and some additional community support.

“It’s entirely a volunteer thing, staffed with volunteers, including myself. The Juneau Economic Development Council provides the space and some support, but the rest of it has been donations from the community. I did start it off with a small grant from NASA. The Home Depot has been very generous and gave us quite a bit of equipment to start us off. The Juneau Community Foundation has given us some money. Private (individuals) have given us some money. And you see all the stuff under the tables, all of that is junk that people said, “I don’t want to send it to the dump, do you want it?” So I hoard. And it’s great, because kids will come in and some kids will take apart a computer because they’ve never seen the inside of a computer before.”

The tools and materials and junk are all there for people to use. So far, the Saturday Thing is free and the Saturday Thing (after dark) will be free, though donations will gladly be accepted).

My curiosity has been piqued every time I’ve entered the STEM workshop. There is a wave form generator on one table these days. And there are almost always LED lights flashing, whirligigs and robotics projects, partially assembled rockets and other curiosities on display. It wasn’t until learning about the Saturday Thing (after dark) that I realized I, as definitely not a child, could come play with this stuff.

In the interest of better reporting on The Saturday Thing (after dark), I asked Bob if we could do a little project. Clearly, I would want to be fully confident in saying, “Definitely do this, you guys!” — so I had to try it myself.

I am the kind of person who is quite shy about doing things if I don’t think I’ll be good at them. It’s something I don’t suffer through alone, according to Bob.

“You have to take small steps at the start, before you can build something elaborate.” Bob said, “I see this all the time with kids, the kids will come in and they’ll say, “I want to build a robot!” and I’ll say, “OK, what kind of robot?” and they go, “I dunno, just something that moves.” And I’ll ask “How big do you want it to be?” and they quickly realize that building a robot is a huge project, and they don’t have the skills, and they’re not going to get the skills in a single Saturday morning session. Some kids get frustrated and don’t come back. That happens. But some kids realize “I’ve got to start at the beginning and I have to learn, build as I go.” And most adults will do that too.”

And those little victories are really worth it. Bob told me another story about an adult who came to a Saturday Thing (after dark) event, a trial run introduced without much fanfare about a year ago.

“There were only two people who showed. One fellow looked around for a while and said, “You know, I’d like to do something with electronics.” He had never built a circuit before, so I sat down with him — he knew nothing about electronics — and I explained what an alternating current is, what a direct current is, what a battery is and how it works — and he built a little circuit that had a little light on it, that you push a button and the light lit up, and he was so happy when he finished that he had actually built something that he took it home, he said, “I’m going to show it to my son, he’ll be so excited,” he had a little 3-year-old son, and he was just beside himself, “I actually did something and it works.””

I turned down the offer to fuse glass to make beads, despite it sounding really cool. Bob said the younger male students really enjoy it because, you know, you’re melting glass at extreme temperatures. I do artistic stuff pretty regularly and wanted to see how it would be to go outside my comfort level. I could better judge Bob’s skills at teaching and encouraging if I were doing something with electronics.

I told Bob I wanted to wire something. Like that guy did.

Since we were a little limited on time, Bob introduced me to a little wiring project designed by the Fairbanks professor who brought The Saturday Thing to Alaska initially. It is wiring LED lights to a battery and a switch and assembling a little polar bear night light. It is relatively simple and can be completed in roughly an hour or less. And it is the perfect project to learn about LED lights, wiring, how to identify positive and negative on the light and the wires, how to solder, etc.

Bob walked be through all the steps and explained what I was doing and why. He answered my questions and provided the right amount of support and independence in completing the little project.

Though I had been nervous I might mess up or ask a stupid question, I felt at ease and really enjoyed doing the wiring. Every correct move was a little victory and now I have a neat little polar bear light sitting at my desk at work.

This project isn’t what one should expect from The Saturday Thing, either for kids or adults — Bob really wants to encourage people to explore and imagine and come up with their own projects.

“It’s totally driven by the participants’ imagination, and desire and motivation.” Bob said. “It’s not like going to a classroom, ‘And today we’re going to cover this, this and this.’ — I try not to provide ideas and projects for people to do. I tell people when they come in to just look around, go through the boxes and drawers and ask questions, find something that you look at and you say, “Well, that’s interesting. Why does it do that, or can I do something different?” And then we’ll build a project around that together, but it’s got to be self-motivated and driven by imagination.”

So, if you are a self-proclaimed geek or nerd, if you one of the elusive tinkerers of the world, or if you are just curious about how things work — The Saturday Thing (after dark) is for you. And The Saturday Thing is for your kids.

The Saturday Thing for kids is on Saturdays, starting at 9:30 a.m. and parents should register their kids in advance. Start here: http://stemak.org/node/24

The Saturday Thing (after dark) for adults will be every third Thursday, starting this week, and pre-registration is not required.

If you are particularly savvy with engineering or electrical wiring, metal working, etc., consider volunteering your time to help with The Saturday Thing. Contact Bob at rvieth@jedc.org.

Go on, get your geek on.

• Contact Neighbors editor and nerd Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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