By Tom Dixon, Senior Communications Specialist

March 6, 2017

Powell Makerspace matches inventors with tech tools

The old home economics cottage across from Powell Middle School still includes a commercial kitchen and industrial sewing machines, but the crafts of the past now share space with robots, lasers and 3D printers.

Visitors are greeted by the humming and whirring of 3D printers, which emanate the faint smell of heated plastic as they spit out thin strands of filament.

Across the room drifts the soft buzz of golf ball-sized robot cars. Red and blue bulbs flash inside their clear plastic domes as they drive paths drawn in black Sharpie, reversing course or speeding up based on directions provided by colored strips of paper.

Some days feature the clatter of sewing machines or the scratch of a laser zipping back and forth across a sheet of plywood. Sometimes the smell of delicious food and desserts waft from the kitchen.

Crafts created by artists, inventors, tinkerers and experimenters adorn the walls, perch precariously on counters and hang from the ceiling. Totes full of fabric sit on shelves next to boxes of circuit boards or scraps of wood.

This is Powell Makerspace, cofounded by Judith LaPlante and her husband. They and many sponsors created the space. The Makerspace’s 50-plus members, who pay a nominal monthly fee, have breathed life into the place.

A makerspace provides members shared resources like 3D scanners and printers, woodworking tools, laser engravers and other tools that might be too expensive for the average person to buy. Here, people can learn the basics of design, engineering, electronics and manufacturing – all necessary skills in today’s economy. Growing a skilled workforce is essential to the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, which strives to help make technology the state’s fourth largest industry.

In 2016, there were nearly 500 makerspaces, sometimes called hackerspaces, in the United States. A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 worldwide.

The Powell Makerspace caters to everyone from the farmer who needs to fix a broken part on his tractor to the middle schooler who wants to build her first robot.

“This is the 21st century community center,” said Judith LaPlante, a former software developer for Microsoft and president of Makerspace.

The LaPlante family moved from the Seattle area to Powell a decade ago. People move to Wyoming for different reasons, but the LaPlantes might be the first to move here because a software program, designed by Judith, recommended it.

They sought a town of fewer than 15,000 people far from any metropolitan areas. Their new home needed to have top-tier K-12 schools and a local post-secondary educational institution. After these and other variables were plugged into LaPlantes’ program, the software offered about a dozen communities that met the family’s criteria.

From there, the LaPlantes subscribed to some of the local papers to get a feel for the communities. Soon after, the family made a trip to Powell. The visit sealed the deal.

When they arrived, LaPlante said she and her husband didn’t know how much to feed a cow, or how long it took for one to birth a calf. They learned ranching from scratch, soaking up all the knowledge they could from their neighbors. More recently, both Rick and Judith leaned on their backgrounds teaching at Microsoft University and at the high school level as science teachers at Powell High School.

She helped found the school’s robotics club, which has since sent two teams to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championships in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Coming from a city where people are so reliant on others to fix something, or to have every store in the world available and open 24 hours a day, to a small town where stores are closed on Sundays and business owners go home for dinner, you learn people in Wyoming are good at solving their own problems,” LaPlante said. “They are very resourceful, they don’t complain, they just make it work. They are constantly inventing things. There are tons of ideas and resourcefulness coming out of these communities, and I don’ think that’s being recognized.”

Makerspace members also thrive on a learn-by-doing ethic that encourages sharing information and ideas between people.

Powell Makerspace is the LaPlantes’ attempt to recognize those talents and provide the tools for people to make the things they need and, maybe, turn those skills into businesses. Organizations like Makerspace are critical in creating a successful entrepreneurial environment.

Wyoming ranked third nationally in startups in 2016. More than 73 out of every 1,000 firms was a startup employing at least one person besides the owner, according to the Kauffman Index. Those small businesses are the fuel for Wyoming’s economic engine – nearly 80 percent of the state’s 34,000 businesses employ fewer than 10 people.

The LaPlantes matched a $50,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant to purchase equipment like computer numerical control machines and computer-aided drawing software for Powell Makerspace.

Local officials know a resource like Makerspace, though nearly nonexistent in rural regions, is essential to developing entrepreneurs and small businesses.

“Those of us in Wyoming, where we are far from a four-year university, this is a way for us to have access to technology and education on how to use it,” said Christine Bekes, executive director of Powell Economic Partnership. “This is exactly what we need. We can’t just drive to Laramie or Billings every weekend, and this equipment is expensive to own personally. So if you don’t have access to the technology, the education and the mentorship, it makes it that much more difficult to make your dream a reality.”

The Makerspace is a great learning tool for local students, which is why the support of Powell organizations offering member scholarships is so valuable. Wyoming’s education system will play a vital role in one of the Business Council’s goals of making the state a Mountain West technology hub. The Park County School District No. 1’s commitment to a similar vision is evident. It helps provide youth entrepreneurship and a curriculum steeped in science, technology, engineering and math by offering the facility to Makerspace at an affordable rate.

“The energy these kids bring – I mean, I’m good with technology, but they are definitely schooling me,” Bekes said. “This is their outlet to explore technology at their pace and according to their interest. This is exactly what small towns like Powell need, and it complements the college learning available at Northwest College.”

Rhett Pimentel, a junior at Powell High School, is one of those energetic kids. He spends much of his time after school at the Makerspace, designing and building parts for the robotics club’s robot. The club recently won the state competition and is headed to Tacoma, Washington, for a regional contest.

He loves being able to learn by doing, not just by reading a book.

Resources like Makerspace will also prepare students for a technology-focused workplace when they graduate.

“I mean, we have access to a CNC machine. I could maybe imagine seeing one, but not that someone would let me learn how to use it and build things with it,” Pimentel said. “The cool thing, though, is the variety of different people that use the space. It’s not just for people nerdy about technology.”

Take, for example, Rhett’s mother. She had never heard of a lot of the equipment available in the Makerspace, but now she is learning how to play with things like the laser cutter to create designs for coffee cups and other arts and crafts projects.

Powell Makerspace just celebrated its first anniversary, so it’s still picking up steam. Nonetheless, there are already nearly daily activities for families, children, teenagers and adults. Aspiring chefs, artists, craftsmen and tech geeks can all find something to do at the facility, and LaPlante hopes to see more members joining all the time.

Powell Economic Partnership, the local economic development organization, recently partnered with Powell Makerspace to start Innovention, a nine-month curriculum designed to teach inventors how to start a business. The 25 students taking part receive personal mentorship and learn everything from marketing and financing to patenting and prototyping. The inaugural course started in September and ends in May.

“That atmosphere of being around other entrepreneurs who think a little differently is invaluable,” Bekes said.

It’s a similar idea to the assistance entrepreneurs receive through the Jackson nonprofit Silicon Couloir, or during entrepreneurship competitions held by the Wyoming Technology Business Center, a partner organization of the Business Council.

To those still intimidated by the thought of learning how to use some of the high-tech equipment, LaPlante has simple advice.

“Come in and just get started, just get your feet wet,” LaPlante said. “We have technology at a variety of levels, so we can find something approachable and make it fun. Once you learn those skills, we can translate that into another activity and soon you’ll find yourself up to your knees.”

At Powell Makerspace, wading into the waters of technology has never been easier.

Community , Education

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