Where innovation and creativity bloom
Rather than rooting for their favorite BattleBots on TV or online after school, a group of pre-teens is designing, building and battling their own combat robots. Their class that encourages creativity through tinkering and critical thinking is one of several at Bolts & Bytes Maker Academy that opened last spring in Jacksonville Beach.
Boys and girls ages nine to sixteen may register for after-school classes and summer camps that also include spy lab, electronics exploration, 3D printing, jewelry making, drone pilot race school, re:use maker lab and build-your-own skateboard. Daytime classes to accommodate homeschoolers also are offered. By popular demand, adult classes are coming.
Founder and President Reed Beaubouef describes his makerspace as a combination woodshop, art studio and technology lab where students do everything from cutting and drilling boards to designing and printing three-dimensional objects – thus the name Bolts and Bytes.
“Coming here is his favorite thing to do each week,” says Julie Beatty while picking up her eleven-year-old son Donavon from a robotics class. “Reed is amazing. He lets them do everything themselves. It’s totally hands on and there are always new classes.” Donavon has also taken drone racing and 3D printing classes and attended a summer camp where students constructed an escape room. Her son’s experiences are well worth the drive from their home near Nocatee, she says.
Beaubouef believes it’s important for young people to have access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) activities. His academy’s enrichment programs follow the STEAM model, which includes an A for art. “Students who have access to STEAM activities tend to approach the world in a different way. They want to figure out how things work,” he says.
A proponent of what could be called “accidental learning,” Beaubouef says students come up with their projects and follow loose frameworks to see them through, usually making multiple mistakes along the way. “At the end, the kids have ‘accidentally’ learned a lot,” he says.
One start-to-finish project involves making silk screens. “We have kids on jigsaws and sanders and pneumatic nail guns learning how to make frames and stretch their own screens and everything they need to know to turn their artwork into a silk screen,” explains Beaubouef.
The most popular classes have been 3D printing and drones, with combat robots gaining fast.
While 3D printing can be quite technical, Beaubouef is more interested in having students be creative than knowing how to read the code that runs the machines. They have created vehicles and figures from cartoons and video games. Some have added LED lights to Halloween pumpkins and ghosts, and one girl designed the inside of a human cell for a school science project.
In the drone pilot class, students learn the basics of aeronautics as they fly tiny quad copter drones through the makerspace. “And they wreck them,” says Beaubouef. “So we teach them how to fix frames and swap out propellers and resolder motors.” In spy lab, they make invisible inks, padlocks and lock boxes that don’t use keys. In re:use, they turn objects that are often thrown away into something useful, such as adding easily accessible electronic components to an Altoids tin to make a portable phone charger.
“We try to keep the materials as simple and as easy to obtain as possible, so we use a ton of cardboard. We do prototypes in cardboard before we go into something built of wood or metal,” he says. “Kids can grab parts at a dollar store to make electronic components. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun and creative.”
It’s all about critical thinking. “We don’t use kits. We don’t use any kind of step-by-step process where everyone is going to walk out with the exact same thing,” Beaubouef says. “Kids figure out what they are going to make and how to do it.”