By Steve Zalusky
The Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library is named after NASA astronaut Theodore Cordy “Ted” Freeman, who died after his T-38 jet crashed in 1964. The name reflects Clear Lake City’s status as home to the NASA Johnson Space Center.
But the library, which belongs to the Harris County Public Library system in the Houston area, shows that NASA doesn’t corner the market on innovation. That innovative spirit is palpable at the library’s Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab, where the library connects in meaningful ways with the community it serves.
Nowhere was this more graphically illustrated in the case of 5-year-old Katelyn Vincik. Her family worked with the lab’s staff and volunteers to build the girl a 3D-printed prosthetic hand.
Vincik, a girl from Victoria, Texas, with a joyful personality and an infectious smile, was born without a fully-formed left hand. She was placed on a waiting list for a professional prosthetic. Meanwhile, her parents knew that 3D-printed prosthetic designs were available through the e-NABLE community.
Moreover, they had learned about the 3D printers at the Innovation Lab and contacted the library to investigate the possibility for using them to print a hand for Katelyn.
At the library, family, staff and volunteers discussed options and took measurements, much as one might do at a local shoe store. The team decided that an “Unlimbited Arm” design might work best for her needs. The mechanism forces the fingers of the printed hand to close when the elbow is bent, allowing the user to grab, hold and manipulate objects, according to a video about the process posted by the library.
The result was a pink-and-purple arm that she received at the end of July 2016 in time for the upcoming school year. The word of this success spread throughout a variety of media, resulting in an inquiry from the Victoria Public Library and a follow-up visit to the lab to learn how Victoria could start offering 3D-printing to its community.
It also drew attention from staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Little Devices Lab, as well as UTMB Galveston, which is contemplating a future partnership with its makerspace.
In addition, the lab offered technical advice and services to the University of Houston e-NABLE Chapter as it was learning the technology to begin printing its own prosthetics projects.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The lab, which opened in February, 2015, was the first dedicated public library makerspace in southeast Texas. According to an article in Connection, patron Jocelyn H. “Josh” Lee left $134,000 to the library in his will.
Branch Manager Jim Johnson said the library converted a quiet room on the second floor into lab space. At the helm of the lab is its director, Patrick Ferrell, who holds a degree in engineering and physics.
Ferrell, according to an article on the site of re:3D®, a Houston-based company that produces the large-format Gigabot® printer used in the lab, Ferrell offers classes on basic circuits and programming and robotics, as well as such out-of-the-box subjects as structure-building with marshmallows and spaghetti.
The lab’s users range from homeschoolers to hobbyists to entrepreneurs to small businesses. “It’s a mix of folks,” Johnson said. “Patrick likes to say some of his classes you may have a 7-year-old next to a 70 year old.”
According to the article in Connection, its patrons include a farmer who drives an hour from his farm to work on turning a tractor into a self-driving tractor, something that would cost him $15,000 to buy from an outside source, but would only cost him $1,000 to make one himself. Another user, an amateur paleontologist, visits the lab to obtain 3D prints of dinosaur bones.
An article in Make Magazine featured a young man named Nicholas who made a full-size Freddy FazBear Halloween costume in the lab.
Ferrell said in the re:3D® article that the head of the costume alone took 44 hours to print, but in the end was worth it, because in the end, the boy’s parents were excited that Nicholas was able to find a creative outlet.
Classes offer patrons of all ages the opportunity to learn coding and work with circuits and microcontrollers. The “Hack Session” classes offer users the opportunity to take things apart and see how they work. “Squishy circuits” builds circuits with play dough.
“Minecraft Pi” takes the popular Minecraft game and modifies it on a Raspberry Pi platform. Equipment at the lab includes a Nomad 883, a mill that carves items from wood, plastics and some metals, courtesy of the Friends of Freeman Library.
Its success is reflected in the numbers. During 2016, nearly 900 appointments were made to use the lab’s laser cutter, Makerbot 3D printers, its Gigabot 3D printer and its Nomad desktop mill.
Budding scientists have found the makerspace especially useful. Lab resources were used in projects at a local school district science fair, including a project by Syamantak Payra, whose efforts earned him a $50,000 scholarship.
High school senior Karan Jerath’s work in the lab was featured in an article in the Texas Library Journal written by Ferrell. Working on a system to mitigate subsea oil well failures such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Jerath, with the assistance of a mentor from the industry, spent more than 800 hours designing a simulated device that would sit on top of a broken wellhead and separate the oil and gas from ocean water. Not only would it make cleanup easier, but it would also reduce the harm to the environment.
Looking for a way to demonstrate his work to science fair judges, he used the library’s 3D printers to create a mechanical model. The result was so successful that he earned top honors at local and regional science fairs and was invited to the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where he won a $50,000 prize as part of the Young Scientist Award. In addition, he was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30.
In the article, Jerath was quote saying, “The makerspace was my primary reason for coming to the library. There are so many different tools and software available that a school may not have access to. You also have the assistance of dedicated and talented people who are there to help you through the process.”
Local robotics teams underwent training at the lab, including one team of homeschoolers, “Error 404,” is working on the use of 3D-printed robotic chassis using the lab’s Gigabot, as well as the laser cutter to fashion prototype support pieces.
In addition, local entrepreneurs, inventors, small businesses and enthusiasts have used the tools available in the lab to fabricate proof-of-concept, prototype and demonstration parts, including an underwater breathing system, a skin-biopsy machine, low-cost handles for disposable coffee cups, air cooling intakes for a LeMons race car and mock-up parts for a newly-patented space propulsion system.
The lab has also forged important partnerships, collaborating with the Texas Library Association on a series of promotional videos, and hosted such events as a “Rube Goldberg” build as part of the statewide “Power Up at Your Library Day” celebration.
The lab has held camps for tweens and teens during holiday breaks. Children have attended camps teaching them the computer programming language Scratch, stop-motion animation and digital fabrication.
In his article, Ferrell summed up the value of the lab, writing, “(T)he real success of the Innovation Lab is grounded in helping patrons recognize their own talent and assisting them to apply maker technologies in unique and creative ways. From patrons who simply want to repair a broken device to experienced engineers who are working on prototyping a new invention, the makerspace draws people to the library looking for resources they can't easily find elsewhere.”