Parked out front of Living Savior Lutheran Church in Tualatin, where the city's mayor gave his annual State of the City speech, was a modestly sized trailer with lights shining from inside Tuesday evening.
"So it's much more than a trailer," said John Bartholomew, a leader of the Tualatin ABC team and the man behind the idea of a Makerspace as the answer to a community problem in Tualatin. "There's a whole lot of activities going on, a lot of plans to connect education, business."
A leaky pipeline and a plan to patch it
The premise of the America's Best Communities contest, which is organized by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel, is that judges are looking for small or rural communities that have identified a local impediment to economic development — and come up with a humdinger of a plan to address it.
"We are searching for individuals and organizations that are working together to make their hometowns better for everyone," its website states.
Bartholomew said he came up with the idea of a Mobile Makerspace after attending a talk at Portland Community College about the "leaky STEAM pipeline" — referring to the acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Tualatin, like other communities in Washington County, is home to a large and growing high-tech and manufacturing sector. Businesses are looking to fill jobs as they move into the area and expand, and local schools can't meet the demand.
"Kids often self-select out early in that pipeline," Bartholomew said. "They decide they're not interested in science, or engineering, or hands-on stuff. So we want to bring this program into the elementary schools to keep that interest alive … so that as they head into middle school and high school, we'll work with the school district to provide the next level up of interesting activities and projects here and then eventually tie them into the business community for internships, jobs and hopefully … colleges."
The Makerspace will be crewed by outreach staff from the Tualatin Library. They have already been going out to schools, as well as running library programs, with some of the gadgets and gizmos from the Makerspace, even before the trailer was delivered.
"We've been bringing the stuff to the classrooms and then doing the activities at the library, and then this spring, we're going to start doing some out-in-the-neighborhood events," said Jerianne Thompson, the library's director.
The mobile aspect — being able to travel out to different parts of the city — is key.
Part of the Tualatin team's pitch to contest judges, which has seen it through to one of eight finalist spots, is that the Mobile Makerspace can be a tool to address social and economic inequity in Tualatin. The trailer can be dispatched to low-income apartment complexes and neighborhoods, bringing STEAM education to a traditionally underserved demographic.
No outreach events in neighborhoods have been officially scheduled yet, but outreach librarian Lauren Simon said she hopes to be able to announce some soon.
Much of trailer conversion done locally
Funding for the Mobile Makerspace came in part through a $100,000 grant award to the Tualatin ABC team, a prize for being named a finalist last April in Durham, N.C. Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, one of the team's representatives at that round of judging, also noted in his State of the City address Tuesday that donations from businesses and community members have helped make it possible.
The trailer itself features lots of storage space, with shelving, cabinetry, carts, tables and countertops.
"This has been pretty much all made in Oregon, which is nice," Bartholomew said.
Some of that work was done locally. ADI Mobile Health, a Tualatin-based company that actually specializes in building mobile health clinics, installed the cabinets, shelves and counter space, Bartholomew said.
For now, the Mobile Makerspace will largely function as a "delivery vehicle," in Bartholomew's words. Beyond carts and tables, it carries some design equipment like a three-dimensional printer and a vinyl cutter, as well as educational toys and tools, several of which were laid out on tables inside for guests to experiment with Tuesday.
Cubelets, modular "robot blocks" that can be assembled in myriad ways, were featured at a table staffed by Hazelbrook Middle School students with the Tualatin Youth Advisory Council.
Thompson said elementary-age students can learn about engineering and design by playing with Cubelets.
"It makes it really easy for younger kids to grasp the concepts," she said.
The middle-schoolers demonstrating the Cubelets showed how robots built a certain way can be driven around either by the use of a motion sensor or through Bluetooth control, set up as a "lighthouse" with a rotating LED block, and put together in a wide array of shapes. They had been playing with them for about an hour, they said.
"It's a pretty quick pickup," said student Allie Marx.
Bartholomew hopes to add more items to the Makerspace over time, like an industrial laser cutter.
"Our goal is also to, over time, expand the use of this to do larger, more involved hands-on projects," he said of the trailer.
Whether Tualatin is named a winner in the America's Best Communities competition or not — there is a final round of judging scheduled for April, and the grand prize is $3 million, with $2 million and $1 million awarded to the second- and third-place teams, respectively — the Mobile Makerspace is here to stay, Bartholomew and Thompson said.
"The community group behind this is really focused right now on what that sustainability looks like," Thompson said.
"And that will be part of our final (contest) submission," Bartholomew added.
By Mark Miller