To say that Ben Harris is interested in creating things would be a massive understatement, like saying the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground or that “Game of Thrones” developed something of a following. He’s truly passionate about creating, innovating, tinkering, educating and, well, making. It’s his life’s work. It led him to found the Alamance Makers Guild, generate an annual county Maker Faire and become a co-founder of STEAM Junction, a business downtown that helps people in the community who want to build things, design things, engineer things, create art, invent and do all of that for fun, profit — or both at the same time. For his trouble he’s earned a trip to the White House for a special Maker Faire and had Burlington designated as a “Maker City” in North Carolina.
I’ve talked to Ben about his singular passion more than a few times over the past several years, starting when he approached the newspaper where I used to work for coverage of his first Mini-Maker Faire at Holly Hill Mall. The first Faire generated good buzz in the region and people took part from inside and outside the county. The most recent Alamance Maker Faire drew more than 4,000 people to the mall where visitors walked amid the inventions of creative people attempting to make their unique visions come true. Some are creating for fun but others are making their bid for economic freedom by inventing the “next big thing” and turning it into a business. If history is any guide then the “next big thing,” could be just about anything at all.
“Almost anyone can be a maker,” Ben likes to say, meaning that it often doesn’t require a highly specialized skill. It takes an idea, interest, dedication and the right equipment. The latter is where STEAM Junction comes in. Elon University has a similar maker space on campus that will one day be part of a campus hub or center for studies in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. The vision under consideration at Elon would connect the arts and sciences to business, bringing together designers, scientists and inventors with studies in entrepreneurship, sales and analytics. By coincidence, the vision for downtown Burlington is centered on establishing its own innovation hub and plaza with the maker space playing a vital role. It’s seen as a place where people in the community would go to learn, participate and create in dynamic atmosphere. For me, it’s heartening to see Elon University and Burlington on the same page in terms of planning.
Part of that movement for Burlington will begin next year. The Alamance Makers Guild plans to bring the annual Maker Faire to downtown Burlington where it could expand in almost every way and help enhance Burlington’s regional image as a “Maker City.” It’s an event that could draw several thousand people to downtown Burlington — if the weather cooperates.
I bumped into Ben a couple of weeks ago at Elon. He was on campus to enjoy the Maker Takeover in the Moseley Center. Student makers presented and demonstrated their inventions for several hundred people who dropped in for a visit. The coolest thing I saw was a smart mirror, created by a student in computer science. It gives notifications and information about the day ahead for a user. But there were dozens of items, including interactive games and challenges or items created by a 3D printer. One of the Elon football players created a helmet-cam by embedding a mini-camera in the front of an Elon team helmet.
You can see Ben talking to people in attendance in the last photo above. He’s still editing video from the Maker Takeover and will make it available to post here when he completes it. The videos are now complete and can be accessed via this post.
Over the weekend Ben sent me a blog post about Ilsa Spaan, one of the co-founders of STEAM Junction. She was chosen to be a “producer in residence” for a national Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. It’s an honor for Ilsa and for STEAM Junction.
It is Ben’s longtime goal for the Maker Movement to catch fire in Alamance County. It often seems the program has more admirers outside of this area than inside. Ben wants to create an atmosphere downtown where people just drop by STEAM Junction and take a look, maybe try out some of the equipment like the 3D printer. No membership or expertise is required. STEAM Junction also provides easy access points for people who might want to try their hand at glass blowing, liquid paint or some other creative endeavor. The new Burlington Beer Works is partnering up to offer a glass blowing class where people can create beer mugs.
So far, I am one of Ben’s biggest challenges. He always sends me invitations to events, classes or other things that involve STEAM Junction or the Maker Faire. I have yet to walk through the door. But I will and soon. If Burlington is going to be a Maker City, I would like to be a part of it. And that liquid painting thing looks kind of interesting.