CHICAGO, IL: It’s a sunny summer July day inside the bit space storefront on Lawrence Avenue, kids are milling around, decked out in surf shirts and neon-colored sneakers. One, in short sleeve yellow shirt and shorts, is laying on the floor, making a snow angel in the accumulation of foam core particles on the floor.
It’s the leftovers from the 32-inch foam forms the kids have been shaving all morning as part of the 3D printing process to design, shape and print their own customized skate deck designs. It’s a hugely popular program, and has drawn in a teenager whose ambition is to conceptualize his own skate design, start to finish. “I was looking at designs,” says Daniel, age 14, “and wanted to make something original. I usually ride Element or Chocolate decks,” he explains, holding up the sheet of paper he has sketched out his design on, a sharp-edged and vaguely resembling something out of “Back to the Future.” Daniel tells me he hangs out at the Wilson Skate Park at Logan Boulevard, and it’s not hard to imagine him working out his custom deck there in the near future.
It’s a process with a lot of moving parts. Some of the kids get more intothe drawing phase of the effort, sketching out fanciful cartoon-ish characters on large wide white swaths of paper. Some get more into the math and measurement. Others, the drawings and animation of those drawings onscreen, or the“printing” process and cutting the wood formed from the cut layers.
Thomas Kearns, Director of Design Communication at the Illinois Institute of Technology and founding partner at BitSpace, leads the kids through the steps of the process, holding a sample skateboard deck. “See the flat part here, where the trucks are? You have to measure the truck, add in the distance of the curve, half an inch along the side, and that gives you your torque and control.”
TOOLS FOR A LIFETIME
A professor at IIT for more than a decade, Kearns brings the knowledge and educational experience to the enterprise of the BitSpace mission, as a maker space, to not simply offer resources, but to offer youth a chance to acquire valuable intellectual tools through a curriculum integrated into fun, hands-on programs like the Skateboard Camp.
The kids not only get it, they actually embrace the chance to work with the materials and the technology, including industry-standard tools like the Rhino rapid modeling software they’re employing to three-dimensionally render the skate deck design, within a complex curvilinear space, plotting longitudes, extruding from a surface, scrolling around onscreen to view it from top, bottom, side. Once in the program, it “interpolates” the surface from the points in space they’ve drawn, and suddenly there it is, a model they can tinker with, re-shape, suddenly conceptualize as an actual object. And there’s a palpable excitement at seeing their skateboards make this move from idea to reality.
Two little girls, sisters, sit together hunched over two large, wide sheets of paper, drawing out their skate deck designs, that include two heart cut-outs at the curved nose-like tip of the board. “We knew we wanted to have our names on them,” explains Eleanor, age 11, as her sister Claire, age 8 nods in agreement. “That way they won’t get mixed up, and we knew we wanted to have a design on them, and we thought we’d do zig-zags, so after a lot of thought we decided we’d do stripes though.”
Across from them, a little boy is comparing his drawing with the image onscreen, manipulating the side of his skate deck design. “I didn’t want to copy anyone else’s design,” explains Henry, age 12, pointing to what looks like a missile with flames leaping out two engines attached to the sides, along with very precise measurements: 28.75” length by 8.50” width.
“So what would you measure here?” asks Kearns, knelt beside another boy who is standing atop one of the sample decks laid on the floor. “How wide would that be? The width of your foot. That’s what’s going to tell you how wide that part needs to be.” He explains, and Aiden, age 11, nods in bright-eyed acknowledgement. “See, there’s a risk in what he’s doing. He’s making a skateboard that could be the coolest skateboard ever.” Kearns says, smiling. “And that’s a risk I’m willing to take!” Aiden shouts, gleeful.