A new facility building tool skills for adults

While technology advances with each passing day, access to the tools that allow people to innovate seem to get farther and farther away for the average person. To learn what one company is doing to help people across the region learn practical skills and create products of their own, we spoke with Allen Brooks, VP of education and outreach at Building Mobility.

BROOKS: We really believe, at Building Momentum, in the philosophy that anyone can learn this stuff. 3D printing, laser cutting, welding, Arduino, robotics, whatever it is, it’s not hard. They’re all just tools. What we really want to teach is problem solving. We teach Marines, we’ve taught teachers, we’ve taught young people, we’ve taught theater professors, and everyone in between.

And it all gets at the same idea: that we want to empower people to be able to look at a problem, whatever that problem is, whether it’s on a base in Iraq or Kuwait, or here at home. We want to teach them the same thing: I see a problem, I am confident that I know how to fix that problem, using the tools that now I know how to use.

ABERMAN: You’re an educator. What is it about using tools that wires the brain up differently from, say, putting somebody in an uncomfortable situation?

BROOKS: Before I was an educator, I was a student, and I was also a theater professional. So, I started off trying to be a tall, brown-haired white guy as an actor, and that didn’t totally work out.

ABERMAN: There was a lot of demand, just too much supply?

BROOKS: Yeah, exactly. But when you’re in a theater, you’ve got to be all in, everyone’s got to be working together, using tools to build a set, or props, or costumes, or whatever it is. I took Brad Halsey, my partner and founder of the company, on a tour of Christopher Newport’s scene shop, and he walked out flummoxed. He said they did more engineering in that scene shop than I did in my entire undergraduate chemistry degree, and they’re doing it on a deadline.

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And we really take that kind of philosophy into our teaching, so it’s about getting after the problem as quickly as possible, and whether it’s the 3D printer or it’s a welder or it’s a laser cutter, it’s just another tool. It’s just another hammer.

ABERMAN: So here’s an example we were talking about before we started the interview: Wine and Welding. Tell me about how Wine and Welding gets people over this idea that, somehow, working with tools is either scary, or things that other people do.

BROOKS: We don’t really have a whole lot of access to tools nowadays, as much as we used to. There are fewer and fewer home workshops, and after the demise of places like Tech Shop, there are fewer places to go access tools. Now, one of the problems with Tech Shop was that they let everyone come in, small businesses next to individuals, and hobbyists, and thinkers who wanted to learn the tools. Now, when people learn tools, typically they break them as a part of that learning process. They have to. Now if that small business needs to use that tool, they can’t because it’s broken. So, we’ve, at the Garden, which is our new initiative, we maintain these spaces for engagement with tools by people who aren’t as familiar with them.

So, Wine and Welding is one of those engagements, where you come in and you learn a little bit about welding, and you actually do it yourself. And so, the class is about getting people over the hump of fear of this tech, and fear of this tool that looks a lot scarier than it actually is. So, we have people who have never touched a welding torch, within three hours, having built their own wine rack for their table at home. And it’s incredible.

The most incredible part of that class is that first moment after somebody has gotten over the fear of actually picking it up. They’re all kitted out, they have gloves and jackets and masks on. And the first time they lay down a bead of weld, their face lights up, because oh my god, I can actually do this.

ABERMAN: It’s empowering. What is it about tools? Is it the primal nature of it, that it just really relates to that part of our brain that’s really deep-seated? Is that what it is?

BROOKS: I think there’s probably two things. I mean, tools are cool. They make loud noise, and they make sparks, and they make fire. I use a laser cutter a lot, and with a laser cutter, I’m using a laser to cut wood. Actually last year on Pi Day, we tried to cut food. It didn’t taste as good as we thought. So, we’ve tried everything, we’ve put everything into the laser cutter. The tools are fun to use.

And so, that’s one thing. They’re loud, they make noise, a spark. They do all these cool things. And then the outcome is something that you yourself made. And that satisfaction of having put something together, that you conceived of, and either fixed in your home, or conceived of and then brought to market as a product. There’s something wonderful about that.

ABERMAN: I completely agree. Let’s return for a moment, you mentioned Tech Shop. Tech Shop was one of the few places in the region where people could go to a workspace and get a hold of tools that they wanted to try to launch a business. You’ve launched this initiative called The Garden. It’s pretty unique in the region, it’s important. Tell our listeners a bit more about it, and how they can take advantage of it.

BROOKS: It’s what we call a co-building community. And the idea is that, it’s not coworking, and it’s not a workshop, it’s kind of both married together. And now, we’re not going to be an answer to WeWork if you’re just looking for a place to come sit for the day. You can do that, but more excitingly, we want you to come and have access to our 4000 square foot workshop that we have, with every tool you can imagine. Laser cutters, woodworking, metalworking, 3D printing, scanning. We’ve got pretty much everything you can imagine to bring your idea, or product, to bear.

And the great thing about it is, every membership level includes all of the training, and all of the access. So, no matter who you are, wherever you are on that idea path, you can learn how to use a welding torch, or learn how to use a Shopbot CNC mill.. We also have about, probably, one and a half million dollars worth of equipment, give or take. And it’s all available to any small business owner, or individual, who wants to come in and use it. We have desks. We have drop in. We have small offices that can accommodate about three to four people, and we have large offices that can accommodate five or six.

ABERMAN: Well, I think it sounds absolutely terrific, Allen, and I’m really glad that Building Momentum is taking this initiative, The region needs it. I’m going to come and see you someday soon, and I’m going to bring an apple pie.

BROOKS: Yes, please do!

ABERMAN: Thanks for coming in. Allen Brooks is the CEO of Building Momentum.