His 3D-printing summer camps failed, but this tech veteran still thinks kids need to tinker

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Tech and engineering guru Kim Brand never thought he’d be thrust into the grade-school education realm when he co-founded a 3D-printing company four years ago. But that’s what happened, and 3D printing is basically an afterthought for him today.

BrandKim Brand

In 2013, Brand co-founded an industrial firm called 3D Parts Manufacturing, a division of which made unsuccessful attempts at selling desktop 3D printers to schools. From 2014 to 2016, Brand ran paid 3D-printing summer camps, which had some success but proved uneconomical. Today, Brand is hardly involved in the company he co-founded, he’s ditched the 3D-printing camps and has gone all in on so-called maker spaces—which could be likened to modern-day shop classes.

Brand is president of 1st Maker Space, and his roundabout journey there taught him a key lesson—kids are empowered by making things. The 64-year-old Cumberland resident spoke with IBJ about that journey, as well as the lessons he thinks legislators and other education stakeholders should heed.

IBJ: How'd you get involved in 3D printing for kids?

BRAND: It was a mistake. We had an impulsive, wealthy business partner who was smitten by a design that we could acquire for free to build our own 3D printers. And before I knew it, we had 300 of them. And not knowing what else to do with them, we started summer camps. And the kids went nuts.

It was our ambition to acquire and sell 3D printers—which didn't work out. But it gave us hundreds of them. And it seemed reasonable to put them in schools and run summer camps.

IBJ: Who was that business partner?

BRAND: Alan Michael. He had an exit from a company called MWM Acoustics, where he and his partner split 70-plus million bucks. He came to me and said, 'I'd like to start a 3D printing company.' I owned Computer Experts Inc. and Server Partners LLC, and he was my customer. That was 2013.

IBJ: Why did you have a surplus of 3D printers?

BRAND: Alan doesn't do things small. His goal, and my ambition, was to ride a wave of 3D printing on desktops, and we thought we could sell them. But my misunderstanding of the education market was—no school had money for them.

So as much as I thought we could sell them, we couldn't. So what we did with them instead was arrange what I call a real estate swap. We put 3D-printers in schools with the understanding that we could use the space in a classroom to host paid summer camps. And over the two-and-a-half years that we did it, we had over 1,000 kids in summer camps.

IBJ: Where the camps profitable?

BRAND: No. It never did more than break even.

The problem with 3D printers is, they are quite technical and they are pretty slow. And so from the time that you start printing, if it works, you might have 30, 45 minutes or an hour to wait before your printing is finished.

It was what I would call a noble cause. I don't think it was done anywhere else in the country at the scale that we did it. We had 100 3D printers at a dozen schools. And that $100,000 worth of printers, moving all that stuff around, training all the teachers how to use it, was just so horribly uneconomic. At the end of the day, we had to take a hard look at it and say, 'Are we getting out of this what we're putting into it?' And the answer was no.

After a few years, we discovered that it was just too hard. Hosting 3D-printing camps, while noble, was not a good thing for a for-profit business to do. It's probably not even a good thing for a non-profit to do.

IBJ: What did you learn from the experience?

We learned that kids want to make stuff, whether they make it with a 3D printer or not. And that's what a maker space is about.

And, if it hadn't been for that, you and I wouldn't be talking. No one was going to talk to me about maker stuff. They got interested because of the 3D printers.

IBJ: Now you’re focused on maker spaces. What’s the difference?

BRAND: 3D printing labs were all about 3D design and 3D printing. It was narrowly focused—designing 3D parts using software, applying that design to the 3D printer, discovering what went wrong and fixing it. And, at the end of the day, go home with some 3D printed stuff.

The maker and tinker spaces are focused on a lot of different engineering disciplines, For example, buoyancy, electricity, getting LEDs to light and using paper circuits. Creating rockets and experimenting with different factors to see how high you could get your rocket to fly. So they’re STEM-related maker and tinker camps, and kids love them.

IBJ: What’s the business model?

BRAND: 1st Maker Space is the professional services firm that operates the maker space inside the school so the teachers and principals don't have to worry about that.

We think they will pay us for the skills, experience and the services that we deliver. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty confident. I just got a $56,000 order from Mt. Vernon Community Schools, and I'm talking with a half-dozen other superintendents, community centers, libraries. We've got a $70,000 proposal for Hamilton East Library. So our new business model is not to deliver the summer camp experience, but to deliver the facilities and the maintenance and the service to schools who want to embrace a maker space.

IBJ: What has all of this shown you?

BRAND: There's no doubt in my mind that we are wasting the creativity and problem-solving capacity of children in school. These kids want to be creative. They want to be problem solvers. But the current curriculum puts a ceiling on that. It's focused on a very narrow set of skills that schools want to teach.

If you put them in a maker space, they explode. They make stuff, they create stuff. They are engaged. They don't want to go home. They can't wait to get there. We need to adopt making as a strategy. To the extent that we don't, we are wasting the opportunity to have problem-solving and critically-thinking students. And shame on us.

I hope that change is in the works, but change is very hard in a $6-billion-a-year ecosystem in the state. A lot of people are making money doing it the old way.

IBJ: You've been outspoken about the education system. What's your beef?

BRAND: That we have turned education into test-taking. That if a kid is so focused on answering your questions, they’re not thinking about answering his or her own questions.

I think the model of the future will be less teaching and more creative learning. You ask kids what are the capitals of the states. I mean seriously? Who [expletive] cares. They know how to get that answer on their phones. But if you can get kids to dream up questions. If you can get kids to learn. And that's the difference. Are we going to pay adults to be teachers or are we going to pay adults to be learning coaches? Adults drive kids into their inquiry-driven learning. I believe that a makerspace is a part of that.

I can't be the guy that designs the 21st century education system for Indiana. I can tell you that employers are disappointed in the ranks of students. There's a 50,000-employee shortage. I'm on the Employ Indy board, and we see this gap growing in the uptake of careers that matter to Indiana. We are just not listening. We've got to be more responsive to the needs of our society and to the abilities of children, and schools are just out of sync.

IBJ: What outcomes of your camps or maker spaces are you're proud of?

BRAND: If I was to say, in a sort of provocative way, that we are keeping kids from dying, you would question that. But we employed a young man who, before he got involved in our program, attempted suicide. And we're not the only difference maker in his life, but he had a 0.9 GPA at Tech. But now he works for us. He's graduated from Arsenal Tech. He got admitted into Ivy Tech. I think the despair, the lack of hope in kids is something that we can change. And I know we changed his life, and I think we've changed the lives of countless kids who see themselves as more than a C-student.

If you get out of school as a C- or a D-student, you're thinking that a third of the kids are smarter than you. But when we talk to a kid, there is no kid smarter than them. They're making and they're developing. Their failures, which are part of making, are giving them a message about how they have power.

Many of them are not getting it in grades. Some of them get it in sports. Some of them get it in extracurricular activities. Every kid needs to have a feeling of power, and a maker space helps them acquire that power. It gives them hope. And I hope it's not too great to say that by finding a way to get kids to demonstrate to themselves that they have talent, that they have worth, that they have this capacity to solve problems is a game changer for every kid.

IBJ: What would you recommend legislators do?

BRAND: I'd recommend that every school mandate that every school employ hands-on learning. That every school would put back shop class, would put back home economics. Employers don't care if you know the quadratic equation. They want you to have basic math skills. And then they want you to have collaboration skills, communication skills. They call them soft skills, but these are hard skills.

There are 14,000 hours of education that go on between kindergarten and 12th grade. We've got to redesign those 14,000 hours to align better with what our society needs. And those are going to be hands-on learning, collaboration, problem solving. So we've got to take another look at what good means in terms of curriculum, and we've got to break out of this 1990s paradigm of language and math.

In my view, there are only two questions on the final exam that matter. 'Do you like yourself?' and 'Do you love to learn?' If you can answer those two questions with a yes, then I don't care what you do, you're going to be prepared for life. If you can't answer the first question, then what kind of a life are you going to have? And if you can't love to learn in a system where the half-life of information has turned from decades to days, with Google and the internet, what chance do you have with keeping up? And if you can’t answer those two questions with a yes, then school has failed you.

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