Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Tinkerer sparks creativity, for kids and others

CorrespondentSeptember 15, 2013 

TARHEEL-NE-091113-TEL

Jeff Crews is president and a founding member of Splatspace, a high-tech nonprofit workshop in Durham. Splatspace was among just a handful of such spaces worldwide to be awarded a 3D printer due to their work in fostering high-tech tinkering in their communities.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

  • Jeffrey Crews

    Born: June 21, 1965, in West Virginia

    Residence: Durham

    Career: Volunteer President, Splat Space; electron microscopist, Charles River Laboratories.

    Education: B.S., biology, Wake Forest University.

    Family: Wife, Caroline Cortina; two sons, ages 10 and 1.

    Fun fact: One Splat Space member who created nicknames for some of the regulars dubbed Crews “Jeff Many Irons,” because he always has several projects going at once.

— Jeff Crews is a lifelong tinkerer who accidentally set a fire in his childhood home, annoyed his college roommate by using a soldering iron in their dorm room, and taught himself to make elaborate costumes with electronic elements on his wife’s sewing machine.

But it wasn’t until three years ago that he got the chance to unleash his creative mind in an unfettered environment among other dedicated techies. That’s when Splat Space – a so-called “hackerspace” devoted to creating items ranging from computer programs to robots – was born.

Splat Space celebrated its third anniversary last week. It’s located below a downtown café in a room that boasts a few long tables, piles of old computer parts, and three 3-D printers – two of which Crews made himself. Members pay $50 a month for 24/7 access to the space, which is open to the public on certain nights.

For Crews, 48, the organization has offered a chance to collaborate with others and a platform to inspire a new generation.

Through outreach in schools and libraries, he has sought to instill in students what he calls a “maker culture,” a mix of art and science blended with a can-do philosophy and technological know-how.

“I have been taking stuff apart and building stuff since I was 8,” Crews says. “But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to do that with other people. It gets me energized to see people do stuff, and it’s even better if I can teach them something that helps them do more.”

He conducts workshops at Durham libraries where students can create computerized stories and games. He has also brought his 3-D printers to several schools, allowing students to design and create objects.

At Efland Cheeks Elementary in Orange County, he and Splat Space volunteers run camps where students build sumo wrestler robots and demonstrate their work at science night events, among other activities.

Efland Cheeks teacher Kristin Bedell, who has worked closely with Crews on these projects, says the impact on her students is “immeasurable.”

“I had children who told me at the beginning of the year that they would drop out of school when they were 15 to get a job,” says Bedell. “By the end, they were asking what classes they needed to take in middle school to be on the high school robotics team.”

A creative space

Splat Space was abuzz last week preparing for the geekSPARK corner of this weekend’s mass creativity celebration in downtown Raleigh known as SPARKcon.

At Splat Space’s open session Tuesday, Crews was testing different shapes of plastic connectors with one of the 3-D printers, which he planned to bring to the event. There, passersby would be able to watch the printer transform lime green plastic string into the shapes Crews programmed into a computer; then participants could use them to build skewer sculptures.

Other colleagues were perfecting a scaled-down version of downtown Raleigh that would make demolition sounds as participants dressed as monsters or robots smashed it to bits. Crews made the costumes.

Crews, who is the nonprofit’s elected president, calls Splat Space a “do-ocracy”: “If you want something to happen, do it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, the results are varied, from intricate paper dragons with moveable joints to biomedical equipment to a one-handed keyboard.

Splat Space was the brainchild of Alan Dipart, who was a member of a similar place in Rochester and recently stepped down as president. There are about 400 such spaces worldwide, Crews says, but there were none in North Carolina.

Crews says the idea took off at its first meeting, when a group of about 50 people showed up.

“There was an instant critical mass,” he says. “Durham’s culture is perfect for this because it is so techie and artistic and wild.”

The group now has about 40 paying members, along with about a hundred frequent visitors who stop by for its open workshops.

Splat Space also regularly goes to Maker Faire, an annual event at the N.C. State Fairgrounds for creators of all types. Last year, it won a 3-D printer in an international contest.

Some members use Splat Space as office space for programming jobs, allowing them to troubleshoot issues with other members as they work. Others come in to work on hobby projects.

The open sessions bring any number of techies or people in need of technological solutions, including academics. For instance, members helped a Duke professor devise a way to track butterflies remotely.

“It’s ridiculous the breadth of stuff people have going on down here,” says Crews. “It runs the gamut from crafts to programming to fabrication.”

Real-life sparks

Crews’ obsession with building things has also pushed him in a wide variety of directions. He grew up in Lynchburg, Va., where his parents eventually gave up their basement to house his projects.

He says he got many of his ideas from old science fair manuals that lacked today’s focus on safety. One of his projects was an arc light, a high-powered bulb like the type used for spotlights. When he broke it, a white-hot fire broke out that melted his workbench and proved difficult to put out.

Crews earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Wake Forest University, where his projects continued – though they were curtailed by his tiny dorm room and his roommate’s impatience with his gadgets.

Crews then went on to work in a variety of labs over the years on projects such as engineering tissue for skin replacement.

And he continued to create things at home. When he married and moved in with his wife, he taught himself to sew because her sewing machine intrigued him.

“It was such a good machine,” he says. “I just had to make something.”

He now makes his own coats, as well as elaborate Halloween costumes for his two sons that may have glowing eyes or moving parts.

Splat Space gave Crews another outlet for his creativity and allowed him to help foster that creative spark in others. He says his hope is not just to inspire children to be computer programmers or scientists, but to help them experience the power of making things.

One of the classes he has done with students involved designing a lens cap for a pair of binoculars. In one class session, the students designed the cap on the computer and created it using the 3-D printer.

“In the space of an hour, to see something go from an idea in your head to a virtual object on a computer screen to something you can hold in your hand, is amazing for them,” he says.

Crews and Bedell, the teacher, are currently collaborating on a curriculum built around these ideas of invention and technology to meet new national standards for science education.

Bedell’s daughter, 10-year-old Alissa Bedell, says her experience with Splat Space has been helpful, even if her teachers at first seemed a bit unusual.

“They are a very science-y group, but they teach you science in really fun ways,” she says.

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