Innovative Arkansas Non-Profit Supports Inventive Minds

Created by Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub participant Drew Lovell, miniature models of the “Johnny 5” robot from the 1986 film Short Circuit were on display at the Hub’s annual Maker Faire.

America is in the midst of a “maker movement,” a world-wide initiative aimed at teaching people to make products rather than consume them. Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, and its “Lead Maker” Dr. Chris Jones, want to deliver this new type of freedom to rural Arkansas.

The Hub is a lot of things: a woodshop, welding lab, co-working and event space. The 22,000 square-foot facility in North Little Rock, Arkansas, even includes a small coffee shop. During the day, you’ll find budding entrepreneurs, small business owners, students attending field trips and artists accomplishing their dreams. After school up to 100 students learn coding, laser cutting, 3-D printing, robotics, video game design and more.

These 21st century innovation leaders participate in after-school programs, summer camps and field trips. Jones said he hasn’t met a kid whose eyes didn’t light up when placed in front of the right tools.

“That’s the beauty of the Hub,” he said. “Not all kids want to make robots; not all kids want to do video gaming or pottery, but because we have such a wide diversity of tools, we pretty much cover anything a kid would want to make.”

Students can even learn to weld with training and adult supervision. As high school students become more advanced in design and making, they pass what they’ve learned to younger students.

Google Cardboard virtual reality devices were also on hand at the Maker Faire. With a smart phone tucked inside the cardboard, special glasses allowed attendees of all ages to play virtual reality games.

While Jones says video game design is likely the most popular activity, 3-D printing is a close second. Table-top cell phone holders are a popular 3-D printing creation. One student even printed a flexible, moveable armadillo, Jones’ favorite project of all.

With all this “making” there was just one problem: Many people in rural Arkansas didn’t have access to the Hub.

 “We’re trying to reduce all barriers so every Arkansan can have the opportunity to create, make, build and innovate,” Jones said. “So we decided to take the hub and put it on wheels.”

The Mobile Makerspace made its debut May 12 at the Hub’s annual Maker Faire. The trailer has many of the Hub’s features, including its own 3-D printer. The team plans to take the Mobile Makerspace across the state to teach classes in schools and community centers.

Union Pacific’s Foundation has supported the Hub for three years with more than $11,000 in grants, including funding a portion of the Mobile Makerspace.

Only on the job since March, Jones is overcome with pride for the Hub. “The level of passion, skill and insight among the current staff has just blown my mind,” he said.

Jones compares the Hub to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s greatest centers for innovation. “I think the Hub is on par with that,” he said.

With both the Hub and the new Mobile Makerspace, the team plans to continue its mission of making the impossible possible for all Arkansans. “It’s about lowering barriers,” Jones said. “Everyone can become an inventor.”

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