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When Graham Weston and Nick Longo of San Antonio's coworking space Geekdom browsed the World Maker Faire in New York in 2011, they were blown away by the 3D printing, the affordable robotics and the advances in electronics for innovative creators.
It was an experience they wished they could bring to others back home. "When we saw all the cool projects going on, the idea popped up about turning a bus or an RV into a big robot-looking vehicle so kids in San Antonio could experience what we were experiencing without going all the way to Maker Faire," says Longo, the executive director of Geekdom. "We could bring it to them."
And that's just what they did. Weston and Longo bought a 37-foot Ford RV, retrofitted it with LCDs inside and out, and wrapped it in a design that is part stealth fighter, part Transformer and part Steampunk. They hired Lou Pacilli, a former teacher and principal, to come down from New York and tasked him with developing a fun, innovative program that would engage struggling students and meet state learning standards.
By March 2013, the Geekbus was ready to roll.
When the Geekbus is on the road, about 100 students cycle through its 50-minute sessions each day. Inside the RV are six tables with computers, each station with a different challenge. Students build a robot, learning the math to program it, and then drive it around a map of San Antonio key historical sites, memorizing facts about each one. At the end of each session, students make a presentation about their project.
Pacilli, who recently left the program, designed the Geekbus curriculum to spark interest in what he calls STEAM-E: science, technology, engineering, arts, math and entrepreneurship. "What we do is create memories that learning is fun," Pacilli says.
The Geekbus program targets seventh and eighth graders, years when students often start down the path to dropping out. The overall dropout rate in Texas is 29 percent and 39 percent for Hispanics, according to Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio.
Geekdom already offered middle-school students weekend programs about robotics, programming and entrepreneurship at its site in downtown San Antonio, but adding the Geekbus earlier this year dramatically increased the number of students with access to the free program. "The next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs are sitting here in our city by the tens of thousands; they just don't know it yet," Longo says. "We are building social and human capital.”
Longo says the program, including staff, will cost about $200,000 its first year.
The curriculum encourages mentorship and collaboration, a natural outreach for Weston and Longo who co-founded Geekdom after establishing companies of their own. Weston is the billionaire founder of web hosting and cloud computing firm Rackspace Hosting; Longo is the founder of web design software company CoffeeCup.
Geekdom describes itself as a gym membership for geeks, providing an inspiring environment for creative minds. It has more than 600 members and occupies 45,000 square feet in the Weston Centre in downtown San Antonio. Members are obligated to mentor others an hour a week or give one workshop a month about their expertise.
"Being a Geek is fun so we want to change the mindset of today's youth," Weston says. “Our goal is to shift kids from being technology users to being the creators of new technologies and ideas that power future gadgets such as mobile devices and apps."