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Black & Veatch Re-Ups Support For MakerSpace At Johnson County Library

Anne Kniggendorf
Several Black & Veatch employees, libarians, library board members, and members of the community came together at the end of July to rededicate the Black & Veatch MakerSpace after the engineering company renewed a $90,000 three-year grant.

What does your grandfather’s house have in common with the Johnson County library? A workshop.

“I’m not saying this is your grandad’s basement — it’s kind of your grandad’s basement on steroids,” Johnson County Library Director Sean Casserley said during a recent event to rededicate the Black & Veatch MakerSpace. The Overland Park-based engineering firm renewed a $90,000, three-year grant to the library system in July.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
Nathan Jackson and his children, Amaya and Savion, took a break from the high tech and created catapults in the Johnson County Library's Black & Veatch MakerSpace.

When the grant was first established three years ago, Casserley said, Black & Veatch said its goal was to energize young people to change the world. For a brief period, he said he heard a bit of pushback from patrons about the library housing the flashy technology that might spur such monumental change.

But then, he said, “a high school neighbor made a hand for a kid who didn’t have one. For me, that was the clarifying moment.”

Since its opening, the MakerSpace has seen 174,280 visitors, and 13,193 patrons have made appointments to reserve equipment.

“When you read, you take this journey and experience and gain certain things: an alternative point of view, you create empathy, what it is to be human, and this is the same thing,” Casserley explained. “Humans intrinsically make things. It’s in our DNA.”

Black & Veatch saw supporting such a space as a way to engender in children an early interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
Sean Casserley, director of the Johnson County Library, speaks during the July rededication ceremony.

“We realize that STEM interest starts at the elementary level,” said Katie Johnson, Black & Veatch Director of Culture and Capability Development. “We’re always trying to work within the community to provide STEM alliance.”

For Casserley, the MakerSpace goes well beyond planting a seed in STEM interest. It’s about planting a seed that anyone can do whatever they set their minds to.

“Changing careers, to relationship issues, to raising your children, to making good food decisions, if you have that kind of thing like, ‘I can do this, I can figure it out,’” he said. “It’s all at the library and it’s all within you.”

Library patrons already have free access to technology including four 3-D printers; a sound editing booth, equipment and software; a green room with photo equipment; three photo and video editing stations; a computer numerical control CNC router for woodworking.

Some of the new funding will allow an update to a higher resolution 3-D printer and the addition of a serger to the existing sewing station.

The only other library system in the Kansas City metro area with a somewhat similar set-up is Olathe.

“If we took this away, how many kids would not have that exposure to the things that we do? They wouldn’t go into that realm of work or schooling because they wouldn’t know what it is,” said Tammy Kinney, a project manager at Black & Veatch.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
One feature of the Johnson County Black & Veatch MakerSpace is a green room equipped with photography and video equipment.

The MakerSpace is staffed with library employees who are trained on all the equipment.

“The only way it works is that we have people in here who like working with people and want to solve their problems,” Casserley said.

Nevertheless, he added, “In some ways the MakerSpace is, I call it, the school of hard knocks. There is no testing, there is no grading, but there’s this idea that you’re going to try something and it’s not always going to work.”

Trying and failing, then trying and succeeding, he said, build self-confidence regardless of a learner’s age.

Early on in the development of the space, Casserley added, he thought of what we know about the workshops of great thinkers like Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. They were all similar in that they contained a variety of tools and heaps of books.

For Casserley, books and tools go hand in hand, so a library is a natural location. And no one should worry that any books were removed from the library to make room for the equipment.

“Not in my lifetime,” he said. “That’s a huge tradition of human learning, so no, we’re not taking books out of the library.”

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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